Saturday, December 31, 2011

Determination: 12 in 2012, January

Determination (noun):  perseverance, resolution, conviction

As mentioned here, I am spreading out my New Years' Resolutions over the entire year!  I am going to be planning one resolution/goal for each month of the year (knowing that some flexibility will most likely be needed).  Here is my list so far:

January:  Have an Organized Apartment (thanks in great part to The 444 Plan.)
February:  Update Photos/Scrapbooks
March:  Learn to Make Memories (and begin making some!)
April:  Spring Cleaning
May:  Celebrate and Update Apartment for my Apartment-versary!
June:  Mid-Year Review
July:  Mine and Doug's Anniversary!  Where are we now?
August:  Vacation -- taking a break to enjoy life ;)
September:  Clothing Control
October:  School/Job Plans after Graduation
November:  Curves-iversary!  Health goals for another year
December:  Holidays -- decorating, baking, parties, presents!

While a few of these a self-explanatory, many are a bit vague because they are things I don't know about now. Example:  Maybe by October I will have some idea of my plans after graduation.  While these are some "project goals" for the New Year, I do have a set of personal "2 degree" goals that are a part of my everyday life.

Reading.  Every year I try to read more books.  While I have not come up with a fool-proof way to track my progress, I do try to read as much as possible.  Currently, there are 350+ books on my reading list (and it's still growing).  I read roughly 2 books a week (1-2 during school and about 4 during breaks and summer), so I would love to read 100 books this year, half of which being books I have not read before (or honestly don't remember since I read them in Middle School).  I am going to try to keep an updated Reading List here on my blog (list newest read to oldest) to track my progress!  The new books I read will be marked (with a **); maybe I'll post some book summaries/reviews for those of you who are looking for more books to read!

Cooking.  Anyone who knows me knows how much I love to cook.  Every year I try to cook new recipes and try new foods.  For 2012, I am particularly interested in trying more slow-cooker meals since I have rarely used my slow-cooker this year.  I am also going to try to make my own take-out a lot more this year since both Doug and I love Chinese, Japanese, Thai, etc ;)  I will also be listing new recipes I try on the side-bar with a link to the recipe if possible.

Health/Weight.  Instead of waiting for 2012 to hit, I started going to Curves around Thanksgiving.  After a month, my clothes feel looser, I have more energy during the week, and I can notice definition in my muscles.  When I signed up for Curves I had a weight goal in mind already, what I call my "senior" weight.  This is how much I weighed when I finished High School and started College.  Right now, I have about 30 lbs to go to hit that weight, which is my one-year Curves goal.  My overall goal is to get down to my "freshmen" weight which is what I weighed when I finished my first year of college (about 20-25 lbs more).  While hitting those "magic numbers" are great for a lot of people, I also want to make sure I am healthy.  Doug and I have been trying to eat healthier since we got married (mostly by adding more water and veggies and by cutting fast food and sodas).  With my Curves foundation, I really want to start walking, jogging, and running in the Spring!

Anyways!  I hope some of these goals and ideas inspire you to begin making changes for 2012, and I can't wait to see where the New Year takes us ;)

Document: December

Document (verb): update, back up information, corroborate

Is it really only the end of December?  Have I only been blogging here for 2 months?  Oh my!  Because of how many things Doug and I have been up to, it seems like much more time has gone by!  Since my last update, we have 1) completed making Christmas Baskets (thought there are a few we still need to hand out!), 2) completed our classes for the semester, 3) successfully celebrated Christmas with 2 of 3 sets of parents (we see the last set this week!), and 4) are ready to continue living healthier this new year!  Wow!

Even though we accomplished quite a bit, there is a bit more to do:

1. The 444 Plan.  I have a break from classes and work from December 16 through January 16 that I just could not waste.  While I am taking time to enjoy having less responsibility (i.e. reading a book a day, watching TV and movies, taking naps), there are so long overdue projects that I am hoping to tackle before classes begin that I mapped out here.

2. 12 for 2012.  I like making New Years' Resolutions, but (as an OCD over-achieving perfectionist), I normally end up wearing myself out trying to complete all these goals by February instead of making small changes that will constitute a larger change.  (I call these "2 degree" changes versus "180s.")  I have decided to combat this for 2012 by trying to come up with one goal/resolution for each month of the year.  Obviously there are a few year-long goals I have for myself (mostly do to with reading, cooking, and losing weight), but there are a lot of mini projects and ideas that I want to do this year!

3. Celebrate.  With all this planning, organizing, and goal-making, I can't forget to celebrate!  2011 has been a great year:  I moved into my first apartment, got married (whoo-hoo!), finally went to Disney World (!!!), had several friends and family members get married, have a new baby niece Beth, hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas...whew!  While it has been busy, it has been full of blessings, joy, family, and love.  I can't wait to see what's in store for 2012!!!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Devise: Update

So, after almost two full weeks to work, I have not completed any of my goals!  I have been able to work on each of them a bit though ;)  Given that we had company for 2 1/2 days, we were travelling for 2 1/2 days, and we celebrated Christmas, I think I have been able to do a lot in the time that I had.

Mostly, I have finished my Menu Planning through May!!!  I made cute print-out calendars to hang on the fridge.  I think they look pretty good ;)  

Here's one example; as you can see, I tried to add a lot of variety!



Anyways, I began by coming up with some sort of schedule for planning.  A lot of examples I based it on the type of food (like Mexican Night, Pasta Night, Pizza Night), but Doug and I decided to base the days on main ingredient (Chicken, Pork, etc).  We also wanted to have a Slow Cooker/One Pot Meals day and a day to try out new recipes.  Our schedule looks like this:

Sunday -- Pork
Monday -- Beef
Tuesday -- Slow Cooker/One Pot
Wednesday -- New Recipes
Thursday -- Vegetarian
Friday -- Fish/Seafood
Saturday -- Chicken

Then, I made a basic Grocery List.  I go shopping every two weeks; one big trip and a "clean-up" trip for staples.  I made this "clean up" list first (lunch meat, cheese, milk, bread) and then made a large grocery list.  to make it easier, I broke it down into sections (produce, meat/poultry/seafood, boxed and canned goods, dairy, and frozen foods).  This list includes almost everything needed to make meals for the month.

