Feb 28, 2011

Not just another house.

We have been house hunting for a while now. And back in late December, I was asking myself if I would know which house was THE house.

I now know the answer to that question: when another offer beats out yours, and your reaction isn't merely disappointment or frustration, but actual grief...you know it was the house. However, the house we fell for and lost out on in a span of 24 hours was not meant to be our house, and so life - and the house search - goes on.

And the process of losing out on a house we really wanted gave us an opportunity to identify some important truths about house hunting:

1. It takes two to say yes, but only one to say no.
2. Choosing a house is done with both the head and the heart.
3. God ALWAYS knows what is best for us, and occasionally, "not now" or "not this one" is what is best.

We also learned we approach our buying decision in two vastly different ways:
  • Mr. Official will not be rushed or pressured into making an offer that doesn't make financial sense to him, even if that means we will not get a house we really want; and
  • I refuse to even consider buying a house that doesn't tug at my heartstrings, even if that means my heart will get bruised a few times along the way.
Fortunately, these positions are not mutually exclusive. But when you combine them, the universe of potential houses becomes very small and our focus must be laser-sharp. And apparently there are a few other house hunters out there with similar mindsets, so I am braced for the unhappy possibility that we might run into a few more near-misses before we snag a house that will be THE house for us.

The night before we put in the bid that would ultimately lose out to another buyer, we ate at our favorite Asian eatery.

Mr. Official's fortune cookie read, "Persistence and endurance will be rewarded."

Mine read, "The one you love is closer than you think."

Hmmm.  Fortunate cookies are always right, right?

Happy hunting,

Feb 25, 2011

Binge and purge: Can it ever be a good thing?

By no means is this post intended to make light of a tragic and serious medical condition.  Those who binge and purge to control their weight need our compassion and our encouragement to get help and get healthy.

But this isn't about that.  It's about a shopping binge.  And a closet purge.  (Or, as the Thrifty Decor Chick calls it, a "decrapification.")

First the binge.
I recently used my lunch hour to look for a new dress for a special dinner.  Tried on a few at one of my favorite chain boutiques,  but--of course--the ones I liked had price tags with numbers that hovered just under two Benjamins apiece.   Yes, I know that's nowhere near designer dress prices, but I'm an ordinary girl living in an ordinary world.  And speaking for ordinary girls everywhere, it makes us squirmy to pay full price for a dress we're going to wear for a season or two.    So I hit a nearby department store and hit the motherlode:  scads of winter and spring dresses in my size that I liked, all marked down or on sale.  Tried on a dozen or two, sent "how do I look?" cell phone pics to swimmer girl and with her help, selected four finalists.
Not naming any names, but....

The sum total for the quartet was about the price of one dress at the other place, which I still heart.  Just not at full price.

 So I felt pretty thrifty, although I guess I could have bought just one dress.  However, in my defense, experience has taught me when I find a dress (or dresses) I like at a price I like, buy it (or them.  Because it could be a long dry spell before that happens again.

Then the purge.
Our walk-in closet is in the space our former "master" bathroom occupied.  It is 40 inches deep and  80 inches long.  (When we added on a new bath, we made the new shower nearly as large as the entire old bathroom.)  Moving the closet to this space, as diminutive as it is by today's closet standards, freed up another 2 or 3 feet in the bedroom, and made the former wall of closet doors a usable wall.

However, as much as I love the new closet, its size regulates how much clothing we can hang (and therefore, hang onto.)  I'm just not a closet stuffer, so Mr. Official and I each have 80 nice wood hangers, and a self-imposed rule: if you don't have any extra hangers when a new item comes home, then something has to go to charity.  Simple as that.  That's where the purge came in.  The four new dresses meant four somethings had to go.  I took the opportunity to give away some less-favorite dresses and blouses before they become completely out-of-fashion (another rule of mine - why wait to give it away until no one else would be caught dead in it?)  Then I keep the purge going and went through all my clothes - sweaters, socks, t-shirts, nightgowns, everything.  Including several pairs of shoes that I had to admit I just don't wear any more.  Basically anything that was too big, or too tight, or pinches or binds, or otherwise makes me regret wearing.  They were all targeted for elimination.

