Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lemon Squares, or Cooking in Someone Else's Kitchen, Part II

For my mother-in-law's birthday I whipped up some delicious lemon squares.  I love lemon squares.  I chose them for her birthday dessert because 1) I knew she and my father-in-law love lemon desserts and 2) you could easily freeze a few and save them for later--who eats a whole cake anyway?

I didn't have a recipe off hand, so I trusted the-always-reliable Martha Stewart to put me on the path to lemon squares.  (I won't lie; I love Martha--in fact, I named my (pastel) bicycle after her.)  Check out her website for the recipe.

Unlike my experience baking my mother's birthday cake, my lemon square adventure did not involve any kitchen equipment drama. I was, again, cooking in someone else's kitchen.  At this point, all of our stuff was still in storage, and my grandmother's kitchen is still full of essentials.  The tricky part was remembering where she kept everything.

I don't have a food processor (it broke), so to make the crust, I sliced cold butter, added it to the dry ingredients, and used my fingers to rub in the butter.  It's actually kind of fun!

The only problem I encountered while cooking in someone else's kitchen was the oven.  I don't think it was as hot as it claimed to be (its an old oven).  Every oven is different, and the great part of cooking in your own kitchen is you know its quirks.  For example, my oven in Delaware cooked hotter on one side than the other, so I had to be sure to turn the pan halfway through.

After cooking the squares for the allotted period of time, they weren't looking set--in fact, the consistency was still liquid. Using my kitchen smarts, I continued baking until it was set all the way through.  I'll admit, I was pretty nervous that I'd screw it all up and have no dessert to bring to the in-laws.

Yet, my smarts proved true and the lemon squares finally set and came out nice!  They could have cooked a little more (the middle ones were still pretty soft) but I didn't want to risk it--being that I had never made them before and didn't know what they were supposed to look like.

I couldn't find a sifter, so I just sprinkled the powdered sugar on by hand--which isn't as pretty.  But, equally delicious.

One of my recommendations regarding lemon-flavored desserts: ALWAYS use fresh lemon juice.  It makes such a difference!

And, a tip regarding ovens: Get an oven thermometer.  Mine is broken so I have to get a new one.  They are pretty cheap and changed my baking life!  Its amazing how wrong your oven can be! but by trusting your oven thermometer, you know exactly how hot your oven is and when its preheated.  Go buy one!

Any other funny oven experiences?

Sorry for the Hiatus! Vacation is Over!

Sorry for the hiatus!  We've returned from our San Francisco vacation and are settling into our new abode.

A lot has been happening since my husband got a job, so I've been a bit distracted from writing.  We finally moved all of our stuff into our new place, which means there is a pile of boxes in my dining room.  While I unpack our stuff, I'm going to start trying to box up some of my grandma's stuff for her (its her old house).  It'll be a slow, long road, but we'll get there!

The exciting news is that we are going to rent-to-own the house.  Woohoo!  We were planning on buying a house in the next couple of years, and this house fell into our laps--and I love it!  Needless to say, my mind has been in over drive thinking about how I can decorate and planning all kinds of diy projects!  Let me tell you, when God provides, He provides!

And, I've got a job interview on Thursday.  I feel good about it, too!

Back to the writing! And, I have a slew of new post ideas--enough to keep me going for a while! Get ready!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Living Simply: Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?

My husband and I are renting my grandparent’s old house.  They built a new one and are trying to sell the old one.  They don’t want to leave the house vacant, so here we are.  When God dropped a job in my husband’s lap, we needed a place to stay and viola! a house fell into our laps too. 
So, my grandparents still have a lot of stuff in the house that they need to go through--deciding what to keep and what to toss.  I plan on boxing up a lot of things for them (and doing some sprucing up to get it ready to sell!), and I’ve been thinking a lot about how much stuff the average person accumulates.  
Over forty years. Thats how long my grandparents were in this house. Thats a long time--and a long time to fill it up with stuff.  Of course, its gonna take a while to sift through forty years worth of living.  
When the hubs and I moved from Philly to Louisiana, we got rid of a lot of stuff (and we had skimmed down during the move before that), so I like to think we are closer to bare bones.  Then we moved into my grandparent’s house.  I feel like we have close to nothing! (Not really, though.)  There is no way we are going to fill up a 7 room house when we are used to living in a two to three room apartment. 
So why do we have so much stuff?  Society is always convincing us that we need the next new thing, and most of us believe it.  And, really, most of the stuff winds up forgotten in a drawer or closet somewhere.  When you pull everything out, you realize that you have a (rather large) pile of useless stuff. 
Of course, some things are good and nostalgic and worth saving.  I’m talking about junk we save because we think we’ll need it someday and then it just sits there.  
I hope to “clean out” our house every couple of years--getting rid of things I haven’t used or thought about in at least one year.  Then, hopefully, the build-up of stuff won’t be so bad.  Out with the old and in with the new.  (I’ve also thought about doing this with my closet--when I buy something new, I have to give away something old). 
Have you ever been surprised at how much stuff you have?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How a Cheap Piece of Plastic Saved My Car Wash

When we lived in the city we never washed our car.  Never.  But, now we are living in a house with a carport and a hose. Plus, we actually drive our car.