Before I started filling out the calendar, I put in days for Doug to cook (every 3-4 weeks), a time each month to eat out, and placed special meals for holidays and birthdays.  Then I filled in each column as I went!  Obviously Wednesdays (new recipe day) was more difficult to fill out; I ended up leaving them blank and then picked out recipes along the way!

Then, the grocery lists through May were super easy to make!  I already had a basic list to go from, so I only needed to update it for each month.  Example:  The basic list tells me I need frozen fish and seafood, but February's list says Shrimp and Calamari (the clams and tuna are canned).  Or instead of "Pasta Sauce," February says "Alfredo Sauce Mix."

I haven't put them in a binder yet, but that is the next step.  I also pulled a lot of recipes from cookbooks or online, so I am going to type those up to print out and place in the binder for easy referencing.

As far as my other goals, I have organized my mail/paperwork a bit more than before. Yea me!  I am planning on doing some laundry and sorting out clothes this weekend.  I am considering setting a few T-shirts aside in order to make a T-shirt quilt or rag rug, but by this time next week, my closet should be majorly overhauled!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Devise: 4 tasks in 4 weeks for 4 months

Devise (verb): conceive, dream up

I have been looking forward to this Christmas "break" for quite awhile.  When classes ended in May, I had six weeks to move into my apartment and finish everything for the wedding.  After the honeymoon, we quickly moved Doug in and needed to travel quite a bit up until classes started.  We spent all Fall trying to keep up with cooking, laundry, and dishes while spending time with friends, working, and finishing classes.  Therefore, everything in our apartment has never been organized apart from what has been most convenient.  So, with my classes and my job on hold until mid-January, I can finally organize my little heart out!!!

I have (roughly) a 4 week break between when classes/work ended until they begin again.  I also have come up with 4 tasks that I want to complete in that time that should keep us streamlined and organized for up to 4 months (until work/classes end for summer).  I have read a few cleaning/organizing books and articles that categorized clutter and disorganization into two basic problems:  having more than you need OR not putting what you have where you need it.

Now, for those of you who have been to my house, I know that it is clean and well-managed.  I know that I am slightly OCD and can be a control freak, but EVERY home or apartment can be updated for efficiency, effectiveness, and attractiveness -- not to mention comfort!

Anyways, here is my plan/goals for the next 4 weeks.  Hopefully I will accomplish all these things and be able to post pics and tips along the way!

1.  Clothes.  There is really nothing more to say about this one.  I have WAY more clothes than I need.  Doug has WAY more clothes than he needs (even if he doesn't realize that yet).  The point is, this is a great time of year to not only clean out your closets, but also to donate clothes and accessories.  A secondary reason for this is to help control the laundry overflow problem.  While less clothes means I need to do laundry more, that seems like a small price to pay for closet space and a lack of clothing piles around the bedroom ;)

2. Kitchen.  Mainly, reorganizing.  Doug and I have a lot of space in our kitchen, but it is definitely not being used the best way possible.  Because I like to cook and bake so much, we also have a ton of kitchen tools and gadgets that are piled in drawers and stuck under the kitchen sink simply because that's where they ended up when we got them in July, and there hasn't been time for major changes.  Because of that, we have a lot of items that we want to be using but haven't been able to use yet!  Hopefully, we can fix that with a little rearranging.

3. Menu/Grocery Planning.  Monthly and even Yearly Menu Planning has become popular lately, and I have jumped on the bandwagon.  I had been planning meals (and grocery lists) on a 2-3 week basis, but I had been making my grocery lists the morning I would go shopping.  That meant checking local ads (30-40 min), planning out meals (60-75 min), writing out a final list (20-30 min), and then going shopping (60-90 min)!  That's at least 3 hours of work every time I went grocery shopping.  Well, I have had about enough of that.  I decided to plan out all my meals and grocery lists through May to make shopping (and cooking) easier and hassle free.  In the time I would normally spend prepping and shopping, I have meals planned through March and my first 3 grocery lists complete and organized.  This is one project I cannot wait to complete and show you!

4. Paperwork Clutter/Finances.  We get a lot of mail.  A lot of it is important and needs to be filed (which I have been doing...mostly), but we end up with a lot of "important" papers in the middle of the kitchen table or on our living room sofa.  A lot of this important paperwork has to do with our finances (i.e. bills and bank statements) that need to be handled.  My goal is to create a "office" space where all mail, paperwork, receipts, and financial information can go for easy updating and filing.  While this seems to be minor compared to the other three, it will take a lot of effort to find a suitable space that will stay uncluttered and unmoved!  This is also probably the most important of the 4 because it causes me the most stress and hassle every week.

Those are my four tasks to complete these next four weeks.  I won't be working on them in order, but rather based on what I can get done while still enjoying the holidays!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Delay

Delay (noun):  deferment, interruption

During this busy time of year, I find it even more difficult to enjoy the season due to the internal pressure to create a "perfect holiday" for those around me.  One of the preparatory measures I took to ensure time to rest and relax was to spread out family gatherings from the weekend prior to Christmas through the week after New Years'.  While this seemed best in theory, it has been a bit difficult in practice.  First, it has been difficult to spend time with our friends since we have schedules 90% of our free time for our parents -- oops!

This week, we attempted to remedy this situation.  as I mentioned previously, Doug and I have this week free:  no classes, no family plans, no major responsibilities.  (Well, Doug still has to work, but only 4 of the 8 days, so he is much "freer" than normal.)  Anyways, we thought this might be a perfect time to invite one of our friends to stay for a night and plan a get together with some other friends in the area.  This plan completely backfired due to an additional unexpected guest, an extra night stay in our apartment, and a lot of local friends cancelling on the plans.  Chaos!  not only did this change a lot of plans, it also cut into my Christmas Basket prep time -- a must have during this empty week!

