Thursday, January 31, 2008

Home Sweet Home: When It Rains, It Pours

Or doesn't pour, in Wednesday's case of my washing machine fabric softener dispenser. Mere weeks ago I was cleaning the lint from my 3 year-old ailing dryer. We bought the washing machine at the same time as the dryer and they were installed on the very same day. Last night, while folding baskets of the long-neglected laundry, I discovered grease spots on several articles of clothing, including my new pants. Oh calamity! Oh help!

Having determined that someone had not left a tube of chap stick in a pants pocket, I checked everything to make sure there weren't any other oddities about the load of laundry. It seemed that a few articles from a previous load also had grease spots, but not the whole load either time. I am young, but I have enough siblings and have lived long enough to see the ravaging effects of both a tube of chap stick and a brown crayon going through a cycle in the dryer. It ain't purdy, take my word for it if you have never been privy to such a scene of devastation. But this time, since the whole load wasn't affected, my guess was that it was somehow related to the fabric softener dispenser in the washing machine.

For the past several months at least, I had noticed a yellowy, waxy build up in the fabric softener dispenser. I also knew that there was a way to remove the dispenser to clean it, but it turns out that, yet again, the instructions were not correct about how exactly one was to go about doing that. Way to go, Sears. Turns out that no amount of twisting would do it, just brute force pulling straight up. More elbow grease prying the top part off the bottom part to free the cup in the middle. Once it was all in pieces, I got an old toothbrush and scraped the build-up out under a stream of hot water. It really looked like dirty crisco, not to be unappetizing (if lard substitutes ever really could be appetizing in the first place).


Also, the actual "dispenser" part, where the softener drains out small holes during the first fast spin cycle, was really clogged and some fabric softener was still standing in there. I poured some hot water in and prodded at some more build-up until I had water flowing well out of one hole and tolerably well out another. I just kept pouring and prodding until, all of a sudden, a third drain hole opened up. It had been so clogged that I didn't even see it. That's how bad it was. Ewww. Once everything was cleaned up, put back together, and the dirty rinse water was drained, I ran a load with the clothes that had the greasy spots to see what happened. I used lots of detergent, hot water, and no fabric softener (I was just too annoyed that it had been such a pain).

The result? Clean clothes with no hint of grease anymore. Hooray!

Monday, January 28, 2008

TheJuneBride News: Itty Bitty Baby Booties

I'm on a kid kick (and have been since somewhere in 2004). I am trying to make some cute, durable, comfortable, non-slip, difficult-for-a-baby-to-remove baby booties. Since I don't follow directions well and have an incurable superiority complex when it comes to crafts, I decided to make up my own pattern. That fact, of course, led first to my utter failure. I speedily disposed of the resultant "booties", but then saved them for a moment to take a photo for posterity before tying them in a bag with a stinky diaper lest someone think they were worth rescuing. If you have a weak stomach, look away:


Yeah. Mmm-hmmm. And yes, that really is shelf liner I was trying to use for a non-slip sole. Not much to say about that other than "Ugh."

But then I figured that perhaps all my struggles with fleece were not necessarily due to my lack of skill so much as perhaps fleece was never meant to be used for baby booties. Intriguing idea, and it exonerates me for part of the crime above (for the record, I am guilty of sewing the booties together in the wrong order so the tongue was on the outside, but that didn't really make them much worse than doing it "correctly"... after all, there's no right way to fail).

So my next thought was to "repurpose" some wool felt from my old winter peacoat (the lining was ripping and beyond repair, but clean and I was given a beautiful new one for Christmas). My husband paused for a moment to remember the good old days before I unceremoniously started in with the scissors. At the time I felt a bit like a whale hunter cleaning the catch, ripping out the tissue-like lining and cutting the sinuous threads holding the whole thing together. Cutting out the pieces was quick and sewing it together was quicker. Here's the first pair:


After that, I decided it would be necessary to zigzag over the raw edges for stability and cuteness-factor. I also added some faux-petals under the snap. Here's the second pair:


But I really wanted a non-slip sole, so I again "repurposed" some suede. I also tried to make them boyish since my baby is a boy. I used a snap in the back (not shown) to hold them on better, but I'm not 100% satisfied. My boy was able to kick them off, but socks may have helped. Curbing that natural inclination towards cute girly shoes was tough, but I am fairly pleased with the results. Here's the third pair:


But I would like to possibly sell or at least gift some of these, so I just had to tweak my pattern make some wrap/kimono style. I will have to do some more work before they stay on well, but they look nice. Here's the fourth pair:


I just can't help myself now... I will have to try some mary jane type shoes and toddler slippers and other related projects. You can expect more on this topic, to be sure.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

TheJuneBride News: Etsy!

What did I do today? Well, a lot of things, none of them particularly creative. But what am I mentally stuck on at the moment? Etsy. You know you want to go check it out.



I'm hoping to do something for real tomorrow. My folks will be moving soon, so my mom bequeathed to me a large quantity of fabric from some of her past projects, real or imagined. Did I mention that being handy and artistic runs in the family? Also saving ridiculous amounts of stuff in hopes of putting it to good use one day. I applaud her efforts... I will give it a good home. I skimmed the selection today and am looking forward to diving in tomorrow.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Get Crafty: Hemming Your Own Pants

Let me think about how to say this without offending myself: I am not short, but "petite" length pants definitely tend to fit better. Sometimes I complain to myself that it's such a pain finding pants of the right length, but then I remember my tall best friend. She couldn't find pants that fit either, but it sure is a lot easier to shorten pants than to lengthen them.

I have basic sewing skills, thusly I am qualified to hem pants in the traditional way. (If you don't have basic sewing skills but you have an iron, some fusible tape, and the rudimentary ability to line things up, you are qualified to "hem" pants too). A lot of people have their pants professionally altered, but just shortening the length of pants is really so simple, I can't imagine paying someone else to do it. It took less time to do it myself than to drop it off at the tailor's. But then, not everyone is handy.

