Thursday, August 30, 2012

Summer Cupcakes

Every month or two, Jared has a pot luck lunch with some of his co-workers.  They always select a theme for each lunch and divide up the food responsibilities.  Jared ALWAYS has to bring a batch of "Mrs. Parsons Cookies" as his co-workers call them.  Then he usually has another responsibility, and it's almost always another dessert.

Today the gang is having a "summer foods" themed pot luck.  In addition to my obligatory cookies, I was asked to make some other summery dessert.  I was really torn on what to make. 

And then I remembered some cupcakes I had referenced in my April Fool's Day food blog post.

So I baked a full batch of white cupcakes and a full batch of chocolate cupcakes (while helping Nolan with his homework and helping Nora go potty on the toilet...go ahead and be impressed).

I had to run out to the store for some specific candies for decorating.  I even had to send Jared out to THREE gas stations in search of Circus Peanuts.  Everyone was out of them, which I'm guessing is because they are so disgusting that no one wants to sell them.  When he finally found a bag of them at the scuzziest gas station around, they were super old and all stuck together.  I used what I could because of how hard he had worked to find them.

So, my cupcakes were all made to look like summer foods.


And steaks, hot dogs, and kebabs on the grill:

I used the nasty Circus Peanuts to make hot dogs in buns to go on top of extra cupcakes:

The hamburger buns are white cupcakes with the middle third cut out.  The hamburger patties are the top third to half of the chocolate cupcakes.  I used red and yellow frostings as ketchup and mustard, and I tinted coconut green for the shredded lettuce.

I just set the assembled hamburgers on the wrappers and put them in my beloved cupcake carrier.

The "grills" are chocolate cupcakes with a thin layer of chocolate frosting.  I tinted some vanilla frosting gray and piped lines for the grill grates.  Then I had lots of fun making the foods to go on top.

The steaks are caramel cream candies shaped by hand.  You should have seen me trying to figure out what shape to make them ("This one looks like an ear and this one looks like Africa.").  The hot dogs are caramels that I cut and rolled by hand.  The kebabs are toothpicks with cut up caramels and red, yellow, and green candy fruit slices.  I dipped a toothpick in black food coloring and drew on the grill marks.

I really wanted to make these cupcakes that look like corn-on-the-cob, but I couldn't find any store near me that sells Jelly Bellies by the individual colors.  I tried a little something with yellow Reese's Pieces, but it wasn't good.

All the summer foods cupcakes ready to go:

If you'd like to make these yourself, here are the inspirations I followed:
Dogs and Burgers at Family Fun
A Grate Gift for Dad at Family Fun
Memorial Day Cupcakes at Hoosier Homemade

Now we'll just see if the guys think they taste good!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What's for Dinner: Fauxtisserie Chicken

Tonight my family will be eating one of those dinners that all five of us enjoy.  That's right, no special plates for picky eaters.  Can you believe it?

Our dinner will be Fauxtisserie Chicken (recipe from Our Best Bites).

I highly recommend that you browse the other recipes at Our Best Bites.  If the blog name sounds familiar to my regular readers, it's because I previously shared their recipe for Chicken Pot Pie and their idea of giving frozen pies in jars.

This chicken is sooo easy, super tasty, and pretty cheap.

Buy a whole chicken (mine was just over $4).  Remove the outer wrap/packaging and any giblets (ew).  Wash the chicken under running tap water.  Pat dry with paper towels.  Season with your favorite seasoning.  We love the version with whole garlic cloves shoved between the meat and skin and fresh herbs inside the cavity of the chicken.  Today I have none of those things on hand, so our chicken is covered in Poultry Magic seasoning.  Cook the chicken in your slow cooker while you go about your day and pay no attention to it.

The secret to this chicken's success is that you put three balls of foil in the bottom of your slow cooker (under the chicken) so the chicken doesn't sit in its own juices.  It ends up like a roasted or rotisserie chicken.