Now, this would have normally stressed me out; I mean, I write appointment in my planner with a marker:  plans should not change!  However, while I could have ignored my guests to bake and prep in the kitchen, I spent time with them instead.  While I would have normally stressed myself out trying to make great (and large) dinners for everyone, we ordered in some pizza.  While I could have felt compelled to change my normal health habits in order to "host" everyone during the entire time, I still went to the gym as I normally would and went to bed when I needed to.

In the end, I was very proud of myself!  Having friends stay is not about impressing people or making drastic changes (no matter how temporary), but about enjoying the time that you have with them!  Otherwise, it's not really worth it for them to be there.  I really believe that a lot of the holiday stress is actually disappointment in unmet internal expectations.  Really, most stress I feel (and I'm sure others feel) is disappointment in this self-inflicted expectations.  This has truly helped me to de-clutter and decelerate my life in order to enjoy those around me!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Desserts: Brownie Almond Biscotti

I was probably most excited to make this, which is why I saved it for last.  I fully embrace my Italian heritage (and my olive skin that very rarely burns!)...especially when cooking!  To me, winter is not complete without cocoa and something yummy to dip in it!

Anyways, I used this recipe to make this super simple and tasty biscotti.  There was a small amount of wet ingredients compared to the dry, which was hard to mix!


It was enough though!  I ended up using my hands at the end to make sure all the ingredients were mixed in and to form the loaves.


After baking the loaves, cooling, slicing, and cooking the biscotti, I drizzled them with some white chocolate and sprinkled some leftover ground almonds over the top!


I thought they looked pretty nice!  I let them sit out overnight in order for the chocolate to cool completely and so the cookies would be nice and hard -- perfect for dipping!


Anyways!  They tasted so good!!!  And it's always nice to have something pretty sitting next to your coffee or cocoa cup ;)

It cost around $4 to make 60 biscotti ($0.07 a cookie!), but I didn't have to buy any almonds (My Dad gave me a bag.), so my cost is a little less than it should have been!  Still, it would only be $0.12-0.13 per cookie -- not bad at all!!!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Desserts: Chocolate Caramel Candy

This week has just been crazy!  On top of finishing my own classes and finishing grading papers for my boss, I also have to finish making some goodies before my parents get in this weekend!  Anyways, I decided today would be a perfect day to make Chocolate Caramel Candy!  Not only is it very simple (mix, heat, and pour), it is made in 4 layers, each of which must be refrigerated before adding the next layer.  Since I am paper-writing today, it provides the PERFECT distraction during paper-writing breaks ;)


Layer one was super easy!  I put down parchment paper (so I wouldn't slice up my pan when I cut the candy), but it ended up being quite a pain!  If you decide to make this, definitely go with 1) a pan you don't mind cutting up or 2) something glass or scratch-proof.


Making layer two was pretty easy, but spreading it was a bit of a pain.  Because the mixture was so warm, it began melting the bottom layer!  I definitely suggest letting it cool a bit before spreading.


Layer three was BY FAR the most difficult just because it took a lot longer than I thought it would.  I had to melt down the caramels on low heat so they wouldn't overcook (= become brittle), which took about a half an hour!  My suggestion:  melt them a bit in the microwave first.


Anyway, it looked really nice once it was spread out.  I wish I would have added in a bit of extra cream in order to thin it out a bit (= easier to spread by the edges), but I think it should be okay.


The top layer was the same as the bottom layer, which made it easy and predictable!  I let it cool for several hours, and then I tried to cut it!  It was really tough to cut through, so I ended up making lines across the top (to make sure it would be enough pieces) and let my husband cut through it for me ;)


They candy turned out great!  The recipe said it would taste like Snickers, but I wasn't actually expecting it to.  It did!  I think I liked them more than Snickers because they were a bit creamier ;)


Monday, December 12, 2011

Directions

Directions (noun):  instruction, guidance

A lot of people ask me for advice.  I'm not really sure why that is, but it happens a lot.  Anyways!  for the last few weeks a lot of people have been asking me about the Christmas Baskets, so I thought I'd share some tips.

1. Think Big.  Instead of going for only "traditional" treats (like sugar cookies, gingerbread men, etc), I looked at dozens of recipes and made a long list of things that I thought I could make well.  At this point, the only things I did not write down were things I could not make (due to lack of kitchen supplies) or would not make (due to my allergy to eggs...and my husband's picky tastes!).  I ended up with a list of over 2 dozens recipes (before I stopped!).

2. Consider the Recipients.  As I shared in a previous blog, some of the people I was baking for would not have been able to eat a lot of the dishes I initially chose.  I also wanted to make sure I had a lot of variety since I was making baskets for acquaintances whose preferences I did not know.

3. Go Small.  Quality is always better than quantity in a gift like this.  The best way to get quality is focus; you focus by limiting yourself.  I only made a few kinds of cookies so that I could focus on those recipes.  Also, by limiting the number of recipes, you can purchase better quality ingredients for each recipe.  I suggest no more than 10 recipes, but at least 5 (for some variety).  I decided to do 8; I picked how many of each I wanted to do: 1 cocoa mix, 3 kinds of cookies (including biscotti), and 4 kinds of bite-size candy/chocolates (including fudge).  Then I narrowed down my recipe choices to match.

4. Portion Control.  The goal of the baskets was to share some holiday treats, not send anyone into a sugar-induced coma until spring ;)  Out of each recipe, each person gets 2 servings (i.e. 2 Snickerdoodles, 2 of each kind of pretzel, 2 of each kind of fudge, etc).  Since the cocoa mix lasts for a few months, I gave each basket the same amount (4-5 servings).  Again, quality is better than quantity.  I was only making 2-3 batches of each item, which allowed me to purchase better quality ingredients.