When I was done, four bags were filled with items to donate, and one bag was filled with tired, grungy, unmatched, torn and otherwise unwearable items.  Off to the trash with it, because I don't need any more rags. My efforts motivated Mr. Official, and he cleared out three bags of clothing to donate, too. (Which is good, because sometimes he sneaks his dry cleaning hangers into his side of the closet, so he won't have to get rid of anything. Yes, that's called cheating.)

So I guess the conclusion is that an occasional binge and purge can be a good thing.  As long as we're talking about keeping our wardrobes updated and passing along the things we no longer need or use.  Speaking of which, I think I hear the linen closet calling for some purging, too...

Happy decluttering!

Feb 23, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Peanut Butter Pie

Today is National Banana Bread Day.  Seriously.  And I would have shared my favorite banana bread recipe, except I already did back in September.  I do plan to bake some banana bread and share the love.  I hope you do, too.

But for today's recipe, I delved back in my mind to a recipe given to me back in the late 1980s by my mother-in-law.  She has a number of nifty culinary tricks and recipes up her sleeve and this not-too-sweet pie was one of her "sleeper" recipes I'm glad she shared with me. You can embellish it with any (or all!) of the options listed below.  But  be sure to try it in its pure, pristine form at least once before you tweak it. You might just get hooked on it as-is.

Memaw Katie's Peanut Butter Pie

1 piecrust (homemade, frozen, or - my favorite - refrigerated)
1 box regular vanilla pudding mix (not instant)

2 eggs
2 cups milk
1/2 cup peanut butter (creamy or crunchy)
1 teaspoon vanilla
whipped topping (I usually use a small tub of Cool-whip but homemade would be excellent.)

Place piecrust in 9" pie plate; pinch edge.  Use a fork to pierce crust in several areas and prevent bubbling.  Bake according to recipe or package directions, until lightly golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool while making the filling.

Mix together vanilla pudding mix and milk in heavy saucepan.  Cook over medium heat until thickened.  Remove from heat and add eggs; stir well to ensure they are cooked through, begin careful to not curdle them.  Add peanut butter and vanilla; stir well to blend.  Pour into prepared pie shell and cool completely.  If not serving immediately, place in refrigerator until ready to serve.  Just before serving, top with whipped topping and cut into pieces.

Option #1: Add 1/2 cup peanut butter or butterscotch or milk chocolate chips to the mixture after stirring through the peanut butter, or sprinkle in pie crust and pour filling over.

Option #2: Use a chocolate graham cracker crust for a chocolate-peanut butter flavor combination.

Option #3:  Spread chocolate syrup or butterscotch syrup on the bottom of the crust, and drizzle more on the top of the whipped topping.

Refrigerate any leftovers immediately.

Happy baking!

Feb 22, 2011

Teaching an old hutch some new tricks

Say "china hutch" to any woman under the age of 40 or 50, and you'll likely get a suppressed yawn. Or a look of disdain. Yes, of course there are women of my generation and younger who proudly display their wedding china in a china hutch, and it probably matches their formal dining table and chairs.

But some brides don't place a lot of stock in traditional wedding china, and therefore don't need to worry about picking out a big new formal hutch to put those dishes in. I was one of those brides.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped renting apartments and our homes started coming with a formal dining room. These rooms seem to cry out for a few pieces of furniture besides just the table and chairs. But my budget and tastes didn't run to buying a massive formal hutch. What's a non-traditional girl to do when faced with a decidedly traditional room to furnish? Sometimes, serendipity just strikes.

A nicely proportioned Edwardian period display case was sitting on the side of an Oklahoma road one day about a decade ago. My head instinctively jerked around as I zipped past, so I slammed on the brakes, turned around, looked it over...and bought it. Then I rushed home, grabbed our trusty big red truck and went back to pick up my find and haul it home.