My other secret is that I use Reynold's Slow Cooker Liners.  Clean up is SO easy with these babies.

The cooked chicken is super duper tender.  You can't even get it out of the slow cooker without it falling off the bone.  Jared goes crazy for this chicken.  My kids gobble it up.  I love the chicken, but I really love how much my family enjoys it.

One more thing I wanted to share:  I heard a new song today.  It's called "Who You Are" by a group called Unspoken.  Their sound reminds me of Gavin DeGraw (I like his music too).  Have a listen:

Have a great day, friends!


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Meaningful & Successful Homemade Christmas

I have Christmas on the brain.  I'm still in the brainstorming phase of preparing for Christmas this year.

I'm sure some of you think it's crazy that I'm thinking about Christmas when we haven't quite turned the corner into September.  But the feedback I received after my first post about handmade Christmas gifts lets me know that many of you are indeed thinking about Christmas already as well.

I've also been thinking about what it takes to make homemade Christmas gifts.  I shared some of my past gift ideas with you, but it takes more than craft tutorials to pull off a handmade Christmas.

So, here's my advice to help you if you're interested in giving meaningful gifts this year and cutting your Christmas spending as well.

1.  Start by making a list.
You know I'm a list lover.  For this list I usually use Microsoft Excel.  In the first column, I list everyone for whom I need to buy/make a gift.  I have another column for my budgeted amount to spend on each person.  I create a column to later fill in how much I actually spent on each person.  This helps me with next year's budget (so I can work with the reality of what I spent).  The last column is where I fill in any gift ideas I have for each person.  I make this document early (usually in summer) so I can fill in gift ideas as I come across them.

I made a fake spreadsheet so you could see what this looks like.  I can't show my real one. :)

You can obviously adapt this to whatever works best for you.  Jot down names on a piece of paper.  Make a Word document.  Include more or less information.  Make it work for you.

2.  Gather intelligence.
Start gathering ideas for what you think people on your list might want.  When you go to someone's house, pay attention to their decor, style, favorite colors.  Take notice of things they don't have or comments they make about something they need or wish they had.   Listen during phone conversations for clues as to what gifts would be loved by your loved ones.

Make notes in your document/list.  Trust me, you won't remember those ideas if you wait until it's Christmas crunch time.  Many times I read my notes for gift ideas and was so thankful I had written stuff down (or typed it) while it was fresh in my mind.  Since this is brainstorming, include all ideas that come to you, whether big or small.

Simultaneously begin browsing the internet for ideas and tutorials for homemade gifts.  Start looking to match up your recipients' wishes with what you can make.  I like to bookmark online ideas and organize them on my computer.

3.  Assess your skills.
Why not take advantage of what you're already good at?  Everyone has skills of some sort.  And I guarantee that you have skills that are valuable to people around you.

If you are a gifted photographer, take great pictures of someone's kids or create a framed print or set of prints (like the ones spelling someone's last name out of photos of everyday objects).  If you are a talented chef or baker, made delicious goodies that everyone can enjoy.  A great eye for fashion could help you select a great new outfit for a friend or family member.

Don't discount whatever you're good at.  Landscaping, organizing, jewelry making, painting, sewing, card making, and even babysitting are all appreciated by others.  My two cents:  you can offer coupons to perform services using your skills, but be aware that some people (like me) are too timid to cash them in. :)  You're better off giving a finished product or scheduling a service yourself, rather than waiting for the recipient to take you up on your offer.        

4.  Check your resources.
Take a look at what you already have on hand.  My favorite part of a project is choosing the supplies needed.  Unfortunately for me, this year I need to focus on using what I have.  But that will really help my spending this year.  I have so many leftover craft supplies and things I've purchased on clearance to use some day.  It's time to use them up.  Similarly, I buy new Christmas wrapping paper each year for a couple of years, and then one year I use up all the leftovers.