5. Overestimate the Goodies; Underestimate the Basket.  Basically, spend more time, money, effort, etc on what is in the basket than what the basket looks like.  I bought boxes for $1 each at Target and spent about $7 on ribbon and cards for all the baskets (plus leftovers).  The bottom line is that people will remember what was inside more than how it was wrapped up.

Anyways!  I hoped these tips were helpful and that you will consider making Christmas Baskets part of your holiday tradition.

P.S. If you feel like it's too late for Christmas, consider birthday baskets, Easter Baskets, anniversary baskets...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Desserts: Chocolate Coated Pretzels

After the initial "development" of my first batch of pretzels (as described here), I took a week to think about the pretzel-problem and make some other goodies ;)  Anyways!  A lot of people gave me several different fixes, but it was clear the the biggest problem was the pretzels, not the chocolate.  The dipped pretzels became very stale overnight, but I think I found a way around that!!!  Anyways, I finally had some time today to make some!

Perfectly Melted Milk Chocolate
I only used 1/2 bag of chips at a time to dip the pretzels; that was enough chocolate for 40-45 pretzels.  I melted the chips (with 1 tbsp shortening) in the microwave on medium heat (power level 6 of 10) for two 45 second segments, stirring each time.  When I pulled it from the microwave, it looked like it needed just a bit more time; if you keep stirring, the warmth will eventually melt the rest of the chocolate (about 30 seconds of stirring should do it).  That kept the chocolate thin enough for dipping, but thick enough to completely coat the pretzels.

Milk Chocolate Dipped

White Chocolate Dipped
Dark Chocolate Dipped
They set up in about 2 hours and tasted great!  I guess I finally found a recipe that worked.  As you can tell from the pictures, I left part of the pretzel undipped as a "signature" for my pretzels.  The milk chocolate have the top right undipped, the dark chocolate have the bottom undipped, and the white chocolate have the top left undipped.

And on the upside, you can make chocolate dipped pretzels in the living room while watching football and Christmas movies ;)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Desserts: Grandma Fudge


Today's dessert is super special to my family and me. My Grandma Finnigan makes this fudge every year for Christmas and only for Christmas. There have been several methods to try to savor Gram's fudge: eating as much as possible in one sitting, taking a small bite every day to stretch it out over the holiday season, or try to make your own Grandma Fudge. While the third option is obviously the most practical, Gram is very protective over her fudge recipe. As far as I know, I am the only grandchild that has it. (That's right, cousins! Be nice to me or you will never have my Grandma Fudge!) Maybe I am the favorite ;)

My Gram and Pap Finnigan
Anyways! Since it is a secret family recipe, I can't post all about it here! Instead, I will share some of the most important Grandma rules to fudge making.

1.  You must use a fudge pot. A fudge pot is a big, heavy pot with no non-stick or Teflon coating. I was lucky enough to get a hand-me-down fudge pot from my Gram, so I knew it would work.

Cooking the "candy" until Soft Ball for PB

Ready to go for Chocolate Fudge

2.  You must use a wooden spoon.  I don't really know why this is important, but I always listen to my Gram.  She has the best fudge, so there must be a good reason.

Mixing in the last few ingredients before pouring
3.  Don't rush the fudge.  Rushed fudge = crumbly and grainy fudge.

Finished PB Fudge
Finished Chocolate Fudge
4.  Grandma Fudge does not go in the fridge.  Grandma Fudge does not go in the freezer.  Grandma Fudge can be stored in plastic containers between wax paper (or foil, or parchment paper) for a few weeks.

Well, as you can see, my first batch of fudge turned out pretty nicely.  I made Peanut Butter fudge to practice a bit before moving on to Chocolate.  It takes awhile to cool completely, but I did taste some (by scraping the fudge pot), and it tasted pretty good!  I'll do a full taste comparison once its sets ;)  I think my Gram will be proud!

One 9 x 13 pan of PB Fudge cost me $4.76, which comes out to about $0.05 per fudge square (if you cut anywhere from 72 to 112 pieces).  The Chocolate Fudge is only slightly more expensive ($5.01) which is only 1/2 cent more per square.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Desserts: Apple Oatmeal Cookies

Tonight I decided to make the Apple Oatmeal Cookies for the Christmas Baskets! Once again, these are not a "traditional" Christmas cookie, but they made my whole house smell like Christmas! The recipe is quick and easy (and diabetic friendly). Plus, I made about 45 cookies in under a half an hour. The only difference I made was to use Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips instead of raisins.

When I first added the wet ingredients into the dry mix, it did not look like there was enough liquid, but I kept mixing, and it was plenty!

Finished Cookie Mix
I decided to make the cookies a bit bigger than the recipe said; here's what my cookies looked like.

They turned out great! In order to get enough cookies out of the batch, I made the next two trays the right size cookie (using the 2-spoon scooping method). I had to bake the first tray a bit longer, but they still turned out pretty nice!


The cookies were really cakey and chewy -- it was almost like apple crisp in cookie form! Although there was no caramel in the mix, it had a caramel flavor (probably from the brown sugar). The caramel, cinnamon, and apple make it a perfect Christmas cookie! Yum-O!

Daily

Daily (adjective, adverb): of, done, occurring, or issued each day

Lately I've been feeling very thankful for my life and the people/things/situations in it. I realize this may be a few weeks late, but being grateful should be a part of our lives daily, not annually. So, here is my list of things that I am feeling especially thankful for today.

Our Christmas Tree with the lights off
1. My Family. Not only am I blessed with parents, grandparents, and extended family who love me, I married a wonderful man who is part of a large family who (as far as I know) loves me and cares about me as well. In this day and age, that is very rare.

2. My Health. Not only am I alive and relatively healthy, I have healthy food available, I can go to a gym to take care of myself, and I can go see a doctor if I need to. Huge blessing.