Here's the thing with vintage and antique pieces, especially those you might find sitting on the side of the road: they aren't always in pristine condition and they don't necessarily hold the oversize platters that are now sold as "dinner plates." This can be both good and bad. It means you can buy vintage china and it will fit nicely in a piece of the same era. And being in less-than-perfect condition means you can do things like drill holes in the interior, something you wouldn't do with a brand-new piece. And that's just what I did--six holes to be precise.

I pre-drilled and mounted three brackets in the upper back piece of the cabinet. Why? To provide a way of suspending my teacups. A thin dark cafe rod (under $3) rests on the brackets and holds decorative "S" hooks. Depending on the number of cups I want to display, I can slide them around and adjust the spacing, turn them to face the front, or to either side. It's a great way to show off the cups and it's more flexible than installing hooks along the back. It's also a lot safer than stacking the cups in topsy-turvy fashion on a shelf.

An alternative to cup hooks
wire "s" hooks
Inexpensive cafe rod mounted inside

wood dowel attached to suction cups
The second challenge was the lack of plate rails or grooves in the glass shelves. This one required a little more creativity, but I came up with a way to accomplish this without compromising the cabinet's interior with any other holes or cuts. Two thin wood dowels (36 inches long, under $1 each mounted on clear suction cups let me create adjustable plate rails on the two glass shelves. To further protect the gold edge on the plates, I cut a 1-inch strip of clear rubbery drawer liner and placed it on the glass just behind the rail. It gives the plate edge a cushioned and non-skid surface to rest on, and it's hardly noticeable.  (Acrylic rods are also available but more expensive - roughly $6 each plus shipping, unless you can find them locally in a craft/hobby store.  I couldn't.)

The third challenge was to make my pieces visible, and the best way to do that was to lighten the color on the back wall of the cabinet. When I bought this piece, it had some very dated wallpaper pasted on the back wall. The paper was in poor condition, so the first thing I did was spend an evening gently removing it. I've loved the glow of the mahogany interior, but it is dark and pieces tend to recede instead of stand out against it. I discovered that applying printed wallpaper or fabric on the back of these cabinets is a pretty standard practice, for that very reason.

I really didn't want to commit to wallpaper (neither to buying an entire roll, nor the idea of having to strip it off later) so I found a fabric I really like ($12/yard). It's meant to look like Shakespeare's handwriting and contains the names of flowers he mentioned in his sonnets and plays. Instead of just tacking it to the back wall with adhesive (I considered it), I purchased a foam 36" x 48" science fair display board (under $10) and cut it to precisely fit the back of the cabinet. Then I simply wrapped the fabric around the cardboard. After making sure it was as straight, I stretched it taut and glued it down. Now I can slide this piece in and out, replacing the fabric as often as I want to. (Fortunately, the glass shelves weren't quite as deep as the space, so the 1/4-inch or so of the fabric-covered foam board actually helps fill a void and provides a little cushioning for the dishes.)

And there you have it: three easy and cheap ideas to retrofit a china hutch so it works the way you want it to.  It took this hutch from this:

the hutch before I began

to that:
the hutch after some work

Well, the violet dishes helped, too.  But that's another story that started here and continued over here.

Happy decorating!

Feb 21, 2011

The Countdown to Carolina

Looking at the calendar, there's just under a month before spring break.  After this year's winter weather, it absolutely cannot. come. soon. enough.  Breaking our trend of visiting somewhere new each year, we've planned a return to Murrells Inlet, South Carolina with swimmer girl and one of her friends I refer to as my "other daughter." Last year's weather was a little cool, but we had an awesome time eating our weight in seafood, drinking in the sights of Charleston, shopping in Myrtle Beach and kicking around the beautiful beaches and marshes in the area.

Since my heart goes pitter-pat every time I think of the upcoming trip, I'm using the anticipation as a motivator to pick up the exercise pace and drop a few pounds so I can indulge in the regional food without guilt.  It seems my calf strain has finally fully healed, so I'm committed to hitting the treadmill three days a week, in addition to my Body Pump, yoga and pilates classes.  I figure logging several miles each week, along with cutting out a lot of empty calories (paring down the pantry is also whittling down our usual snack food reserves) should help me slough off the pounds that sneaked up on me during the holidays.  And I'm challenging myself to doing a 15-minute "hotspot pickup" every time the urge to munch hits.