Since I just bought some new *smaller* pants that were too long, it was time to hem them. Normally I wait until the last minute... like those black pants for a special occasion that I just didn't get to hemming, and I'm rushing to do it before we leave the house in 10 minutes to go to a friend's wedding. Oh well, no one's perfect. But this time I didn't procrastinate, and it didn't take very long to hem both pairs of pants. I think they turned out great, and were worth the small effort for the near-professional results.

Both pairs of pants needed to be shorted about 2.5 inches. I turned the pants inside out to make the process easier. The existing hem was roughly 1 inch, so I simply cut off the hem all the way around without measuring particularly.


I then folded the raw edge up about a half inch, pressed it, then folded that up about one inch and pressed again. Still inside out, I sewed within an eight inch of the top fold. I turned it right-side out and...


Tada!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

From the Kitchen: Chocolate Peanut Butter Rice Krispies Treats

This is a bit of a combination of two separate "crisped rice cereal" recipes I found on various off-brand boxes. Survey says they were definitely worth making again.


Chocolate Peanut Butter Rice Krispies Treats

Bar Ingredients:
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup margarine
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 regular package marshmallows, minus however many you eat
6 cups crisped rice cereal
1 cup chocolate chips
Topping Ingredients:
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 cup chocolate chips

Directions:
Microwave margarine in bowl until melted. Mix in brown sugar and peanut butter until smooth. Fold in marshmallows until covered. Microwave until marshmallows are large and melty. Mix until smooth, microwaving more if necessary. Fold in cereal gently to avoid crushing it. When mixture is evenly coated, mix in chocolate chips. They will likely melt a bit, but that's OK. Press into greased 9"x13" pan. Melt topping ingredients in microwave and mix until smooth. Spread onto bars. Let cool, then cut into bars.

Home Sweet Home: WD-40 Looks Great on Everything

Except clothes. And food, now that I think about it. But I love the stuff. Some recent uses have been de-squeaking a vibrating baby chair and getting an ancient sewing machine purring like a kitten after struggling to run at all. Today I finally got to one of my most annoying "To Do" items - unsticking the rear window wiper arm on my vehicle. I blame salty roads, but basically the blade wasn't hitting the window despite the arm moving. A little hot water to rinse then a little WD-40 did the trick. We're back to functionality and I'm feeling handy again. While I was at it, I de-squeaked the wheels on my vacuum. Another minor annoyance solved. This is shaping up to be a productive day after all...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

My Life in a Nutshell: Reading

If I were in a paying profession, I'd get kudos for doing independent research that could help solve work-related problems or make myself a more productive employee. Not so for this stay-at-home mom. All I get is the satisfaction of knowing I'm doing the best I can for my family. Luckily, that's enough for me. Hopefully my reading and research will lead to happier, healthier kids and a less-frazzled me.

So, I didn't exactly do anything notable today other than manage to survive 90 minutes in a quiet library with 3 tired kids. But I guess that's why God created tomorrow...

Monday, January 21, 2008

My Life in a Nutshell: A Better Me

Today's spare time has mostly been about self improvement.

This morning, I flip-flopped kids with a mom friend of mine so we could each go to the gym to work out. Having small kids is a great excuse not to work out because it's just so hard to work around them- their naps, their snacks and meals, and their personalities. Especially when they're potty training, a state of being that would describe the older 2 of my 3 children (and no, they're not twins). Especially when they're in the terrible twos, another state that would describe the same 2 kids (neither is actually two years old... funny how that happens, isn't it?). But we did it. And we survived. And now I'm really tired and will probably defer the cooking of dinner to someone else.

Then, when they were all napping (or playing quietly in their rooms and not napping), I got to do some reading and educate myself about the apparent imminent recession, presidential candidates, and current events. Delightful and rare. It probably only happened because I'm tired and didn't feel like doing anything that required moving more body parts than just my eyes, but still, it was nice.

And now, having actually applied makeup before 5 PM, another rare delight, I intend to give myself a long-overdue pedicure. How's that for a change of pace?

Later I may or may not hem some new pants, fold the laundry, take care of some financial matters, update my family blog, and/or file important documents. But for now, it's all about cute toes and a glass of iced tea. A happy mom leads to a happy family, and I think that is something very worthwhile indeed. Don't you?

From the Kitchen: Shredded Chicken, How Do I Love Thee?

Let me count the ways... Oh, I'm too lazy to list them all, but here are two great recipes that use shredded chicken. When I am planning to shred chicken, I simmer boneless skinless chicken breasts for an hour or so and then let them sit in the pot until I'm ready to deal with them. Then I just throw all of the cooked chicken breasts in a bowl and go at them with two forks for a couple minutes and *voila!* juicy shredded chicken.


Chicken and Cheese Crescent Chimichangas

Ingredients:
· ½ cup chopped onion
· 2 garlic cloves, minced
· 3 tbsp oil
· 2 ½ cups shredded cooked chicken
· 2 8 oz cans Pillsbury crescent rolls
· ½ cup salsa
· 2 cups (8 oz) shredded cheese

Directions:
In a large skillet sauté onion and garlic until onion is tender. Add chicken; cook over low heat until thoroughly heated through, stirring occasionally .Remove from heat. Add 1 cup cheese to chicken mixture and mix evenly. Separate dough into 8 rectangles, pressing the seam to seal. Spread 2 tsp salsa onto each rectangle to within ½ inch of edge. Put heaping 1/3 cup of chicken mixture onto each rectangle and roll up the sides to seal in the chicken. Place seam-side down on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 16-20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and sprinkle with 2 tbsp remaining cheese. Return to oven for 1-2 more minutes.

Alternative:
Use 1/8 of a bread machine dough recipe for each chimichanga, patting dough thin before adding salsa. May require a few more minutes of cooking time, but this seals better and cooks up more bready than the crescent rolls.