3. My Job. Not only am I blessed to not have to work to maintain our household, I get to work in a field I love (which pays for me to do what I love -- learn), all of which is setting me up to enter my dream career. Can you even ask for more?

4. My Home. Doug and I are so blessed to live in a safe and quiet community (for a relatively low price) in a warm and clean apartment. We have plenty of room to host friends and family, we have nice things (including our Christmas Tree!), and we have no outstanding debt (school loans don't count!).

These things are true most days, if not every day. Therefore, I have no reason to complain or grumble about my life or anything in it!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Desserts: Dr Pepper Brownies and Fruity Muffins

Okay, so they're actually Dr K brownies (the Kroger brand of Dr Pepper), but the idea and taste will be the same!!! Plus, I saved money by purchasing the store brand -- yea for savvy shopping!

Anyways! These are not for the Christmas Baskets (sorry guys); they are an extra treat I decided to make for my hubby! He LOVES Dr Pepper (hence why we have a case of Dr K in the pantry) and is more of a chocoholic than I am, so I thought these would be great to pack in his lunch for a pick-me-up! Added Bonus: These brownies were the quickest and easiest dessert I have ever made!

I'm not sure where I found the recipe (probably Pinterest), but it is so simple that I didn't even have to write it down! You mix 1 box of Family-Sized brownie mix with 1 can of soda (from the pantry, not chilled). Bake the brownies according to the box directions (for me, 350 for 26-28 minutes). You can use any kind of soda (the example I saw used Diet Coke...mmmm) and any kind of brownie mix. I chose the Low-Fat Fudge Brownie mix for my version. Wherever I read about this said that using Diet Soda and Low-Fat Mix makes each brownie about 100 calories with only 1/2 a gram of fat!

Be careful when adding the soda; it will foam A LOT, but just keep adding it slowly and keep mixing. The batter will be liquidy. I added about 1/3 of the can of soda at a time, mixing as I went to keep lumps from forming.

Because I was so excited about this (and because it only took 3 minutes to prep), I forgot to take pictures of the mix :( However, here are the finished brownies!




Next time, I may try adding some fruit, like drained maraschino cherries, or drizzling white chocolate over the top of the brownies. These would also be really great in Brownie Sundaes because they are really moist and cakey ;) If you're not a fan of gooey brownies, just add 2-3 minutes onto your cook time.

Since my oven was already warm, (and since I needed some kind of snack to send home with my mother-in-law) I made some muffins while the brownies were baking!!! I had two muffin mix packets ($0.60 each) that only required 1/2 c milk to make. Each mix was supposed to make 5-6 muffins, but I only had 8 muffin liners!!! I decided to just use both mixes at once to make 8 big muffins. The flavors I had went together pretty well -- Apple Cinnamon mix and Blueberry mix. Here's what the muffins looked like.



I just love how golden the tops were, but the insides were still white, moist, and tasty!!! I love that they are small enough to be a treat/snack but big enough that you won't feel the need to eat an extra one! = Perfect sized.

Total Cost = $3.09 for 16 brownies ($0.11 each), 8 jumbo muffins ($0.17 each), and a happy hubby and happy mother-in-law (Priceless)!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Desserts: Snickerdoodles

Nothing beats the buttery, sugary, cinnamony goodness of snickerdoodles. (Is cinnamony a word? Well, it is now!) Although they are not a "traditional" Christmas cookie, they are my mom's favorite and (therefore) a must-add to my Christmas baking.
Me and my mom
I set up a little "baking zone" in the kitchen; the plan for the day was to make 4 batches (120-160) of cookies.


The recipe for the cookies was really quick and easy; I had cookies mixed and ready to roll in about 5 minutes! I really wanted to make sure I made the cookies the right size so that I would end up with enough to put in the baskets, so I made the cookies balls first before rolling. Then I rolled them in the cinnamon/sugar mix. Here's how they looked!

I ended up with a few extra cookies in this batch (lucky me!), so now I have a pretty good idea of big they should be for the next few batches. I also used parchment paper on the cookie trays to keep the bottoms of the cookies from burning ;)

I let the cookies cool; they look super yummy!!! And they tasted good too! But don't tell ;)


Anyways, I spent about $2.25 in order to make 3 dozen cookies, just $0.06 per cookie! Not bad at all for a simple and yummy treat at Christmas or anytime of the year.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Development

Development (noun): change, alteration

Yesterday afternoon I began my second Christmas Baking project: Chocolate Covered Pretzels. I had three large bags of miniature pretzels along with three kinds of chocolate (white, milk, and dark) to make a large variety of treats. I melted the first bag of chocolate and hit my first major problem: over-heating. If you overheat chocolate (which is easy to do in the microwave), it turns into a fudge-like glob. Luckily, I had only slightly overcooked the chocolate. I added a bit of warmed milk, which took care of that problem. I started coating the pretzels, and they looked great...until they sat for 3-4 minutes. Thanks to gravity, the tops of the pretzels looked barely covered after sitting for just a few minutes!!! Well this should be easy to fix: let them sit and then double coat the pretzel and dry it on the reverse side.

I spent a total of 2 hours coating (and recoating) the pretzels before they were finally set enough to taste them. I popped one into my mouth and...stale. The pretzels from the bag tasted fine, so I looked online to find out why the pretzels turned out this way. Apparently, the milk I added in (easy fix #1) must have soaked into the pretzels and then dried out, leaving them stale.

So, there I was staring at an entire batch of stale chocolate coated pretzels at 11:30 PM with no way to fix this problem. Normally, I would have eaten all the pretzels out of spite (and, let's be honest, stress) and scrapped the idea all together. Instead, I bagged up the pretzels I made ("Doug will still eat them"), cleaned up the kitchen, shrugged it off and went to bed.

Instead of reacting and labeling the day as a "Disaster," it is much better to think of it as a "Development." I have learned a lot about making chocolate dipped pretzels. I have come up with several ways to successfully use these ingredients to 1) try making the pretzels again correctly or 2) make something different, but just as good (like chocolate pretzel bark).