So we'll see if my plan works.  If it does, the house and I should both be in much better shape by the time we leave.  And to all my local friends:  feel free to hold me accountable.  If you see me skulking around the post-Valentine chocolates or noshing on unhealthy foods, go ahead, give me a nudge.  I'll love ya for it.

Happy Monday!

Feb 16, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Easy Lasagna

Once upon a time, I faithfully followed the directions on the lasanga noodle package, cooking the noodles and then fishing the slippery things out of scalding hot water, rinsing them to keep them from sticking together in one pasty blob.  

And then I discovered a secret:  you don't need to do that.  And you don't have to buy the "ready-to-use" noodles, either.  Really.  

This recipe is flexible - you can make it up ahead of time and freeze or refrigerate it until time to bake.  (Thaw overnight in the refrigerator if frozen - it will cook much more evenly.)  It can also be thrown together and baked in about 45 minutes.

Easy Lasagna

1/2 box lasagna noodles
1 pound ground beef
1 can tomato paste
1 can pureed or finely diced tomatoes
1 1/2 cups water
1 package spaghetti sauce seasoning
1 16-ounce carton cottage or ricotta cheese
1 egg
3-4 cups mozzarella cheese, grated
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Brown ground beef; drain.  Add tomato paste, tomatoes, water and seasoning mix and mix thoroughly.  (You can also substitute 1 large jar marinara or regular spaghetti sauce if you prefer; reduce water to 1/2 to 3/4 cup .)  Over medium heat bring to boil, let simmer for 5-10 minutes.  Remove from heat.  The sauce should be fairly runny - if it's thickened too much add a little more water.  (The excess water will be absorbed by the noodles while baking.)

Mix together cottage or ricotta cheese and egg.

In 9x15 glass pan, place a few spoonfuls of sauce, just enough to coat the bottom.  Place one layer of noodles, 1/3 of the sauce.  Dot with half the egg/cheese mixture, sprinkle with 1/3 of the mozzarella cheese.  Repeat with noodles, 1/3 of the sauce, the remainder of the egg/cheese mixture and 1/3 of the mozzarella cheese. 

For the final layer, place noodles, remaining sauce and mozzarella cheese, then sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.  Cover with foil and bake at 375 for 40 minutes. Remove foil, test for doneness by inserting a knife near the middle of the dish; it should slide in easily.  Remove foil for the last five minutes of baking to get the cheese lightly browned on top.  Serves 6-8.

This technique creates a firm lasagna that cuts and serves beautifully.  And no more blistered fingers trying to corral the slippery noodles!

Happy cooking! 

Feb 14, 2011

I'll be yours. Will you be mine?

To my husband...

Will you be my valentine again this year?
Please say yes.

I can't imagine a better husband, friend and father to our children.

Through thick and thin, you've steered our family's course and kept your eyes on what's most important.

We share a quirky sense of humor and you can make me laugh with a single word from an old joke.

When you became a father, you sought God and grew into the spiritual head of our family.

You've been our protector and provider, keeping us safe, comfortable and well-supplied with every need and most of our wants.

You play Santa better than anybody I know.

You are a strong and wonderful father, while showing our children how to have fun being their dad.

You compliment my cooking and cleaning efforts, and never complain when I am domestically challenged.  Not even when the laundry fairy goes AWOL.

You somehow manage to always have my back while giving me space to grow and be my own person.
I feel cherished and special and loved by you every day of the year.

It's too bad our society thinks the flowers and chocolates are meant for girls, because guys like you should be spoiled rotten on holidays like this.  I am thrilled to be your valentine every year.

Happy valentine's day!

Feb 11, 2011

The China Hutch: Before and....In Progress

I love alliterations.  I almost titled this "Creating Order from Collecting Chaos" but since order has not been fully achieved, I thought better of it.