Savory Dill Chicken Salad

Ingredients:
· Small bunch green onions, chopped (or 1/4 cup chopped onion)
· 1/2 cup finely chopped celery, if you like it
· 2 tbsps fresh dill, chopped (or 1 tbsp dried dill weed)
· 1/2 cup sour cream
· 1/2 cup mayonaise
· 2 cups shredded cooked chicken

Directions:
Mix all ingredients while chicken is still warm. Refrigerate until cold. Serve on bread or lettuce.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

From the Kitchen: Beef Stew and Homemade Bread

Baby, it's cold outside! What could be better for a dairy-free dinner than hearty beef stew and a nice thick slab of fresh-from-the-oven bread? Hearty beef stew and a nice thick slab of fresh-from-the-oven bread that was made by someone else. Well... that wasn't an option, so I made it myself.


Carol's Beef Stew

Ingredients:
1 pound beef for stew, cut into 1" cubes
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup oil
2 cups beef broth
1 tbsp ketchup
2-4 potatoes peeled and cubed
1 onion, thickly sliced and coarsely chopped
2 whole carrots, sliced, or equivalent amount of baby carrots in bite-sized pieces
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
Salt and pepper the meat and then toss with the flour to coat. Heat oil in a large pot and brown the meat on all sides, adding all of the excess flour. Add the broth and the ketchup and stir well. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and let simmer for 1 1/2 hours or until meat is tender. Add the vegetables and 1 tsp salt. Stir well. Make sure that the vegetables are covered with the gravy. Add more water or broth if necessary. Bring to a boil and then cover and let simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 30-45 minutes. Thicken the gravy with a mixture of flour and water, if necessary.


Traditional White Bread

Ingredients:
6-7 cups bread flour
3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
2 tbsp shortening
2 packages yeast
2 1/4 cup warm water

Directions:
Mix 3 cups flour, sugar, salt, yeast and shortening in mixer bowl. Add warm water. Beat with mixer on low speed until all flour is incorporated. Add flour, mixing in one cup at a time, until dough pulls away from the bowl and is easy to handle. Knead on a floured surface until smooth and elastic. Place in greased bowl, turning one to grease all sides of dough. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled. Punch back and divide in two. Shape each half into a loaf, place in greased pan, cover and let rise until doubled. Bake at 425 for 25-30 minutes or until golden and hollow-sounding.

Get Crafty: Photo Alternatives for the Non-Scrapbooker

I do not scrapbook. People seem surprised by that fact, but it has really never appealed to me. Even I am surprised sometimes as I pass through aisles of beautiful paper, stamps, resist pads, paint markers, hole punches, corner punches, stickers, embellishments and everything conceivable that one might adhere to the aforementioned beautiful paper... Oh, there we go. Now I remember why I don't do it. I think it's just too much for me to handle in the visual department. I would rather do something else with the paper and all the little embellishments.

But you see, I have these little kids and there is a certain large amount of guilt that comes if one does not properly document all those cute moments that moms of teenagers are forever reminiscing about at the grocery store to moms with tots in tow ("Just you wait till they're teenagers. Then they'll never listen to you."). Unfortunately, the guilt of doing nothing is less than or equal to the guilt of doing something only to quit after a year or two because you just can't keep up the ruse. Scrapbooking can be an attractive option for those who are willing to make the commitment to be indefinitely behind on at least one scrapbook at all times, but if you're an overload-phobe like me, you might prefer a different route to the same ultimate goal of archiving your precious memories. My path of choice is to create a photobook using an online merchant, order it, and have it show up on my doorstep without a single papercut involved. Tendonitis, perhaps, but that's a different matter.


I should mention here that photobooks come in all shapes and sizes, all price ranges and from oh-so-many places. You can get all sorts of covers - leather or linen in every color of the rainbow, photo opening, embossed titles, etc. The inside pages can have text, titles, any imaginable pattern or design, or even look scrapbooked if you like the idea but would rather do it this way. A few of the places I have used or considered at various times in the past 4 years include KodakGallery, Snapfish, Winkflash, Shutterfly, Clark Color Labs and Sam's Club. I use different sites for different things.

Right now I am ordering prints and a soft bound 5"x7" photobook from KodakGallery and a hardbound 8"x10" photobook from Winkflash. The small photobook is the next installment in a series about each kid at various age ranges. I find it's pretty easy to pick the best 20-25 pictures from each 6 months period when they're very young, or 50 for each year. That covers my bases in the kid-picture arena. The large photobook details all the shenanigans that go on at the up-north cottage belonging to my in-laws who graciously lend it to us for vacations. I have made some books in the past as thank you gifts and birthday presents, and they have all been well received. I have been very impressed with the results, especially with the hardbound books.

It's worth looking at various websites for four main reasons:

  • Price comparison. Prices can vary quite a bit between sites while quality doesn't, at least as far as the non-professional photographer is concerned. Some sites have sales that you won't know about unless you check their site everyday or sign up for emails.

  • Ease of use. Each website has their own software for uploading batches of pictures and their own interface for creating the photobooks, some easier than others. I tend to use Winkflash because they are less expensive, but their software for creating the photobooks is not the easiest (read: "pain in the neck") and can be quite frustrating even for the most computer savvy non-scrapbooker.

  • Photo sharing. Without ordering anything, just about all of these websites will let you upload photos, then email "albums" to your friends and family. It makes sense for them because then Grandma can order pictures of the kids if she wants, and she has to use the website that's storing your pictures. I love seeing my friends' pictures this way... it's a really efficient way to show off a lot of pictures at once, in all their full file-size glory.

  • Online photo storage. Photobooks aside, it really is worth something to have your pictures online in case, God forbid, your computer blows up and you lose the photos you love so much. We try to burn DVDs of our pictures and movies every so often and keep them with relatives. If that's not an option for you though, I know there are ways of getting your original file-size photos back from these online merchants, for a fee of course. Having that sort of a backup should be a real consideration if you are not currently archiving outside your own home. Computers are great, but they die hard.

Happy Photobooking!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Get Crafty: Fleece Hats for Babies and Kids

I have to thank Martha Stewart for her involvement in this post. I'm not sure when or how I stumbled upon this little bit of creative genius, but it was a stroke of luck and I'm grateful I found it. So I will share it with you...

I won't put a link here because when I do it changes my icon from the Blogger B to a teeny tiny picture of Martha and that annoys me. To find these fabulous directions, just go to marthastewart.com and search for "fleece hats". You will have no trouble finding the directions.


The website gives dimensions for various head sizes, from newborn to adult, and details on how to make various adorable so-easy-a-caveman-could-do-it fleece hats. We're talking basic basic... really easy. They always turn out as long as you use the correct dimensions for the head you want the hat to fit, and they really look good. Fleece is such a great fabric... very forgiving for the novice. The hats can be machine washed and dried, and they will last for years.

Cheap thrills and practically instant gratification. Go have some fun!



From the Kitchen: Baby Food

I'm a mom of three. The youngest is currently in the "fruits, vegetables and grains" stage of babyhood, and I'm coming to a realization: Baby food frequently looks the same going in as it does coming out. Organic this, natural that... it's all ugly when it comes right down to it.

But when you make it yourself, it can be wholesome and pretty...



What you see here are some of the baby foods I made last night. Some started fresh, some canned and some frozen. From left to right: green beans, sweet peas, corn & peas, pears, tropical mixed fruit, peaches, yams, peaches & beets, pears & beets, tropical mixed fruit & beets, tropical mixed fruit & blueberries. I didn't have time to make all the varieties I had planned, but it's a start.

My tools include a can opener, a small food processor (a little attachment for a stick blender is what I use and love for so many reasons) and some breast milk storage bags. I would have preferred to use some sort of cup with a top instead of the bags, but I had them on hand and it was a good use for the leftovers from my baby's newborn days. The advantages to using lidded containers are that they are a) reusable and b) much easier to fill.

I would fill the food processor attachment with whatever I was including in that batch of baby food and some liquid (water or juice from the canned fruit), if necessary. I would then process it until it was about the consistency of applesauce, or finer if it included peas, corn or blueberries (for easier digestion). If it was too thick, I'd add more liquid. Too thin and I would add some baby rice cereal until the consistency was right. Pretty simple. Everything that wasn't canned (already cooked in processing) I cooked, such as the yams and corn. The only exception to that were the blueberries.

And a couple items you might like to consider... kids under 1 shouldn't eat significant quantities of strawberries (for potential allergy reasons, apparently) or large quantities of citrus fruits at one time (can cause diarrhea and/or diaper rash... for real, also true for bigger kids in diapers).

I love the idea of baby food because it's just introducing foods and combinations of food to your little one. So be creative! Dietitians tell you to eat colorful foods, and your baby should, too.

*Update 1.22.08 - Check out this website for more interesting information about homemade baby food, including cost and nutritional analysis as well as recipes and food suggestions for kids of various ages*

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My Life in a Nutshell: Good Friends for New Moms

Yesterday I donated my spare time as well as some of my not-so-spare time. "How does one donate one's spare time?" you ask. Well, just one idea... ministering to the sick or homebound. In our case, a friend who had just had a baby and her three kids.


I packed up the kids, some frozen meals, some homebaked goodies, a present for the baby, a rice bag for my friend, and a bucket of cleaning products and headed to my friend's house. My kids played with her kids while we spent some quality time chatting. I offered to do some cleaning but she said she would rather have the company, so that's what we did. I made some lunch for the kids and everyone fell apart at naptime, so we called it a day. I had a great time visiting with her and, as she thawed some of the food I had brought for dinner, I knew she appreciated the visit.

Having three young children myself and eventual plans for more, I know just how important it is to be taken care of after a baby arrives. It is an extremely vulnerable and emotional time and certainly one of the biggest trials in my life. A woman who has just had a baby is not only physically recovering, but emotionally adjusting to her crazy new hormones, older siblings' reactions to the new baby, and all of the responsibilities that come with another child. And then her husband goes back to work. On top of that, many women (including myself) have to deal with some level of post-partum depression, a situation that can really drag down quality of life even if everything else is peaches'n'cream.


When you care about someone who has just had a baby, you want to help. But all the cute baby clothes and handmade quilts in the world will be a waste if you don't give what really counts: your empathy, your time, and your love. There are some basic things that can be done to help someone who has just had a baby. I would encourage any or all of these practical suggestions if you really want to make a difference:

  • Make meals. This is a biggie. This is something that will really be appreciated. You could drop off a fully cooked hot meal at dinner time, or make a meal that can be frozen and cooked whenever the family needs it. There are a lot of meals out there that freeze superbly, and little research will yield more than enough ideas.

  • Help with the housework. Another really important thing. Vacuum, clean bathrooms, mop the floor, wipe down the counters, put away toys, do the laundry, pick up some groceries... the possibilities are endless. About 7 months ago I came home from the hospital with a newborn and found the house a bit of a mess. I got bogged down just thinking about housework, and it really made my day when my mom brought dinner and cleaned my kitchen. It can do wonders for the morale.

  • Babysit the older siblings. Offer to watch the older siblings at your house or at their own home. Take them to a park, McDonalds, or just outside. This will give the new mom a chance to nap or just shower, or anything else that will leave her feeling like she's had a moment to herself. If your really brave, you could even mind the newborn while she naps.

  • Just visit. Being there for moral support is also important, and simply stopping by (with notice) can help meet someone's emotional needs. While you're there you could offer to do anything that might need to be done or give the mom some alone time if she needs a break. Having good company for an hour can turn a bad day around, so don't underestimate the value of "being there".

  • Make a phone call. Along the same lines, talking on the phone can be great way to check in with your friend and make her feel less isolated, a common feeling when you are stuck at home with lots of new responsibilities that can easily feel overwhelming.

As you spend time with the new mom, don't be afraid to make suggestions rather than just ask. I know from personal experience that it's really hard to ask for help when you need it the most. It's hard to admit that you need help dealing with your own kids or keeping up your own home, but it's a lot easier to accept when someone offers to watch your kids or wash your dishes. So instead of saying, "Call me if you need anything," I'd say, "I'll call tomorrow and see how things are going." I am also of the opinion that new moms need some uninterrupted time... something I think many new fathers don't really understand. If the older siblings will survive without their mother choosing their snack (or anything else), don't bother mom about it.


Most importantly, though, just make sure to be empathetic, understanding and a good listener. You never know when a hug might make all the difference to someone, so be sure to offer.

Monday, January 14, 2008

From the Kitchen: More Chocolate Chip Cookies

I've been avoiding baking cookies until recently because I was trying to lose the pregnancy weight that had overstayed its welcome. Well, I finally lost it all (hooray!), but now I'm making up for the lack of baked goods and it's not doing me any favors. I have come to the inevitable and unfortunate conclusion that, when it comes to having cookies in the house, I have no self-control whatsoever. Even the no dairy issue seems less troublesome when faced with the lip-smacking aroma of freshly baked cookies.


Whether or not you are familiar with Great Harvest and their over-abundance of delectable baked goods, you will appreciate this knock-off recipe for chocolate chip-embedded wholesome goodness. They use whole wheat flour and thick rolled oats to give a satisfying texture, and the butter-molasses combination creates a wonderful caramel taste.

Copycat Great Harvest Chocolate Chip Cookies

Yield: About 24 Giant Cookies

Ingredients:
· 2 cups whole wheat flour
· 1 teaspoon baking powder
· 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
· 1/4 teaspoon salt
· 2 cups brown sugar, packed
· 1 cup butter
· 2 cups thick rolled oats
· 2 eggs
· 2 tablespoons molasses
· 1 tablespoon milk
· 12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:
Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Beat together brown sugar and butter until well combined. Add oats, eggs, molasses and milk; beat well. Add dry ingredients to beaten mixture; beat until blended. Stir in chocolate chips. Using a 1/4 cup measuring cup or ice cream scoop, measure dough and drop about 3 inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 350°F for 12 to 13 minutes, just until starting to brown around the outside. Cool 2 minutes on cookie sheets. Remove and cool on racks.

*To make them more authentic, you could consider adding walnuts and substituting chocolate chunks for the chips. I like to add 1/4 cup wheat germ and 1/4 cup flaxseed meal for additional fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids when I bake them for friends who have just had a baby (my most recent excuse for baking them).


Can you resist? Bake some and try your luck.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Home Sweet Home: Cleaning the Dryer Vent

Fun for the whole family! Actually, best leave the kids out of this one.

We've had our gas dryer for about 3 years and, until very recently, we hadn't had any trouble with it. But lately it's been really slow drying the clothes and I was having to run it twice to actually dry things. Not a good thing, especially when energy is so expensive.

I figured I needed to clean the vent, since I've heard it recommended every two years or thereabouts. So I unplugged the dryer, since I didn't want to die a horrible death by electric shock, or even to survive it. Secondly, I had to figure out how to get the kick plate off the front of the dryer. I read all the information that came with the dryer and nowhere were to be found instructions for doing this. Ridiculous! So I did a quick search online and, wouldn't you know, Bob Vila knows all. There's a Q&A section where someone else had asked the same question about the same dryer, so it was all there for me to discover.

All I had to do was to pop open two connectors and the door swung down as if I had said "Open Sesame!" Very nice. Three hex screws later and the whole lint trap side was off and the blower was exposed. Lots of lint. I can understand why they tell you it's a fire hazard. First I scooped the major chunks out, then vacuumed. Once that was done I put it all back together and, with the help of my husband (who is not nearly as jumpy as I am about gross things one might find lurking behind a basement dryer), took off the vent from the back of the dryer. I poked and prodded the lint buildup all around the tube until is succumbed to my persistence and came out in globs.

I then went to the outdoor exhaust hood, since it is unseasonably warm out, and stuck a flexible tube into it to loosen the lint in the upper part. I also used some pliers to pull lint out of the hood that was preventing the flap from closing. The flap I'm talking about is the one that keeps small undesirable things out of the house. Yes, that one. Once it could open and close freely again, I went in to clean up the debris. Then I was satisfied it couldn't get much cleaner and my hubby put the vent back together and taped it up. Clean! And running efficiently as I type this...

Sorry no pictures, but nothing was very photogenic about this project. Satisfying but decidedly unsavory.

In my online searches for useful dryer vent cleaning advice, I found an interesting link to alternative uses for dryer sheets. It was enlightening.

Friday, January 11, 2008

From the Kitchen: Don't Try This at Home

In case I didn't mention, I cannot eat dairy. It's really for my nursing infant, but it's still a real pain. I cook with dairy for my family, but I am currently avoiding it myself. So, tonight, in a craving-induced bit of experimentation, I tried to make caramel without butter. I thought I'd try using shortening instead, but it was a complete and utter failure. Now my whole first floor smells like someone torched a bag of marshmallows. I do not recommend this. Not one bit.

From the Kitchen: Cinnamon Rolls

Who doesn't love a cinnamon roll? Well, I certainly do. I found two Cinnabon-esque recipes in the last decade, and they're both very good. I prefer the bread machine recipe at the moment, simply because I'm lazy, but they really are both worth trying. A word of caution though... only make these when you know you'll have some help eating them or who knows what could happen? As they say, "A moment on the lips..."



