Monday, July 27, 2009

Martha Monday!

Writing my "Martha Monday!" column is perhaps the best part of every Monday for me. Each week I talk about whatever I want to that relates to Martha, me, Martha and me, Martha and me and all the good times we've shared.

But today, as I sat down to write "Martha Monday," all I could think about is how exhausted I am. Tired, stressed and way too busy. I want to write--and I have plenty of ideas and photos begging to be shared--but so little time or energy to give it my all. Naturally, I decided to consult the folks at Martha Stewart Living.

Their publication Body + Soul addressed this extreme fatigue in March 2009 with the article "The Exhaustion Cure." The article lists 10 common causes of exhaustion, along with recommendations to stop the stress and get your physical and mental well-being back on track.

Right away, I see several causes of exhaustion that apply to me: shallow breathing, not enough rest, and information overload. This is on top of a stressful job and trying to parent a toddler that is rapidly approaching the terrible two's.

Here's the question: What does Martha do when she's exhausted? Actually, I doubt Martha has this problem, but for sanity's sake, let's say she has. So, what would Martha do?

My guess is that she'd take a break. Which is exactly what I'm doing. Readers, I heart you and I'll miss you, but I need to take a vacation from some things for a while, and that includes blogging. I'll be back next week with a rested body and fresh mind for an all new "Martha Monday!" Until then, take care and take care of yourself.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Molding chocolate candy

Molding chocolate candies is the easiest and most fool-proof "food art" thing I do. Seriously, I could do this in my sleep. Which I may have done. Which would explain why I'm always mysteriously short on candy-making supplies. And have chocolate smeared all around my mouth in the morning. It happens.

All, and I do mean all, of my candy making supplies come from Wilton. They have a ton of candy molds that are quite inexpensive (usually $1.99 per mold). I get my molds at after-season sales, clearance and the Wilton tent sale, so I only spend $1.00 per mold.

To make the candy, I start by putting Wilton candy melts in a disposable plastic decorating bag. For the seashells used on the "Bears at the Beach" cupcakes, I used white, pink, yellow and chocolate candy melts. One minute in the microwave is sufficient to melt the chocolates together.

Once I've gently squeezed the bag a few times to make sure everything is completely melted and only slightly mixed, I cut off the tip of the bag and start filling the molds with the mixture.

Fill each mold to the top, tap the entire mold on the counter a few times to let any trapped air bubbles rise to the top, and stick the whole thing in the fridge, making sure to keep it nice and even.

After a few hours in the fridge, the candy is done. Flip the mold over and the candies usually pop right out. No mess, no fuss, and totally gorgeous. When I brought the cupcakes and leftover seashell candies to work, several people thought the shells were store bought. One person asked if I had bought them from Godiva. Godiva. How awesome is that?

I told her that they only way these candies were from Godiva was if I made them in the nude. Which I didn't. I have to have some decorum at The Martha Initiative, right? After all, the real Martha Stewart doesn't make candy in the buff.* So neither do I.
*But if you have evidence that suggests otherwise, let me know. I'm always open to trying new things in the kitchen.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Making the shark cupcakes

Making the shark cupcakes for my "Bears at the Beach" contest entry was super easy, and my take on the shark fins, in my ever-so-humble opinion, was super clever.

Take a look at Martha's shark cupcakes:

Martha's folks simply use blue paper for the shark fins. I'm not a huge fan of putting non-edible things on cupcakes--it just doesn't seem right. I knew there had to be an alternative, and I found it just in time: fruit leather. How clever is that?!

Of course, the only kind they had at the store was apple, which explains why my shark fins are a weird brown/green color, but it totally works. Fruit leather is yummy, easy to cut and stayed put on the cupcakes. Blueberry, if they even make a blueberry fruit leather, would have been perfect.

I got three fins out of one piece of fruit leather. Plus two yummy bites of scraps. Delicious!

Side note: honey-flavor teddy grahams dipped in coconut buttercream frosting are out of this world. While I was making the cupcakes, I ate about 20 teddies this way. If you have extra frosting, reach for the teddy grahams, or at least some graham crackers. It's a simple combination, but so so so good. Trust me on this.