As a dilettante I dabble in this 'n that, flitting from one flight of fancy to the next.  I tend to leave a hodgepodge of not-quite-finished projects and endeavors in my wake.  There are precious few pursuits I have stuck with for very long, and I have tubs of half-finished projects in the attic to prove it.  One success is my beloved vintage Fiestaware collection, which I occasionally get a wild hair to add to.  But I have taken a serious, deliberate approach to my Fiesta stalking, homing in on pieces and colors I really REALLY love.  (Fortunately there are a lot of pieces I really REALLY love...)

Another collection I started a good while back is antique and vintage china teacups.  Like my Fiestaware, the impetus for my collection came from receiving a few pieces treasured by an elderly relative.  Unlike my Fiestware, this collection has grown haphazardly.  Much like Harriet Beecher Stowe's character, Topsy, "it just growed."  The only hint of a theme among my collection can be found in a few teacups and other pieces with violets, a longtime favorite and not coincidentally, my birth month flower.  The rest are antique and junk store finds that struck my fancy and were in my price range (basically no more than $10 for a teacup and saucer.)  Here they are:

Sorry about the glare, but it wasn't much to look at anyway!
As you can see, mismatched doesn't begin to describe this collection.  An Edwardian period display cabinet houses my menagerie.  Since the teacups only filled one shelf, I used the second shelf for knick-knacks.  But truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of knick-knacks and the arrangement wasn't particularly thoughtful or artful.  The bottom is filled with miniature greenhouses which I've been too lazy to box up each year after Christmas...and for a few years I've been too lazy to even get out and display.  Hmmm.

My lack of focus led to self-doubt:  what if I became that old lady with a monstrous collection of dusty bric-a-brac and hideous what-nots?  Self-doubt led to a long moratorium on additional acquisitions--probably a good thing.

But in a small dining room, floorspace is too precious to squander on anything that is not useful and/or aesthetically pleasing.  It was time to make this a fun, purposeful collection to be used and enjoyed.  To that end, I stepped back and asked myself what I really liked and wanted to collect, display and use.  The answer was staring me in the face:  violets.  Fortunately for me, there are dozens of china patterns featuring my favorite flowers, and many vintage pieces can be had for a song, letting me mix-and-match them easily.

The first step was tactical:  clear out all the unrelated stuff and give the piece a good oiling.  (And hang the picture and shine that poor silver!) Some of the removed pieces are slated for an upcoming yard sale, others are tucked away for swimmer girl when she has her own residence.  The greenhouses are stowed away in their tub in the attic.

The second step was strategic:  assess the going prices for various pieces, and then slice through the eBay jungle like a bushwhacker, spotting bargains and creating enough variety in patterns, styles and eras to avoid any hint of a fussy set of vintage china. 

After an intense foray into eBay territory, I now have a fun and (relatively) frugal collection of violet-strewn teacups and saucers, dainty plates and serving pieces on their way.  Most of the pieces have arrived; a few are en route.  Yes, the back of the cabinet is currently white - it's temporary. I'm waiting on a piece of buttery fabric to arrive.
Getting closer to the desired effect...
When everything is in place, I'll post some "after" pictures along with a few helpful hints to share, and my suggestions for safely displaying collectibles when you don't have cup hooks or plate rails in place.

And what do I plan to do with them, besides display them?  That's the best part of all: I now have the perfect excuse to host some fun parties for girlfriends young and old.  There are dozens of reasons to have tea party, and now I've got all the necessary accoutrements to pull it off with panache and style.  If a piece gets broken, it won't break up a set or break my heart.  In between celebrations, I can smile every time I catch a glimpse of my new little (?) collection.

Happy collecting,

psst, wanna see what happens next? Check out the work-in-progress and the grand finale.

Feb 9, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Pizza Burgers Our Way

This recipe has been a family favorite for as long as I can remember. That said, the original ingredients list bears little resemblance to pizza or anything Italian, and the hot open-faced sandwiches aren't (as the name may imply), a burger.