Look around to see what you already have and look for ways to use it.  Maybe you have an amazing printer that could print pictures on canvas.  Or if you have a recent photo of your kids or family, look for great photo gifts from websites like Shutterfly or even Walgreen's.  Maybe you have fabric or yarn or other craft supplies.  Maybe you have tons of mason jars that could be repurposed as candle holders or cookies-in-a-jar or be filled with homemade hot cocoa mix.  Even saved cardboard boxes can be used for all sorts of crafts (seriously).  Baby food jars and wipes containers have lots of other uses.  Browse the internet and you'll find a way to dress up whatever you've got.

And don't just look for craft supplies.  Do you have a family photo album or recipe book that you could copy for other family members?  Even if what you have is time and a computer, you can research your family's genealogy and create a detailed family tree and give family members a copy using various software available.  Consider re-gifting an unused item that someone else would use/appreciate more than you.     

5.  Start with one good idea.
Sometimes you can find one great idea and use it for lots of people.  Like the year that I discovered the method of making freezer paper stencils and used it to personalize shirts and bags for all my family members.  It's almost always cheaper to make multiples of something than it is to make just one of a lot of different ideas.  Last year I used this tutorial to make cute snowmen (filled with Mentos gum in a reusable container) for all SIX teachers who worked with my younger two kids, Nolan's school teacher, and a couple extra small gifts for people on my list.  I only needed to buy one package of buttons, one package of pom poms, and one square of orange foam (for the noses).  I needed these supplies for the first, and I had plenty to make the other 9 snowmen.

Look at your list and try to divide your recipients into groups.  Then look for a general idea for each group.  One idea for all the grandparents, one for your siblings, one for all the teachers, etc.  This isn't meant to be impersonal.  The goal is to give each person a meaningful gift, but save yourself some time and money by reusing your gift ideas for other people who would enjoy the same gift. 

6.  Watch the sales long before Black Friday.
This tactic is good for buying supplies for all handmade gifts, buying semi-homemade gifts (like photo gifts or something you can personalize), and buying items for straight-up (non-handmade) gifts.

I check Moms by Heart daily to see how I can save money on what my family needs.  I also find deals on things that would make great gifts.  Deals on toys would lead to great gifts for my nieces and nephews.  Cheap photo gifts work for grandparents.  Free and cheap magazine subscriptions could be for anyone on your list.

Watch for sales online and in stores.  Peruse clearance sections.  Take advantage of free shipping offers and end-of-season sales.  You will find more sales if you start looking now.  Plus you can spread out your spending over several months.  And you'll save yourself stress of trying to do all your shopping and creating in December.

7.  Balance the gift process and the recipient.
I admit I have gotten so lost in the process of making a gift that I focused more on the craft process than the recipient.  I had to remind myself of the recipient's perspective.  They won't notice if my version doesn't look like the original pattern.  They don't care which method I use to sew in a zipper.  They won't even see that crooked seam or pay attention to each imperfection.  Remind yourself of why you love the recipient, and focus on making a gift that will let them know that you love and appreciate them.  Let them know that you happily put time, energy, and focus into their gift but don't insist that they acknowledge your craftsmanship or just how hard you worked.

8.  Fight perfectionism.
It's no secret that I battle this one.  It's closely related to #6 above.  I often get paralyzed because I can't find the "perfect" gift to make someone.  I want something new that no one has ever received before, something that uses some supplies I have on hand, and something that the recipient will keep and use forever.  That just doesn't happen.  So then I relax some of my expectations.

Keep in mind that this is not the only time you will be giving gifts.  You can't give the favorite gift every single year to every single person.  Exchanging gifts at Christmas is not a competition.  It's about letting people know, in a tangible way, that they are loved.  Keep your focus right, and the people on your list will get the message.          

Have I convinced you that you can save money and give incredibly meaningful gifts to your loved ones this year?


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Homemade Marshmallow S'mores Treats

Several years ago, I decided I wanted a new baking challenge.  During my Food Network obsession, I saw Alton Brown make homemade marshmallows, and I knew I had to try it for myself.