Naturally, I washed my car.  Instead of paying ten bucks or more to go get my car washed, I did the thrifty thing: I did it myself.  I gathered a bucket, some dish soap, and some rags went to the carport and washed away.

My concern with this particular car wash was how to get a splat of yellow paint off of my bumper.  In Philly, the garbage men dropped a can of paint and it splattered all over my back bumper.  It was just interior paint so I knew it would come off. But how would I scrape it off without scratching my paint job?  The rags wouldn't do anything, so I had to think of something.

Pampered Chef Nylon Pan Scrapers. A-mazing! I have been a long-time fan of these nifty little squares, and today they proved even more how valuable these guys are.

Not only did the pan scraper get the paint off, it was also helpful in getting off other junk that the rag wouldn't.  One side of my car looked like I ran over a can of soda--there were little brownish-pink spots everywhere, and the rag wasn't cutting it.  But, the pan scraper did the job easily and much faster.

I encourage everyone to save some money by 1) washing their own car with some soap and water and 2) getting out your pan scraper to help!  No need for fancy car wash sponges and soaps! And, you can get a healthy dose of Vitamin D.

If you do not have a pan scraper, I suggest you part with $3 and get one!

Any other car-washing tips?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

O My, Lord! How God (Suddenly) Provides

Remember when I posted What I'm Learning from God Lately: Trust about how we moved home and are looking for jobs?  Well, let me tell you, God always provides! You think trusting in him would be easier!

In about two days, our life changed drastically!

A week or so ago my husband snagged a job at a local restaurant.  All was set for us to stay with my mom for a couple of months while we saved up some monies.  Now, I am the kind of person who is always looking ahead, and for a little while I was ready to have a job and be where I wanted to be.  I prayed a lot about being patient and being content where I was.  And, finally I was okay with taking our time finding "real" jobs and hanging out with Mom.

It seems that right when I decided to be content, God dropped a job in the hub's lap.  He used to be a teacher, but had decided that he didn't want to teach anymore.  A friend texted him asking if he wanted to teach at our alma mater (and where he taught his first year) because they were desperate for a math teacher.  Usually he says no to any thought of teaching. However, this time his reaction was different.  He was strangely interested.  So, we thought and prayed.  He decided to call the principal.  He left two messages and never heard back.

That day he was scheduled to start training at the restaurant.  He hesitantly went it, and while he was at work the principal called and scheduled an interview with him for the next day.  After working his shift at the restaurant, he decided he did miss teaching after all.

So, he went in for the interview, got the job, and school started the next day.  He found out about the job, applied, got hired, and started all within three days! Now, he is at a job he loves (and at a school he loves), and he never thought he would teach again!

To top it all off, we even found a house to live in! We are renting my grandmother's old house for a nice low price. Now we can save up and pay off all our debt!

God always, always provides! Often in ways you didn't think were possible.

In what ways has God surprised you?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ode to the KitchenAid Stand Mixer: Baking a Cake without You is Not the Same

I love my red KitchenAid stand mixer.  It was probably my favorite wedding gift (thanks Fellners!).

For my mom's birthday I decided to bake her a cake (as a surprise).  Naturally, I browsed the cake recipes over at Smitten Kitchen, one of my favorite cooking blogs.  My mom's birthday is only a week after mine, and she made me my favorite cake--yellow cake with chocolate icing.  So, I wanted to make something other than chocolate.

Pink Lady Cake. Strawberry cake with cream cheese icing. Yes ma'am. Mom loves strawberries so I thought it would be a success.  The cake turned out awesome (although not as good looking as Deb's from Smitten Kitchen).

The road to the finished product was quite frustrating and hilarious.

I did not make this cake in my kitchen.  We are living with my mom right now, so her kitchen was my workspace.  Not only is it difficult to cook in someone else's kitchen because you don't know where everything is, but also because their equipment is not your equipment.

I found a stand kitchen mixer, combined all the ingredients, and started her up.  It was horrible. Horrible. The cake batter was thick and looked like ice cream--which was apparently too much for this feeble mixer. It started smoking a little, and it smelled like burnt motor.  My mom always has a hand mixer, so I found it and began using it.  Every time I moved it a little, the beaters fell out. I even mixed it with one beater for a while.

I have never before yelled that many profanities while baking.

After struggling with the unstable beaters of the second mixer I realized that they were the wrong ones and searched for another pair--which I found in a different drawer.  Life moved on much easier after that, and I felt stupid.

I baked the cake, let it cool, and assembled it. Much smoother.