But they are delicious, fast and easy, AND they can be frozen and baked later (something my organized mother does when she's cooking for a crowd, while I tend to just whip 'em up on the fly.) I've also altered them slightly over the years, to accommodate my own children's preferences for pepperoni over hamburger. Either way, they are an easy weeknight meal (pair them with a salad and some oven fries or tater tots) or a perfect after school snack for hungry kids.

Pizza Burgers

Mom's Ingredients:
1 pound hamburger
2 cups shredded cheddar
1 can condensed tomato soup
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning (oregano, basil, thyme blend)
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1 package hamburger buns

Daughter's Ingredients:
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound sausage or 4 ounces coarsely chopped pepperoni
1 cup shredded cheddar
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1 can condensed tomato soup
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning (oregano, basil, thyme blend)
1-2 cloves fresh minced garlic
1 small onion, diced fine
1 loaf french bread split horizontally

Directions for both versions:
Brown ground beef (or beef and sausage). If using fresh garlic and onion, saute with meat. Drain well and set aside. In large bowl, combine cheese, tomato soup, and seasonings. Add meat, stir to combine. spread on open buns or bread and bake at 400 for 15 minutes or until topping is bubbling and cheese has melted. (Lining your pan with foil makes cleanup easier.) Serve hot. If using French bread, simply slice with a pizza cutter into 2" wide strips. Serves 6-8.

Note:  the filling can be mixed up and refrigerated or frozen (thaw before using.) If your family likes Bagel Bites, pick up some mini bagels in your bakery and try topping them with either of these fillings; reduce baking time slightly. No matter how you make or use this recipe, it is a guaranteed hit with your kids (and probably any kids-at-heart, too.)

Happy cooking!

Feb 7, 2011

Super Sunday

For many years, Super Bowl Sunday was a red letter day on my calendar because it signaled the end of another football season.  I love Mr. Official and he loves football, but it took me a while to share his love of the game, especially when the season starts in April with spring scrimmages and goes to February.

Some years we've gone to Super Bowl parties where I've helped wrangle food and chatted throughout the game, pausing our girl talk just long enough to watch the commercials.  This year was a quiet year at home; swimmer girl went to a friend's house and Mr. Official was at my mother-in-law's for the first half of the game.  What's a dilettante to do when she doesn't have a buffet of food to tend to?

After grabbing a quick late afternoon nap, I made a date with my desk and the laundry room.  As the stupor of my eBay spree wears off, I realize I haven't seen my desk blotter since I put it on the desk on January 1.  (So much for my clean desk resolution, huh?)  And that laundry fairy is AWOL again.  So I washed and tidied in between commercials, and even got rid of some magazines and old catalogs that were gathering dust in my bookshelves.

And now the 2010 football season is officially over, I think I'm actually looking forward to the 2011 season.  May our Vols pick up the pieces and re-establish themselves as an SEC powerhouse.  May the Titans find a new head coach as good as Jeff Fisher, and a new quarterback that's better than Vince Young. (First one is a tall order, second one should be pretty easy.)

And may my desk and laundry room keep themselves a little tidier, at least for a while.

Happy Sunday

Feb 4, 2011

It's raining violets...

I've been on an eBay binge, and I've got a whopping hangover to prove it. Overwhelming evidence is mounting daily in the form of boxes delivered to my door, each one filled with pretty pieces of violet-strewn china. Plates, cups, saucers, bowls, serving pieces...oh my. 

I realized I haven't even updated my weekly menu in two weeks.  (I have been cooking, though. And baking bread.)  Not so much on the cleaning, though. Sorry Flylady.  So how does this wanton behavior square with my resolution to make this a frugal February? Well....it doesn't.  (Hey, at least I'm honest with myself.)

But in my defense:

1. It was a dirt cheap fling. Apparently no one else is thinking violets this time of year. (HELLO!!! Violets are the official flower of February, AND it's almost Valentine's Day!?!?!)  My nose for bargains rooted out pieces so cheap, the shipping was often more than the pieces themselves. In fact, most of my purchases have averaged about a buck apiece. For vintage china in GREAT condition. Don't everybody rush to eBay all at once...I've still got a few pieces I'm eyeballing and I'd like to snatch them up without any competition, thank-you-very-much.