Tomorrow, the easiest step of all: molding the chocolate shells. Seriously, I could do it in my sleep. And I probably have. In which case, I would have eaten them all, so there hasn't been any evidence of sleep-candy-making yet. Still, I'm fairly certain this has happened.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Making the beach cupcakes

Making the 'sand' for the beach cupcakes, and getting it on the cupcakes, was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Simply grind up some teddy grahams and graham crackers in the food processor. I hesitated before I pushed the button, thinking of the fate of those poor bears. Then I realized I had already shoved a bunch in my mouth, and they were all goners anyway. True story!

Slap some frosting on a cupcake. Don't worry about getting it perfectly even.

Smush the cupcake into the pulverized teddy grahams, and the 'sand' distributes fairly evenly and sticks without a problem.

Seriously, once the sand was on there, it didn't come off. Not even in transit to work the next day. This technique worked really well.

To make the bears' swimsuits, I used candy decorating pens from Wilton. Simply heat the pens up in hot water, and draw on the bears. This step was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be. Those bears are small, and those pens aren't the best at precision decorating. Originally, I had envisioned a beach full of 50 or so decorated bears. I stopped at 12. It was just too time-consuming.

Another funny tidbit: can you read the mug? It's that Maxine character from Hallmark, and she's saying "It's my body, I'll have pie if I want to." Anyone who knows me in real life knows that this is absolutely true. I don't think I've ever said no to pie. Ever.

So that's how I made the beach cupcakes. Sand = easy, swimsuits on teddy grahams = hard.
Tomorrow, making the shark cupcakes. Sharks have never been so tasty!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

TMI's Bears at the Beach Cupcakes

Here's my attempt at super-creative cupcakes. I call this "Bears at the Beach." And unless I come up with something better by August 15, this will be my entry for Martha's Cutest Cupcakes contest.

Look at these adorable bears, dressed in their swimsuits and ready for the beach. The swimsuits are melted candy coating.

The shells are chocolate and white chocolate swirled together.
Oh no! Sharks! Swim at your own risk, bears.

There you have it, my take on Martha's "Beach and Shark" cupcakes. Tomorrow, I'll post the details of how I did this. Aside from the swimsuits on the bears, these are fairly easy to do. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Martha Monday!

Last Monday, I shared with you Martha's Cutest Cupcake contest, and how I have every intention of winning. I'm doing a take-off of Martha's beach and shark cupcakes, with a TMI twist, of course.

The cupcakes are made. I used a yellow cake mix, but added in a ton of coconut cream paste and shredded coconut. The icing is regular buttercream (one tub of white and one of blue) with coconut cream paste added in. I wanted a really coconutty cupcake, you know?

Below is my secret ingredient: Teddy Grahams. I'm going to crush them up with some graham crackers for the "sand" effect, but I'm also using them for something else...

Finally, the Wilton candy pens are my secret weapon. They'll go along with the secret use for the secret ingredient. With all these secrets, my kitchen is more locked down than Fort Knox. Seriously.

I have every intention of rocking this Cutest Cupcakes contest. I'll have pictures of the completed cupcakes up ASAP. If there's any delay, it's probably because someone was peeking in my kitchen window trying to learn my secrets and I had to crush them, TMI-style. I should probably get the garden hose and pepper spray ready. You can't be too careful with this kind of thing, you know?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Steam engine surprise

Yesterday we had a lovely surprise. Here's the scoop from the local newspaper:

"A vintage passenger train will travel through Big Rock, Sugar Grove, Aurora and Naperville Saturday on its way from Minneapolis to Chicago. The cars will be pulled by Southern Pacific's massive steam locomotive, the only surviving example of Southern Pacific's GS-4 class of streamlined steam locomotives."

The railroad is only a few doors down from our house, so we had a great vantage point. You can see from the people up and down the road (on the other side of the tracks) that this was a big deal.

The train moves too fast to see many details, but we were able to see passengers hanging out in the open spaces between cars, many of them waving to their fellow train aficionados.