Once I mastered the homemade marshmallows, I tried dressing them up.  I made strawberry flavored mallows and half-dipped some in chocolate.  I made mint flavored mallows and chocolate-flavored mallows.  I made Easter shaped mallows and dipped the edges in colorful sugar.  I covered a pan of mallows with caramel, chocolate, and peanuts.  I took my mallow creations to family get-togethers to get feedback.

The most popular mallow creation was definitely my s'mores treats.  These have become my yearly contribution to my family's Christmas Eve gathering.

My oldest nephew recently turned 13 (yikes!).  When I asked him what he wanted for his birthday, he said, "your famous marshmallow, graham cracker, chocolatey thingies."

So I was happy to pull out my Christmas recipe in the middle of summer in order to make my nephew happy.

I took pictures of the whole process so you can see how I make them.  I use this recipe for homemade marshmallows.  I make them in a 9x13 pan.  Once they're cooled and set (overnight), I cut them into squares (using a pizza cutter) and dip them into melted semi-sweet chocolate (melted in the microwave).  Then I coat them in graham cracker crumbs (I just crush them in a gallon size bag using a rolling pin).  Then I let them set (for a few hours).

So, here's what it looks like:

Any questions?


Thursday, August 23, 2012

First Day of First Grade

Well, today is Nolan's first day of first grade.

I put on my brave mom face for him.  Don't tell him, but I actually hate leaving him at school all day in the care of a stranger.  I gave him lots of encouragement and told him how great first grade will be.  I reminded him of all the things he knows this year that he didn't know last year.  I lied and told him I'm excited for his school year.

Nolan was amazing this morning.  He told me he was nervous, and I could clearly tell that he was.  He said his stomach was upset and I had to answer honestly, "Yeah, my stomach gets upset whenever I'm nervous too."

Everyone got ready, and I took some pictures of Nolan before we left.

Last year I made Nolan a shirt for his first day of school.  This year I didn't think about it because we were on vacation (and I was in denial that he had to start a new school year).  I mentally berated myself for not meeting my own expectations as a mom.  Then I argued reasoned with myself that Nolan would rather wear his Marvel super heroes shirt than a homemade shirt.  I think.

He wore his Avengers shirt.  And used his Avengers back pack from last year.

And he got a new Avengers lunch box for this year.

We also bought him an Avengers pencil pouch and Avengers stickers for his morning sticker chart.  So I'm thinking he's okay with the shirt.

He was also super excited to wear the new shoes that we bought yesterday.

As we were walking to the school, Griffin got very excited remembering how last year I used to let him run ahead of me as long as he stopped at certain landmarks (this pole was one).

I wanted to take a picture of Nolan in front of the school, but there were so many people going in and coming out.  I managed to snap a few, and Nora and Griffin quickly joined Nolan.

And finally, I snuck one quick (terrible lighting) picture of Nolan as he walked into his classroom.  I was kneeling from hugging him, and I was putting all my energy into not crying.

Nolan didn't cry at all.  And he didn't cling to me and refuse to walk in the room like last year.  I was so very proud of him for being so brave.

I was nervous but pushing through it and keeping my emotions perfectly in check...until another mom made a rude comment to me.  Simply because I was walking in a door through which she was walking out.  Note to all other mothers:  not only should we be nice to each other on a daily basis and not get upset by silly things like a one-second traffic jam, but we should be especially kind and gracious to each other on the first day of school.  Emotions are a little more sensitive for some of us on that day.

After Nolan walked into his classroom, I turned to walk back up the hallway with my two little ones.  Nora paused before she started walking and said, "I don't want to miss Nolan."  Oh, my dear, neither do I!

I am anxiously waiting to go pick Nolan up after school so I can hear his report of how it went.