I bought some pink icing that comes in the aerosol can (I don't have any piping materials) so I could decorate the cake like the one on Smitten Kitchen--because her's is so adorable! Now, I've baked a lot of cakes, but have piped none of them.  Trying to pipe letters and polka dots on the cake with the aerosol can was so hard. You have to push the nozzle to the side, and after a few minutes my hand was shaking. Needless to say, it looked good, but a bit squiggly.

Mom was pretty surprised!  The cake tasted great--especially the icing! It was rich and sweet, but not too sweet.  I loved the texture.  Thank you Smitten Kitchen!

The moral of the story is that my KitchenAid mixer is amazing, and my cake adventure would have been a lot less exciting if I was using it.

If you don't have one, find one on sale and buy it now. Seriously. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Our First Time Canning: What We Did Right and What We Did Wrong

The other day, my mom and I tried canning for the first time.  We had a lot of fun and can't wait to do it again.  My mom has a modest sized garden that is producing a ton of banana peppers.  So much, that we didn't know what to do with them all.  Then it dawned on us: canning!  We tried our hand at pickling banana peppers.  

After getting together mason jars, canning tongs, some recipes and hints, we had our go at it. 

Our brine recipe:
3 cups white vinegar
3 cups water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp black pepper corns
1 1/2 tsp Ball Pickling seasoning (which has blk pepper, mustard seed, and other spices)

Boil the brine, add it to the jars. Put the lids on the jars (but not too tight). Place the jars in boiling water for ten minutes.  Then, let cool and don't mess with the lids for 12 hours. 

We made about 10 jars. 

After sterilizing our jars, we brought the brine to a boil.

As for the veggies, we chopped the banana peppers, and added a little bit of carrots, onions, green onions, jalapenos, and garlic.

My mom liked the color that the carrots added to our ensemble. After filling the jars with the veggies, we boiled the jars for ten minutes. 

We couldn't find the big pot we planned on using, so we improvised and used a crawfish boil pot.  It looked a bit silly on the stove, but it worked nicely because it had the cage thing with it. 

After the boiling was complete, we cooled the cans and all of them popped--a sign that they were sealed!  It is such a nice sound of success!

What we did right:
--The brine was awesome! The peppers came out nice and spicy.

--Adding veggies. The carrots and onion helped the flavor. 

--All of our cans sealed!

What we did wrong:
--We took too long between filling the jars with brine and boiling them. While the peppers taste great, they aren't crisp.  They're a little mushy.  My mom's stove takes forever to boil water.  We filled all the jars without realizing that the pot still needed a while before it boiled.  And, when we put the jars in the boiling water it took 10-15 minutes to boil again.  And, then we boiled the jars for 10 minutes (like the recipe called for).  

--We could have filled the jars with more peppers.  After we finished we noticed that the jars could have fit a lot more in them. 

The basics of canning are very simple, and there are a ton of recipes out there.  I can't wait to try salsas and maybe jams.

What are your favorite canning recipes?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Trying to Live Frugally

Doesn't living frugally sound awful? I always thought so.  Isn't making money about spending money? And, if I earned it, can't I spend it on what I want?

About a year and a half ago, my husband and I took part in a church small group centered around Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover.  I've never been a fan of 12-step programs and the like, but my husband and I realized we shouldn't be living paycheck to paycheck.

While we didn't do everything Ramsey's book suggested, it did change our outlook on money.  We hadn't been budgeting for a while, and the book (with a friend's help) got us on track with a budget.  Plus, we started trying to pay off our debt rather than accumulating more.

Here are some steps we took:

1. We made a budget.  More specifically, an excel spreadsheet listing how much money we make and what we spend it on.  We included stuff like groceries, gas, car repairs, hair cuts, clothing money--pretty much anything we could think of.

2. We focused our energy, first, on building up $1000 of emergency savings money.

3. Then, we focused our energy on paying off our smallest debt first.  Then moving to the next, and the next. This is what Ramsey calls the "debt snowball."

4. We made sure to tithe--faithfully.  I can't even describe how important this is.  If you are a believer in Christ, then this may be the most essential step.  By tithing you are showing God that you trust Him and that the money you bring in is ultimately from Him.

5. We rethought what we spend money on.  Our weakness: eating out! While we still eat out too much, we have tried to curb our spending here. We do things like share an entree and an appetizer instead of each of us ordering our own--we like a lot of the same foods, so it isn't that hard.

We still have a long road ahead until we are debt free.  In the process we are learning a lot about money and contentment.  As Hebrews 13:5 says: "Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have."

Our mindset has shifted from seeing what our immediate needs are to what our needs will be in the future. By getting out of debt we are opening ourselves up to save so that things like car repairs and vacations won't be burdensome. And, we are starting to see how we can escape being slaves to money and instead have our money work for us. If we aren't encumbered by bills, bills, bills we will have more money to work with and will be able to do, do, do more (especially when we have kids).

Here are some helpful sites about managing your finances at Christian Personal Finance and Get Rich Slowly.

What are some of your budgeting stories and strategies?