2.  It was in lieu of any birthday gifts.  (Last year's Dutch oven and tickets to see Josh Turner at the Grand Ol' Opry were wonderful surprises but this year I advised Mr. Official that I'd save him the trouble of figuring out what to buy me.)

Once everything arrives, I'll have enough pieces to throw a proper (if modern) tea party for a dozen or two friends. And I took a neglected area of our home and made it into something useful and joyful to behold. Stay tuned for upcoming posts. One will have the before-and-after shots, and another will feature some nifty, thrifty ways to make a china hutch display pop and sizzle.  (Because "staid" and "traditional" just aren't in my repertoire.)

Now where's the Tylenol?

Happy  Friday!

Feb 2, 2011

Recipe of the Week: My Favorite Chocolate Cake

It's my birthday, so I'm not making this cake today. (I think there's some law about making your own birthday cake.) But it is my all-time favorite chocolate layer cake recipe. The fine folks at Hershey's know chocolate and this recipe demonstrates that perfectly. Do we need an excuse to bake a cake? If you do, and you want to impress a birthday boy or girl, or dinner guests, give this recipe a try.

Hershey's Perfectly Chocolate Cake

2 cups sugar
3/4 cup Hershey's cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup boiling water
1 3/4 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla

Heat oven to 350. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans.

Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer for two minutes. Stir in boiling water; batter will be thin. Pour batter into prepared pans.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool ten minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost with your choice of frosting (cream cheese, chocolate buttercream, seven-minute or coconut pecan frostings are all good pairings.)

Happy baking,

Feb 1, 2011

Frugal February

I've seen a few indications that other people celebrate frugality and simplicity in February.  But even if it's not a recognized observance, I'm going to make it my area of focus and resolve for the month.  I don't think we'll make the leap into extreme frugality (not even for a month), but there are some things that I can do to help us live a little simpler and cheaper, while still living well:

Making my own bread and rolls.  I love the convenience of scooping up bakery artisan breads and sandwich rolls, but wowsers, they are pricey.  I can make really good rolls and bread myself, and I have the tools and ingredients to do it. It's just a matter of planning ahead to allow enough time for bread making.

Using up the stuff in the pantry and freezer.  I realized when I blogged about my overstuffed pantry that I have gotten more than a little sloppy in my shopping habits, mainly because I have extra room.  I doubt we'll find ourselves with bare shelves on February 28,  but I'm going to challenge myself to build our weekly menus around the items on hand before buying any other staples.

Taking stock of cleaning supplies.  Like the pantry situation, my cleaning supply cabinet is overstocked, and I obviously have more stuff than I should. So this month will be used to figure out what's in there, use them for the purposes I bought them for, and be more judicious before rushing out to buy more.

Getting more out of what we have:
  1. Using up the gift cards.  I carry around several hundred dollars in gift cards, and typically forget I have them.  I've taken an inventory and will start using them when I'm patronizing the stores and restaurants I have cards for.
  2. Using those smart cards and discount coupon books.  No, I'm not advocating more spending, but when we do head out to eat or be merry, I will do my best to look for a discount we can use.
  3. Squeezing all the good out of our YMCA family membership.  It's a monthly obligation of around $100.  Since I started running almost two years ago, we've steadily increased our visits to the point that one of us is there just about every day.  (I work out daily during the week and sometimes on the weekends with Mr. Official and Swimmer Girl, who each sneak in the occasional weeknight visit, too.)  We just need to keep it up, and if/when we aren't using it any longer, cut it off so it doesn't return to being a waste of money.
  4. Making my magazines work a little harder.  I am embarrassed to admit to how many periodicals we subscribe to.  But worse than that are the magazines that sit un-read.  Starting this month, I will make it a point to make a recipe, cut and use the coupons, and/or use tips or advice from every one of them that comes in the mail.  And if I find some of them aren't delivering anything useful, they will not be renewed, no matter how good of a renewal deal they dangle in front of me.
Happy frugality!