The video is one minute long. Enjoy!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Planning ahead

The Little Guy turns 2 in October. Naturally, I've been planning the party for months. Okay, years. I've been planning a Sesame Street themed birthday party for years. Ages ago, before the Little Guy was even a twinkle in my eye, I bought Sesame Street invitations, plates, napkins, cups and decorations. Why would I buy these things four years before I had a child? 1. They were on clearance, and 2. I like to plan things in advance. Really, really far in advance.

Lately, and by that I mean just this week, not three years ago, my attention has turned to dates, times, menu and fun activities for the kids.

Menu: my ideas include easy recipes that can be made the night before or morning of the party. I'm thinking Italian Beef, mostacolli, Normandy mix veggies, salad, chicken Parmesan and some kind of pasta smothered in Alfredo sauce. Possibly some taffy apply salad.

Cake: this, more than any other birthday component, will drive me nuts. The cake will be homemade, naturally, but I'm thinking of trying a shaped pan. I have several Sesame Street character cake pans, but my decorating skills are not up to par to making the cake into a recognizable Sesame Street character. To become good enough so that the Little Guy and guests can tell it's Big Bird, and not a big yellow bus holding balloons, I'm going to have to practice. Probably twice a month for the next three months. At least. Just in case, I'll have cute little Elmo cupcakes in addition to the Big Bird/yellow bus cake.

Fun Activities: we know people who own a bouncy house, so if the weather is nice, we'll borrow that. I'm also planning a small and easy craft. Since this party will be a Sesame Street theme, each child will have the option of making a letter or number magnet. Get it? "This party is brought to you by the letters L, G, and the number 2." Gosh, I do love Sesame Street.

Of course, this craft will have adult supervision and include truly washable markers.

Stay tuned, folks. There's three months to get this party planned, organized and completely ready for the grand entrance of the Terrific Two's into the TMI Household.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Purchase at Sugar Creek

The Little Guy and I perused the Sugar Creek Arts Festival this past weekend with friends Shannon and Joe.

I wish I could have bought something from every vendor, but time and budget forced me to be very conservative. I bought a great piece of pottery from Willey Pottery. They make all kinds of things: mugs, plates, bowls, soap dispensers, toothbrush holders, vases and more.

I picked this piece as a graduation/birthday/going away gift for a good friend. It's a candy dish. And a pencil holder. And a sponge holder. And a soap holder.

Whatever he uses it for, I know he's going to like it. It is a beautiful and original piece.

My only regret? Not buying one for myself. I'd use it as a candy dish.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sugar Creek Arts Festival

This weekend, the Little Guy and I took a mini-road trip to Normal, Illinois, to see good friends Shannon and Joe and stroll through the Sugar Creek Arts Festival. There were over 100 booths filled with jewelry, art, glass work, ceramics, textiles, pottery and more. All the crafts were very upscale made by very talented artisans. No tea cozies here.

It was so very Martha.

But the Little Guy wasn't interested in all that fancy arts and crafts stuff. No, sirree, this wee one was focused completely on the band.

And who can blame him? Sister Groove and the Crosstown Jam are awesome, and have been playing in the Bloomington/Normal area since 1996. Not to date myself, but I remember seeing them way back when.

The Little Guy was intent on getting up close. As close as possible. He grabbed my hand and pulled me all the way up to the stage.

I think he wanted to get in on all that singing and dancing action. After the show, one of the sisters said that the Little Guy was so focused on the performance, she was ready to let him onstage to see if he'd jump right in and start singing.

Maybe we'll give that a try next year. The Sugar Creek Arts Festival is in Bloomington/Normal every year (usually the weekend after July 4th?). If you are ever in the area, I highly encourage you to check it out. If the arts and crafts don't move you, the singing and dancing will!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Martha Monday!

As a Martha expert*, I receive a lot** of questions*** about Martha****.
Such as, What is Martha up to these days? Here's the answer: Cupcakes, cupcakes and more cupcakes.

*That is a TMI statement and not at all endorsed or even known by the actual Martha Stewart.
**By 'a lot', I mean none yet, but feel free to ask me any Martha-related questions you might have.
***Of course, you can ask me questions about anything. I'm here for you!
****Not that I know that much about Martha. Did I say 'expert?' Huh, I wonder why I said that.

But it is true, Martha is into cupcakes in a big way. Last month, