Sunday, November 20, 2011

On Sending Christmas Packages

It’s that time again…. time to overwhelm our Postal Service workers with cards and presents. Here are some tips to minimize the time you spend in the Post Office.

1. Prepare In Advance
Make a list of at least roughly what you’re sending this year, then go to the Post Office early in the season to pick up boxes and stamps. Even better, order supplies online and have them delivered to your doorstep! The less you can do while standing in the post office and the most you can avoid the last-minute rush, the better off you’ll be.

2. Remember to Check the List Twice
Check the post office’s list of hazardous materials they don’t send. There’s nothing that squashes the Christmas spirit more than putting someone’s safety at risk. For instance, did you know the Post Office can’t send Lithium batteries like those in cell phones? So if you’re giving one this year, talk to the store about having it shipped directly so that the store can handle it correctly.

3. Flat Rate Is Your Friend.
This is especially great for sending that heavy fruitcake and bulky sweater to grandma. Just grab a flat rate box, it’s one charge no matter what the rate. The sizes and prices are listed on the Post Office website but you might want to check your local branch to see what they have in stock if you're not ordering them online, especially the closer it is to the 24th.

^ The heavy bakeware and accessories I sent to a friend for her bridal shower fit perfectly in a medium flat rate box. The postal worker didn’t believe me when I told him it was cheaper so he weighed it; I saved $5 on just that box.

4. Don’t Bother With Packing Peanuts
There are sooo many options besides buying filler! Start stockpiling old newspapers. Grab some knock-off zip-lock bags from the dollar store, puff them up with air and use them as packing pillows. Heck, grab some dish towels or wash cloths from the dollar store instead, at least they’re functional instead of just getting thrown away. But for goodness sakes, don’t pay for packing peanuts.

5. Get Your Boxes Ready
If you use boxes you had on hand, way to re-use! Woohoo! Just make sure that all old labels and addresses are covered up. Did you know that you can have your packages picked up from home, too? An entire holiday season of shipping done entirely from home, you say? Why yes, that does sound amazing.

Happy shipping! What will you be sending this holiday season?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Homemade Caramel Sauce

A leave-it dish to impress your friends with.

This is oh so simple and oh so yummy, I just had to share.

Ingredient: One can of sweetened, condensed milk.

That’s right, only one ingredient. Take said ingredient and immerse it in a pot of boiling water (on it‘s side works best). Make sure the pot is big enough to allow for a rolling boil at least an inch or so above the top of the can. Let ingredient boil for 1 ½- 2 hours. The only tricky thing is not forgetting to check every 20-30 minutes and make sure there is enough water in the pot, otherwise you will mark the inside of your pot. Also, if your water is particularly hard you will want to have some vinegar on hand to soak your pot in afterward.

Viola! Open the can to find golden brown caramelly wonderfulness. It will have a consistency of caramel sauce and taste like Mexican dulce de leche.

What should you do with this impressive yet simple treat? Top some ice cream! Use it as an apple dip! Top some baked pears. Drizzle it in a pan of brownies before they hit the oven. Whatever you do, enjoy your new easy and versatile treat.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Trial Cake

For my birthday, my hubby gave me a Calphalon bakeware set, a non-stick set which included two new 8” pans. This year we were each extraordinarily busy on each other’s b-days, and ended up making our own respective birthday cakes. This has less to do with insistence on birthday ritual and much more to do with a family love of cake.

Anyway, I decided to try a few things out. I’ve been loving some of the rainbow cakes I’ve seen floating around…. perfect for a few parties and showers coming up….. I also have a Wilton set  that *ahem*… I may have…possibly…. been excited to have opened last Christmas, only to have not touched it since. In all fairness the last 12 months have been one giant transition that has just been winding down, but still.

So here we go!!!!!

I picked green cake because if I did something dumb with the color gels I figured I could always throw in some blue or yellow. My favorite cake is butter yellow with chocolate, so that’s what we’re having.

Some tips for smoothing out any baking experience…

If it says the pan needs to be lightly greased, I just use a stick of butter from the freezer…

Then it can go into the fridge for later cooking or, as in the case of butter cake, be softened for use.
Then the wrapper becomes a disposable spoon rest:

Set the box from the mix on the counter as a catch-all for trash.

Use your whisk to mix the dry mix first and break up some of the big clumps.

Add water, then soft butter, then eggs to minimize the clumps of mix as well.

Divide out your batter depending on how many layers you’re making. I only used one bowl to mix the color in while keeping the rest of the batter in the original bowl, but it also meant that I was not measuring my batter and my layers won’t be perfectly even. I don’t mind that, honestly, I think part of the charm of these colored cakes is that they look homemade.

After each layer is baked you can put them on cookie racks on the back porch to cool, if it’s cool outside near you, too. Then take a bread knife and cut off the top of each layer, keeping the blade level and lined up with the edges.

Mmmmm, cake for munching on in the meantime. Notice those bubbles? I shouldn’t have stirred that batter so much since I was going to have to stir it again to add the color. woops.

*Note: I thought about grabbing a lazy susan from the dollar store and putting my stand on it, but then I couldn’t find my cake stand anywhere! I’m really hoping I didn’t lose it in the moveL So I ended up using the bottom of a corningware dish. What do you do if you don’t have a cake stand?*

Add a thin layer of icing on top of each layer of cake.

When your top layer is on, begin adding a “crumb layer” of icing to the cake. This is to go underneath the layer of icing that will show once the cake is done, and it does exactly what the name says: catches all the crumbs.

Honestly, when I do this, I cheat… 1 - I totally use store bought icing. 2 - Before icing the cake, I totally put it in the microwave to make it soft and a little melty. It’s way easier to smooth that way. If you’re a cool think-ahead-type, you can put the icing container on the stovetop while you’re baking your cake layers and the oven heat will melt it enough, just remember to turn the container every once in a while.

Crumb layer, check.
Time for the cake to sit in the fridge.

Tick tock. Go eat some dinner or read a blog or something :)

Once the icing seems as hard as it’s going to get it’s time for the outer layer of icing, and then back in the fridge to chill a little more….. this is a good time for cleaning up your dishes and preparing your decorating icing.

Finally the fun part! Like I said, it’s been a busy year and this was my first time using my new decorating set! So I filled up on youtube videos and gave piping and roses a try. And the final product?


Not bad for a first try, right? The piping is uneven with the flowers on top, next time I’ll remember to make hashmarks in the icing before I actually go to town.

The roses flattened out and I couldn’t get the dots not to leave little tails, but I also used a store bought whipped icing because it’s what I had on hand. I tried adding some crisco and powdered sugar to stiffen the icing, but next time I’ll just use actual decorating icing and see if that helps. Do you have a go-to icing you prefer for cake decorating?

And the final cut?

It actually showed the colors! The gels were tons easier to work with than I thought, I can’t wait to try this again with more layers for a pink or purple inside.. or maybe pink to purple? Oh, the options! Happy baking!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Zumba: A Trial in Pre-emptive Self Help.

So a Zumba studio opened this week within a ten minute drive from my home. With classes before and after my work schedule. Across the parking lot from my grocery store. Next door to my tanning salon. Plus I found a friend who wanted to join a class locally,

So I Joined!

And not bought-a-punch-card-joined, I got-an-unlimited-membership-that’s-only-cheaper-if-you-share-with-a-friend-and-go-twice-a-week joined. Like a foreal commitment to both my friend and my pocketbook.

In my new job I am veeeery sedentary. I drive a lot, I sit a lot in families’ homes and at desks with children. Most of my coworkers cautioned me that they gained weight--like 10-30 lbs in a few months--after starting this job. To compound that problem, last winter I got hit in the face with seasonal affect disorder. I had always had kind of winter blues, but last winter I was achy, I was always feeling pressed for time and overworked. Then when spring came around, I was happy and energetic again. I realized that my perceived over-worked self was only putting in about 37 hours a week and was seriously neglecting housework. But even worse, I was seriously neglecting people. I had turned down opportunities to make friends and join groups, and the one thing I did join I bailed on over half of the meetings because I … well, I couldn’t even remember why. But I wasn’t doing anything else, so I it’s not like I had something else crop up.

So this winter I’m fighting back. Exercise releases endorphins, and Zumba is super fun and energetic. It’s going to make my joints hurt more than some exercise because of an arthritis-type condition I have, but at this point painful exercise is better than sitting on my duff and gaining weight that will inevitably lead to more pain anyway, and be harder to shake. And who knows - I will get to know one friend better for sure, and maybe I will make some new friends in the process!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Introduction.

Last night I had a wonderful night. I could have sat at home like so many other nights, browsing Craigslist or my favorite blogs. But I got an invitation from a friend to hear her jazz band, and lately I have been very motivated about community.

You see, in college I had many communities readily available; so many clubs and classmates and roommates. I happened to live with 3 amazing women for my last 2 years on campus, and we foraged through real Christian community together. We ate together, prayed together, shared our lessons and trials and tears together. We learned how churchy buzzwords like accountability actually work when we talked about cleaning duties, or when my roommate would scream “cockblock!!!” outside my bedroom door when my fiancĂ© was over visiting.

And then we all left.

We all moved, for various necessary reasons, all over the city. Then we all moved even farther, and today my 3 beloved housemates live on almost opposite ends of the continental U.S.

And the lessons I learned about community faded without the immediate presence of those I called closest. Was I an out-of-sight, out-of-mind friend? What did community mean at such a distance? In college I dreamed of having other women friends and married friends in the town I settled, friendships that would be filled with neighborhood justice and meaningful conversation and chic soirees. An extended and grown-up version of my housemate community.

But reality is hard, isn’t it?

I need to confess, cyberspace. I almost never call my closest friends, the women I miss so deeply. I do not invite couples to dinner or women to go out. I barely browse online for things to do and then make the choice to stay home and ‘be productive’ or ‘rest from work,’ because in reality cultivating community and a social life is intimidating and hard. I was excited about the neighborhood community I moved to last year; I only know 2 of my neighbors.

Yet I read websites and blogs about the perfect dinner party, community activism in your neighborhood, how to garden organically. But no action.

So let this be a commitment I make, and a call to action for all young women out there. I will make the phone calls. I will host that barbecue. I will learn to garden, learn to make foster new friendships, and learn to fall on my face. I will at least try to find what it means to be young and Christian and active in a community that doesn’t make that easy for me.

Come with me.

Be a part of my community. Because we are all finding out what it means to be who we are, where we are. And we can learn from each other.