Having a child in school requires a lot of faith.  I have to trust God to take care of Nolan in the places where I can't be.  I trust that God placed Nolan in this class with this teacher and these classmates.  I trust that God will comfort him when he is sad.  I trust God to keep him company when he is lonely.  My only alternative is to never let him leave my side so I can always take care of him.  And I'm told that's not conducive to him growing up and getting married and giving me grandbabies.

I'm not 100% sold, but for now I'll stick with letting him go to first grade.


UPDATE:  Nolan had a great day!  He didn't cry at all and said, "I didn't even feel like crying one time."  This is huge.  Last year it took us two months to get to this point.  This year he had a fantastic first day.  He told me he really likes his teacher and he already made lots of friends.  Seriously.  Thank you, God, for answering all my prayers for my precious son today!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Last Day of Summer

This, my friends, is the picture of our summer:

Only when I look at it, I see it more like this:

And I hear the song "Stand by Me" in my head.

Today is our last official day of summer.  School starts tomorrow.

This summer has been a lot of things for us.  We did a trillion different activities designed to be educational, inspire creativity, and push us to try new things.  This summer was the most intentional I've ever been with my children.  We had our first truly successful family vacation.  And we spent our Fridays with my niece Layla and nephew Gracen. 

Last Friday was our last official Cousins Day since the kids will be in school this Friday.  I put a lot of pressure on myself to make that last Friday something super special.  Then I caved under the pressure and just let it be a fun, casual day.  We actually ended up going to a new park (which all five kids thoroughly enjoyed) and then driving to all the kids' schools to see the posted class lists (to find out their teachers).  The day was wonderful, and I let go of the desire to exceed everyone's expectations all in one day.

Today, I took my kids shopping for new school shoes, or "everyday shoes" as they call them.  After we were done shopping, we decided to kidnap Gracen and Layla for one last bonus session of cousin time.

We went to our original favorite park.  The weather was gorgeous.  The kids had a wonderful time.  It was what we all needed to seal our summer and prepare for the new chapter that begins tomorrow.

I tried to snap a few pictures on my phone while we were at the park, but the kids were constantly on the move, and I focused more on soaking up the beauty of their childhood.

I helped Nora climb across "the discs" (I have no way of explaining to you what these things look like in real life).

There are three of these poles-with-discs-to-stand-on in a row.  You have to cross them to get from one platform to the higher platform with the big swirly slide.  This apparatus is a milestone for my children.  Each boy has worked through the stages.  First, they're terrified and shaky and insist that I hold onto them as they climb across.  Then, they need me to just pull the next one closer to them and be there in case they need me.  Finally, one brave day, they work up the nerve and cross the discs on their own.

Today was the first time that Nora attempted the discs.  She was in Stage 1.  I betcha she gets to Stage 3 in no time.  But I'm glad that somebody still needs me to spot them.

Griffin, Nora, and Layla spun on the merry-go-round (so did a poor toddler girl whose mom was on her phone the entire time and wouldn't have noticed if her daughter left the park).

The kids all took turns on the swings.

The kids walked around the perimeter of the playground.

Nolan pulled on a weed, and we discovered that it had long roots!

And, the highlight of the day...we found a big disgusting/gross/creepy/cool bug!

I could NOT get my phone camera to focus on the bug.  Where's manual focus when you need it?  Anyway, this was the best I got:

The kids were obsessed, particularly Griffin.  It was kinda cool...from a distance. :)

This was an amazing summer for us.  I don't want it to end, but that's not up to me.  This was an important summer for my kids to spend time with their older cousins.  It was a summer of firsts and lasts.  This is the first summer that my kids are old enough to do a lot of activities (and enjoy them), and it's possibly the last summer that my 13-year-old nephew will think it's fun to hang out with the younger kids.  

Summer and childhood.  What an amazing combination.  Turns out that I enjoyed it every bit as much as they did.  Thank you, God, for the last three months of my life and for what you made of them.

I am trying to step into tomorrow with a positive attitude.  I hold reserved optimism for the new school year.  I am determined to make the most of this chapter as well.  And, hey--it's only nine more months until next summer.