Oooh... a few other things. Make sure you use use fresh yeast. Someone *ahem* used not-so-fresh yeast making them recently, and they took forever to rise and then turned out flat anyway. So don't do that. Also, the bit about "spreading the butter and then sprinkling with cinnamon and sugar"... you might be tempted to just soften the butter and mix the cinnamon and sugar into it to cut the sprinkling bit (as I was, and did), but it gets pretty messy and you have trouble rolling and cutting because the mixture leaks everywhere.


Christmas Morning Cinnamon Rolls

Dough:
· ½ cup lukewarm water
· 2 packages yeast
· ½ cup scalded milk
· ½ cup shortening
· ½ cup white sugar
· 1 teaspoon salt
· 2 eggs
· 5 cups all purpose white flour
Filling:
· 1 cup packed brown sugar
· 2½ tablespoons cinnamon
· ½ cup softened butter
Icing:
· 4 tablespoons softened butter
· 3 ounces regular cream cheese
· 2½ cups powdered sugar
· ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
· ¼ teaspoon salt

Mix the water, milk and yeast. Dissolve well. In a separate bowl, combine 4 cups flour, sugar and salt. Add yeast mixture and shortening. Stir in eggs. Add enough flour to hold dough together. Knead until smooth on a floured board. Place in a greased bowl and let rise until doubled. Prepare filling by mixing sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Remove dough and roll out ½” thick rectangle. Spread with butter and sprinkle generously with cinnamon mixture. Roll up and cut into 12 even slices. Arrange in a 9”x13” pan and let rise 45 minutes. Bake at 375° for 15 minutes. Prepare icing by mixing all ingredients thoroughly. Frost while rolls are still hot in the pan. Sprinkle with red and green sugar, if desired. Serve warm.


Bread Machine Cinnamon Rolls

Yield: 12 large rolls

Dough:
· ¼ cup warm water
· 1 cup warm milk
· 1 egg
· ¼ cup butter
· 1 tbsp sugar
· ½ tsp salt
· 4 cups flour
· ½ package instant vanilla pudding mix
· 1 tbsp yeast
Filling:
· 1 cup packed brown sugar
· 1 tbsp cinnamon
· ¼ cup softened butter
Icing:
· ¼ cup softened butter
· 4 ounces regular cream cheese
· ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
· ½ tbsp milk
· 1½ cup powdered sugar
· ½ tsp cinnamon

Add dough ingredients to bread pan in the order listed and run the dough setting. When ready, roll out the dough on a lightly greased surface to 18”x30”. Spread on butter on the dough. Mix the brown sugar and cinnamon, and spread evenly. Roll up dough carefully and cut into 12 rolls using thread. Place rolls in greased 9x13 pan. Allow to rise in a warm place until rolls are touching. Bake at 350° for about 20 minutes, until the tops are golden brown. Make sure the central rolls are thoroughly cooked. Mix all icing ingredients until smooth and desired consistency is reached. Ice rolls while they are still warm. Serve warm.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Get Crafty: Homemade Heating Pad

As I type this, my back is killing me. Okay, okay, that might be taking it too far. But it's definitely torture of the most despicable kind. Every time I hear, "Mamma, picka you up!" I cringe. Fortunately, I have a secret weapon.


When I was about 10, my best friend's mother made rice-filled bags that could be microwaved and then applied to a sore or cold area of the body. One year she made one for me for my birthday. I was the envy of my brothers and sisters (or at least I like to think that). It was really so simple and easy that there's no excuse for a person with a sewing machine, a scrap of cotton fabric and some rice to go make one right now.

The original "rice bag", as we call it, was just a bag filled with rice, and it had a washable terry cloth cover. It was about 6" x 10" and was about 2/3 full of rice. I have heard of other ones that use feed corn, but the idea is the same. I reasoned, one day, that I should be able to find a way to make it more like a traditional heating pad, larger and flatter to cover more surface area (like the sore back I have right now). Inspiration came in the form of an air mattress.

For the heating pad shown above, I cut two 16"x22" pieces of pretty sunflower batik cotton. Wrong-sides together, I sewed 3 edges (twice, for security) and turned it right-side out, rather like a pillowcase. I then sewed from the closed end to the open end about every 2 inches. What I ended up with were 8 long thin channels. I filled each one 2/3 full with rice, folded the raw end twice and sewed it closed.


To warm it up, just pop it in the microwave (on a plate to keep it clean) and heat for 3-5 minutes. Do not get it wet since the rice will absorb the water and ruin the whole thing. I don't use a cover with mine, but you could get fancy if you want and whip one up too. The rice has a slight earthy smell to it that I like. It can vary depending on what kind of rice you use... the rice I am using now is "naturally aromatic" Basmati, and it smells rather like freshly shucked corn. Strange, I know, but I did work at a roadside produce stand at one point in my past and I would know.

Four years later the first heating pad I made is still serving me well. Actually, I just saw a kiosk at our local mall selling something that looked very similar. We use it for sore backs, for cold toes, for heating the chilly crib before putting a sleeping baby to bed, and for warming the foot of our own bed before we climb into it in the winter. It's wonderful soothing warmth when recovering from childbirth or a traumatic injury. I just cooked up a batch of simple rice bags for several new moms in my circle of friends, and I know they'll appreciate them as much as I do.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Home Sweet Home: Drying Up a Flooded Basement

I was hoping to do more creative things, but my spare time today will be spent trying to dry up our flooded basement. We live in an area where we shouldn't have flooding, but when the conditions are right, as they were last night, we get about a half-inch to an inch of water in one corner of the basement. Basically, lots of melting snow combined with frozen ground, then rain. Unfortunately, this has happened twice before in the 4 years we have owned this house. Fortunately, nothing we own is valuable (or is that unfortunate?) and even the stuff we had sitting where the water currently is was only cardboard waiting to be recycled. Hooray for luck.

Last time, we had the benefit of not having any carpet down there and we had already borrowed my mother's cannister carpet cleaner, which we then handily employed to suction the standing water off the conrete floor. And we only had one kid to work around. This time, we have carpet down there, no working wet vac and three kids of our own under 4 plus a 2 year-old house guest. At least now we have experience.

Upon discovery this morning, my husband moved all of our stuff out of the way, rolled the saturated carpet and hoisted it off the ground to let it drain better. Hopefully he will agree with me that it should be thrown away, having lived a glorious former life as living/dining/bedroom carpet and now having suffered the added insult of a basement flooding. We set up some fans and a few 2x4s to help the water channel to the drain on its own. With him off to work now, I have been sweeping the resultant puddles toward the floor drain, with 3 of the 4 napping and the other watching "educational programming". I'm not sure what long-term damage this might cause to the house, but my husband has vowed to "look into" the problem. He works in an industry that deals with plumbers and other pertinently knowledgeable persons, so I'm hoping he gets some good information and we do not have to do this again.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

From the Kitchen: Giant Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

I found this recipe somewhere on the internet several years ago when I was having a craving, possibly pregnancy-induced, for something exactly fitting this description. It's still a real winner.



Giant Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies


Ingredients:
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
1 c brown sugar
½ c granulated sugar
1 large egg and 1 egg yolk
2 tsp artificial vanilla extract
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 c + 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 ½ c semi-sweet chocolate chips

Directions:
Preheat oven to 325ºF. Melt butter completely in the microwave. Let cool. Add both sugars, vanilla and eggs to the butter. Mix thoroughly. Blend in salt and baking soda. One cup at a time, add the flour and mix until smooth. Feel free to add a small amount more of flour if you even remotely think the dough could use it. It won’t hurt. Mix in the chocolate chips until evenly distributed. Scoop generous 1/4 cup mounds onto cookie sheet. I find 6 fit well and allow room to flatten a bit. Bake for 15-20 minutes, depending on your oven. They are done when slightly golden, but not brown on the bottoms. Cool for a few minutes on cookie sheet, and then let cool completely on a rack.




Shelf life is irrelevent since they will all be eaten sooner than they should :)

Monday, January 7, 2008

From the Kitchen: Hannah's Pumpkin Muffins

Here is a recipe I love. My kids love it too, and it freezes very well if you want to keep some on hand. It comes from a good friend of mine, and it is a hearty, flavorful muffin made with fiber-rich, beta carotene-containing pumpkin. It's a great way to both sneak a vegetable into your breakfast and to make dessert more nutritious to balance out the cream cheese frosting you just have to slather it with. Forgive my zealousness, but it's a good recipe.


Hannah's Pumpkin Muffins

Ingredients:
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp ginger
2 eggs
1/3 cup buttermilk, sour cream, or plain yogurt
1/3 cup melted butter
1 tbsp robust molasses
½ tsp vanilla
1 cup sugar
1 cup canned pumpkin

Directions:
Mix all ingredients thoroughly but not overly. Evenly distribute in regular muffin tin. Bake at 350° for about 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Alternatively, use a mini muffin tin and shorten cooking time to about 13 minutes. Makes 12 regular or about 48mini muffins.

Pretty unceremonious, eh? That's because good doesn't have to be fussy. Now go make some!

Get Crafty: Washcloth Tuxedo Bib

My husband and I went on a cruise recently, a gift from his grandmother. It was going to be a kid-free vacation. Well... as it turns out, we took our new baby boy with us. There were going to be two formal nights, and a couple days before we were scheduled to leave, my husband decided that our baby just had to have his own tuxedo bib. Long story short, we couldn't find one anywhere, so I concocted a plan to make one.


I found a nice black washcloth at Target and picked up an 1/8 yard of white terrycloth at JoAnn's. I already had the thread, hook and loop, black satin ribbon and some black buttons from my button jar. I cut the washcloth down the middle and heavily zigzag stitched each raw edge to prevent fraying and to look finished. I sewed the right side over the left side halfway up. I then sewed a triangular piece of the white terry in the middle, using the selvage as the collar edge. I tacked down the "lapels", added the buttons and bowtie, then used some more ribbon to hold the bib on the baby. One side of the ribbon is sewn, the other is a hook and loop attachment.

The baby in this bib was a big hit, and I was proud that both were my accomplishments.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Get Crafty: Baby Quilts

I am in the season of my life where babies abound, both in my own home and that of just about everyone else. When we host social events the kids are starting to outnumber us. Heck, when we eat alone they outnumber us! In the past 2 weeks alone, three good friends had babies. It has thrown me into on one of my baby quilting kicks. When it rains it pours, so I tend to do more than one at a time. People, especially young people, are making fewer and fewer handmade gifts these days, so I really like to make things as gifts. I enjoy letting so many beautiful pieces of fabric flow through my hands and out into the world, to be loved and cuddled by sweet babes as they sleep.

I stole my method for making them from watercolor quilting (not familiar? Google it!), and I'm not going back. I will include my basic quilt method at the end of this post. Preview: No batting, minimal pinning, rarely tacking.

I just made the one below for a baby shower for a good friend who is due in February. Sitting on top of it is a little hat I made using the same fluffy fleece fabric as the back and binding (look for a post on hats in the near future).

The four below are sort of unique among the roughly 30 baby quilts I have made to date because they have a ribbon detail. I like the look and, as I recall from my childhood, satiny things are appealing to tiny hands. It involved another step because I used some fusible tape to attach the 3/4" satin ribbon to the quilt top first and then sewed both the inner and outer edges of the ribbon through the folded-over fleece backing. The peach and purple ones were for twins.


The two quilts below were for a different set of twins (lots of twins around here). When I have enough left over squares (if I cut the quarter yards right I have exactly 4 extra 4"x4" squares left in each fabric), I like to do a light-to-dark sort of design.



This last quilt (and detail of the binding and back), is a rare example of an instance where I actually bound the quilt instead of wrapping the backing fleece around the egdes and folding under. I really don't like binding quilts because inevitably something goes wrong and I get so fed up with the project that I'm ready to throw it out rather than finish it. I am always optimistic that somehow this time the binding won't get bunchy and I won't have to rip out the stitching twice before I'm satisfied, but it never works out that way. Regardless, they do tend to look pretty good in the end and no one notices the imperfections but me.


My basic formula for making these baby quilts is as follows:
  1. Coordinate 6 quarter yards (fat or long), iron and cut into 4"x4" squares. I do not wash the fabric first (the unpardonable sin of quilting!) because it doesn't factor in much for projects so small and I like the wrinkles it causes after I wash the quilt. Homemade charm. And I'm lazy. Rotary cutter!
  2. Critical step to getting perfect corners: Iron the squares onto the thinnest fusible interfacing you can find, in the same arrangement as the finished quilt pattern will be. I buy the cheapest thin interfacing I can find, and I buy a whole bolt.
  3. Fold each row width-wise, right-sides together, and sew with a 1/4" seam allowance. I do not pin.
  4. Iron on the interfacing side so all the seams fold in the same direction.
  5. Fold each row length-wise, right-sides together, and sew with a 1/4" seam allowance. This causes the seams to be extra thick where the corners meet, but I don't care. If you do care, you could snip at the seam and fold and iron each row alternately, but that would be tedious and therefore incompatible with my patience level right now.
  6. Iron on interfacing side to all seams fold in the same direction.
  7. Center quilt top on a wrong-side of coordinating 1 1/4 yd piece of anti-pill fleece or other fluffy fleece.
  8. Cut fleece around quilt, leaving about 3" more fleece on each edge of quilt.
  9. Fold edges of fleece in and under, giving you about a 1" border. Pin it as you go and miter the corners.
  10. Sew around, securing the bound edge.
  11. Optional: tack or quilt the inside area. I almost never do this since it hasn't affected the durability of any of these small quilts yet.
  12. Wash and dry as you would any other laundry in your home. Baby the baby, not the quilt.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Get Crafty: Knittin' Mittens

I'm not a real knitter. I dabble, and until this past winter, I had never followed a pattern for knitting anything. Put another way, I made scarves and only scarves. Since I am, by nature, more concerned with what things are made of and not how they are made, it did not bother me that there was no real variety in my work. Knit, purl, knit, purl. Then, years ago, a friend and college classmate one day sported some perfect handmade mittens. You could tell by looking at them that they were homemade, but they were so cute and warm-looking that I have, ever since, sworn one day to make mittens.

The very real problem with that plan is that I cannot follow directions. By looking at me and considering my credentials, you might not think me to be truthful. But time and time again I have proven this to be the case. I follow the spirit of the directions, which is why many things do not turn out how they should and I can't blame anything but my own lack of discipline. I double a recipe and add 3 whole eggs instead of 2 and 2 yolks. I do not wait the appropriate time before applying a second coat of paint to a wall. I do not wind the copper wire the ridiculous number of times that the build-your-own remote controlled car kit tells me to and I am so ashamed that it doesn't work that I hide it in my closet and forsake my true calling as an electrical engineer, ruing the day even 18 years later. But that's another story all together.

Do not fear, dear reader. I am not a lost cause! I decided that, before I tried and ruined another project by disregarding the directions that lay in front of me and getting depressed about it, I would... *drumroll*... practice each instruction necessary for making mittens on ugly easy yarn before I started the real project on the lovely but somewhat more difficult-to-use yarn. And wouldn't you know it? It worked! I successfully made the practice mitten, if you could call it that.


But don't get too excited yet. Another of my faults is that I am very lazy. I used the traditional double-pointed needles for it and was so annoyed with my clumbsiness using them that I had pretty much given up on attempting the real thing. I thought and thought and thought about it. There must be an easier way do do this. I looked briefly online. Ultimately, I was too mentally exhausted by the truth that even knowing how to knit mittens, it was just going to be too much work for me to actually make them. It was very sad.

Then came Thanksgiving and a stroke of luck. I was packing up the kids and preparing to leave the abnormally large gathering and was making the final round of goodbyes. There, watching football, was my aunt's sister... knitting socks using a circular needle! I tried not to act too interested as I asked her how she was performing this miracle before my very eyes. My inner self was practically peeing her pants. "Magic loop... so easy... don't you go to knitting shops?" I missed most of what she said, but on the 3 hour drive home I kept thinking, "magic loop... magic loop... magic loop," as if there were any conceivable way to forget. At home again, I googled "magic loop" (as you should too) and learned how it works. KnittingHelp.com has a video detailing the method. There's also a good short YouTube video about it.

It was soooo much easier than using double pointed needles. Really. At least in my opinion. Needless to say, the mittens turned out without mental anguish. Admittedly, they're not as cute as the ones my friend had, but they're pretty damn good for a first try.


Thursday, January 3, 2008

Get Crafty: More Homemade Christmas Decorations

This wreath is homemade only in the sense that I put the bow on it. After Christmas last year I bought the wreath on clearance at JoAnn's Etc. and the bow on clearance at Meijer. All told the thing cost about $5.
Here's a cheap way to fill a wall and show off all those pretty cards your family and friends sent you. I always save my favorites from previous years so I had lots to choose from. I punched a hole in the upper left corner for side-folding cards or right corner for top-folding variety, to keep the angle the same. Then I took a loop of regular ribbon in various colors and widths, tied a bow and slipped it through the hole. Voila!
I made these last year using a 2"x2" chunk of foam wrapped with some leftover paper and tied with thin grosgrain ribbon. This year, I encountered a nine-pack of almost the exact same thing at Ikea for 25 cents. Not sure what I think about that. I won't be making any more of my own, that's for sure.
This is an ornament I made in high school, not sure exactly when. I cut 1/2" strips of balsa wood, stacked them, traced on the side using a cup, cut them, drilled a hole in the center of each one, threaded some jute, and glued the strips into place in a spiral. I like it, but it might be a little labor-intensive for my lazy tastes at the moment.