I really believe that my choice to step back before reacting is a HUGE indicator that I am really decelerating and enjoying life more! I have come up with a new saying to remind myself of this for the next time something interferes with plans or goes wrong: "Speed bumps only hinder cars that are going too fast."

I promise to post pics of whatever chocolate/pretzel project I complete ;)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Desserts: Cinnamon Hot Chocolate

Today I decided to mix up Cinnamon Hot Chocolate for the Christmas Baskets. Hot Cocoa is really simple to make (just mix ingredients), and practically everyone drinks cocoa. I chose this cinnamon mix because cinnamon makes chocolate taste...well, chocolatelier ;) Plus it adds a pop of flavor you can't find in packaged cocoa mixes.

One batch of cocoa mix


The original recipe made 3 1/2 cups of mix, so I doubled (more like quadrupled) the recipe to make enough for the baskets!!! I also made sure there was some left over for taste-testing ;) The only thing I changed from the original recipe was the marshmallows -- I just put two big handfuls on the top of each package instead of mixing them into the cocoa. After bagging, I added cute gift tags with cocoa directions and some ribbon; here are the finished products!!!

Overall, each bag cost about $1 to make -- not bad at all!!! Plus, there was almost 2 cups of cocoa leftover (and some marshmallows) that I saved for Doug and I ;)

Document: November

Document (verb): update, back up information, corroborate

Today is December 1!!! Oh my! It has been nearly a month since I implemented my new life paradigm to slow down and enjoy things more; I am so proud of how much I have accomplished!!! I have found that I need "mile markers" in my life in order to keep me motivated, so this reflection (and update) will serve as a marker for me ;)

High-Stress Holiday Season: While I still have Christmas coming, I feel like I have been very successful in handling the holidays thus far. We have been able to stay connected with our families while not travelling for Thanksgiving. Even though I did a lot of cooking, it was spread out over two days, and I asked for help (gasp! say it ain't so!) with a few things so that I could actually enjoy myself. As far as Christmas goes, Doug and I are gradually gearing up for the holidays. We purchased ornaments for our tree and a few items to begin putting together Christmas Baskets (including REALLY cute baskets from Target -- on sale!!!) for our friends and family. I am actually making a few basket-items this week since they won't spoil for a few months ;)
(Side note: Anyone who is looking for a fun and festive way to give gifts to a lot of people, gift baskets as SO the way to go. We will end up spending about $12-15 per gift basket, and each basket has enough goodies for two people! Plus, the baskets can easily be customized, not to mention the personal feel of giving away goodies, whether you made them yourself or just gathered them up!)

House/Home Life: Anyone who knows me know that I have a touch of OCD. I'm not exactly a "neat freak," but I feel that everything is to be a certain way. This made me run myself ragged for the first few months of my marriage, but I have been able to get some control over the need to clean ;) The only thing hanging over my head is laundry: my clean laundry can never seem to make it back into my closet!!! While this has no longer become a large stresser, it is something I need to figure out if I want to keep my life decluttered!

Homework/Hebrew: Around the time I began this blog, I finished my second of three classes I was taking this semester. With just one class to work on, I have found myself going days without touching the material -- because my work is already done! I have been sticking to my "early bed/early rise" schedule (as much as possible) which has really given me the extra time to focus in the mornings and rest in the evenings! Go me! Similarly, the Hebrew prof I work for doesn't have a lot of papers/exams from mid-November until Finals, so I am completely caught up (and ahead) as far as my GA work is concerned! I rock! Now, I have not forgotten the stress of giving and grading finals (and getting final grades in) while trying to complete my own schoolwork, which is why I am going to attempt to finish my own final project prior to giving my students their final. Not only does this lessen my load right before Christmas, it means I will be more efficient since I will be singularly focused.

Healthy Living: I have a tendency to forget to take care of myself when I get stressed and busy; I forget to eat, I get dehydrated, I feel as if I don't have time to workout, and (when I do remember to eat) I eat for convenience over health. I lost weight right after getting married, but I have gained all of it back (and a few extra lbs) in September and October. I have been able to stay the same through November by realizing that it is worth it for me to take the extra time to make healthy food, to keep myself hydrated, and to generally take care of myself!!! I was able to make more healthy meal choices through November, but yesterday I upped my game: I joined Curves. I was planning on asking for a membership for Christmas, but I decided that it just wasn't worth waiting and losing a month. I was able to get a great student discount, and I had my first workout today! For those who wonder why I chose Curves over many other options here are a few reasons: It is close to my house (5 min drive), it is female-only, it requires little thought (you just move through the workout stations), it only takes 30 minutes, and it is a full-body workout with both strength training and cardio. Beyond these reasons, my curves has a computer-monitored personal trainer option (for free) and offers Zumba classes (for free). Awesome!

Overall, I feel like I'm doing a good job decelerating and decluttering my life, as well as learning to take care of myself more!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Domestication

Domestication (noun): to accustom to household life or affairs

I have successfully entered the holiday season. My Thanksgiving dinner went very well, despite my decision to try to roast the turkey without an oven bag (requiring me to roast for a longer amount of time and baste the bird at least once every hour) and to use a lot of new (i.e. untried) recipes. Overall, I received rave reviews, including a dish-by-dish summary critique from my dad ;) Anyways, I feel that Thanksgiving was a success! (For a list of what I made for Thanksgiving, see the list I added here.)

However, this is where the rubber meets the road. I have two weeks to finish grading for the Hebrew Class with which I assist (including giving and grading the Final Exam). I have just under three weeks to complete my Greek class (a 10-15 page exegesis of Colossians 3:12-17 and a final exam of Greek nouns and verbs). I have just over three weeks to complete my holiday baking, which is no small feat. In addition, I need to shop for some Christmas decorations, get the tree up and decorated, and do my Christmas shopping.

Sometimes I miss the days where all I had to focus on were my Final Exams (or papers, or projects) and if I would run out of books to read over Christmas Break. As much as I love being a "housewife," I haven't really been doing anything "housewifey" yet. I know that out of any time of year, this is the time in which I will put the pedal to the metal. I have, however, taken some control of the pressures of the season so that I can actually enjoy the holidays and not rush through them.
  1. Limit travelling. With three sets of parents to see (plus grandparents and siblings), Doug and I took a long look at our free time, including if we would have enough time to travel everywhere. Thankfully, our family was able to work with us, not only concerning travel arrangements, but also by allowing us to spread out seeing everyone over a few weeks (Dec 16-Jan 4).
  2. Evaluate Christmas baking/cooking. I took a look at what I was planning on making for Christmas (for both gifts and for Doug and I), and found that it would be much better to cut a few of those items. A few items on my list had unique ingredients (like saffron or cream of tartar) that 1) I do not have on hand, 2) I most likely will not use again, and 3) are too expensive to get for one recipe. Another issue is that a lot of our family members have dietary issues (such a diabetes, high blood pressure, etc); due to these issues, a few family members could not eat ANYTHING I was planning on making!!! Finally, considering that we will be seeing some family members three weeks after others, I had to take into consideration how long the baking projects would last.
  3. Prioritize. I started thinking about grandiose Christmas dinners (I even started playing around with making roast duck.) until I realized that the week of Christmas (Dec 20-26), Doug and I will be in Lynchburg by ourselves. Is it really important to make a big, elegant dinner for the two of us, or is it more important that we get to spend time together and rest? Similarly, is it important to have a perfectly (and fully) decorated house, or it is more important to spend time celebrating Christ's birth?
  4. Preparation. Failure to plan is planning to fail. Doug and I made a list of how much we were willing to spend on Christmas (gifts, travelling, food, decorations). We started thinking about what kind of gifts we wanted to give (and decided to make holiday dessert baskets). I sat down and picked out a few things I could do earlier in December and which things could wait until the last minute.
So, even though Finals and reading was probably a lot easier, I think all of this will end up being a lot more fun!!! I will keep posting about what I accomplish this holiday season; hopefully that list will include a lot of rest, peace, and joy. And maybe some yummie recipes ;)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dreary

Dreary (adjective): gloomy, lifeless

After a great "weekend" or relaxing, the week has spiraled into dreariness. I really think it's the weather. Normally, I love the cool and damp days of fall, but it has started to become very miserable outside. Growing up, there was snow on the ground before the leaves were even out of the trees, but in Virginia, we have a few weeks that can only be described as dead. The leaves are on the ground in damp, brown clumps, the trees have lost all color, the grass is dying and brown, and it is dark outside by 5 PM. Worst of all, this seems to have happened overnight!!!

Anyways, this left me feeling very dreary and unmotivated. This is "midterm" week in school (i.e. catch up and cram week), on top of preparing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. While the imminent holiday season seems to be good news, it does add on to my list of tasks (which continues to grow daily due to extreme lack of motivation). How to get out of the rut of dreariness???

This morning I needed to go grocery shopping, which I was not too thrilled about. (Apparently buying all your Thanksgiving groceries early does not account for needing normal food -- bread, milk -- which requires shopping.) Still, I got up and went. It didn't take very long; I got home, put everything away, and ate lunch with Doug. We decided to work on finalizing our Christmas and Birthday lists (both of which are due to my family on Thanksgiving). Together, everything was making me a bit frustrated and irritable. It was during this that my husband gave me the advice I needed: "You need to rest tonight and go to bed early."

While every overachieving bone in my body fights against his statement, this really has turned out to be the best way to motivate me to get things done and use my time wisely. I often try to stay awake waiting for Doug to get home from work, which means we both go to bed late and sleep in late. For someone who works best in the daytime (in sunlight), this has cut my "work" hours significantly, especially once these winter days began. (Besides, lack of sunlight causes a hormone drop that leads to depression.) When I should be resting, I am trying to work. When I should be working, I need rest.

So I worked this afternoon on a few key items (at least this dreariness has not impacted my ability to prioritize) and "shut down" when it became dark outside, writing this being the obvious exception. I will relax -- read a book, watch a movie, eat a healthy dinner -- and go to bed at a decent hour, resulting in more "light" hours to actually get things done. While this seems like a simple concept, I don't think people realize (in general) how important rest is to productivity; it was that realization that led me to even begin this deceleration. but the manner in which a person rests is just as significant as getting rest. I was spending a lot of time trying to make myself "rest" (sit and do nothing) instead of actually rest (sleep).

Bottom Line: I guess my husband can be right sometimes too.

P.S. I have been trying to get a new "early bed/early rise" schedule for a while (mostly to be able to get some things done while Doug is still asleep), but I couldn't find proper motivation to make this stick. Now that I have seen the effect that missing out on daylight is having on me, I have plenty of motivation ;)

Update (Sunday): Well, I was in bed about 3 hours earlier than normal (and actually tired); however I had some difficulty falling asleep due to circumstances beyond my control (i.e. the upstairs neighbors), so I read for awhile, popped in some earplugs, and finally fell asleep (almost 2 hours early)!!! I got up around 9:30 (90 minutes earlier than normal) and was able to get a lot more done today than most days. I felt awake, motivated, and "together" all day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Diversion

Diversion (noun): entertainment, recreation

Today begins the weekend for Doug and I, which means we can finally take a break from everything else to relax a bit. It is the day that we can finally watch whatever we have from Netflix (currently: How to Train your Dragon)or some other movie or TV show we've been meaning to watch, play games, eat good food, and just do nothing for a day. Tuesdays are definitely my favorite.

Now Wednesday is a different story. Because Tuesday is our official slack-off day, Wednesday becomes our official guilt-day, full of "I should have worked on more homework," "I should have done laundry," "I should have used my time more wisely instead of playing Frisbee Golf for 4 hours." Then Wednesday is spent in stress and terror of not being able to accomplish everything that needs to be done.

This week, however, we will not succumb to this on-set Wednesday guilt. Not only is taking a day off (a Sabbath, if you will) necessary for the human mind and body to continue growing and functioning normally, my lazy Tuesdays are, in fact, one of the only parts of my "former" life of accelerated frenzy that was actually beneficial to de-stressing and decelerating my life. So, now I'm off to enjoy myself!

P.S. I am reporting back (on Thursday) to let you know that I spent most of Wednesday calm, cool, and collected. I hit a brief "oh-my-word-look-at-my-to-do-list" incident Wednesday afternoon, but it subsided. (Hey, it's hard to quit worrying cold turkey!) I do have a lot that needs to be done, but I have four days. I think that has been the biggest issue for me -- my deadlines are Sundays and Mondays, not Fridays and Saturdays, giving me more time than I think I have during my guilt-ridden Wednesdays. Result: Tuesday was a successful diversion!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Delicious

Delicious (adjective): pleasing, especially to the taste

Today I bought my first turkey.

Now, I have cooked a Thanksgiving turkey once before (last year), but I sent Doug out to buy the turkey because I was cooking it for him and his roommates. So, while I feel confidant that I can pull off the classic and much-anticipated Thanksgiving turkey, I never realized the joy of picking one out. I mean, buying a turkey is supposed to be a mundane task: you have to figure out how many people are eating to find out how many pounds you need. (Then add a few pounds to account for leftovers...mmmm.) ANYWAY! This was a really special moment for me in that this is my first major holiday as a married, adult woman. Wow! Even though I was doing a lot of shopping today, the turkey was one of the first things I picked up, so I had this I-picked-out-a-turkey high while I finished gathering my groceries (and finished shopping in record time).

Hopefully the finished product with be as delicious as the exhilaration of buying it.

P.S. For you detail-oriented people, I bought an 18.5 lb turkey to feed roughly 6 people and have plenty of leftovers. I bought it about a week and a half in advance so I could put it directly in my fridge to begin thawing. I want it to thaw out a day or two early so I can prep and brine the turkey in advance.

P.P.S. The one thing I worried about was that, by shopping early, I would spent a lot more than waiting since many Thanksgiving items would go on sale starting this week. After checking the new circulars, I figured out that I only spent about $5 more to do my shopping early. While $5 is a good amount, it is a lot less than the $15-20 difference I was anticipating. All in all, it cost me $5 to have peace-of-mind that everything will be ready for Thanksgiving AND do all my shopping before the rush, which I think was DEFINITELY worth it.

November 24, 2011: My Thanksgiving Menu
Herb Roasted Turkey w/Cornbread Stuffing
Vegetable Stuffing
Cheddar Ranch Mashed Broccoli and Potatoes
Baked Sweet Potatoes (courtesy of my mom)
Sauteed Snow Peas and Onions
Pepper and Parsley Buttered Corn
Cranberry Sauce
Cheesy Asparagus Squares
Crescent Rolls
Desserts: Double Chocolate Almond Brownies, Dutch Apple Pie, Pumpkin Pie

Friday, November 11, 2011

Distance

Distance (verb): to be superior to, surpass

Yesterday was a perfect fall day: overcast and breezy, but not cold. I was able to spend much of my day indoors catching up on schoolwork (Greek; mostly block diagramming which is NOT very fun), but I did get a chance in enjoy the weather that afternoon.

I had a tutoring appointment with one of the Hebrew 1 students who needed some extra help with the newer material before the upcoming exam. I made plans to meet her at Panera (great atmosphere, but a 15 minute drive from my house) late afternoon. I thought there would not be much traffic; schools had let out earlier, but it was prior to the normal evening rush. I was wrong. While the traffic was not TOO bad, I hit every red light (seven total) and spent the majority of my drive following a car going 25 in a 35 MPH zone. Needless to say, I was late, frazzled, and NOT enjoying the perfect day as much as I should have been.

I found her at a comfy booth waiting. I apologized profusely for being late; she was already there studying, so it did not inconvenience her. She had already gotten some coffee, and she had bought me a grande-sized coffee as well. This is where my new life paradigm kicked in. Panera was packed full of people studying and working, but we had managed to be at a very comfortable booth. On top of this blessing, I was getting an unexpected free coffee for my time/trouble. It really made my day.

I spent the next twenty minutes explaining morphological principles of Hebrew words, along with a few study habits that may help with memorization, and left. I sat in my car for a few minutes sipping my coffee (decaf, of course, with 2% milk and honey) and enjoying just being out and about. And, I must say, I felt very accomplished for choosing to slow down and enjoy life for a few extra minutes.

An added bonus: For the day, I was able to catch up on all my schoolwork, spend extra time making a big and healthy lunch for Doug and I (stir-fry pork and veggies with cheesy noodles), update our finances for the week, and relax all evening. Everything that needed to be done was done with plenty of time to spare. I guess when you start taking care of yourself, things just seem to fall into place more easily.

And yes, I realize that is not the most common usage for the word distance ;)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Decisions

Decision (noun): a determination arrived at after consideration

Four months ago I married my best friend. Life just hasn't stopped since then!!! After the wedding and the honeymoon, we barely had time to settle in before our social calendar was filled up through Thanksgiving with Bridal Showers, weddings, baby showers, weekend guests, visiting a friend in the hospital, and several parties (for holidays or just to see friends). Before we knew it, the holidays were coming, and we had barely had time to ourselves.

I feel that living a lifestyle like this -- full on, 100 miles an hour -- keeps a person from being able to have true joy and gratitude. There is no stopping to appreciate the changing fall leaves, the first frost, a great parking space, or any of the other little things that come into our lives. Therefore, I have made a decision to slow down and enjoy these things now, to make a habit out of being grateful for life and the joys it brings.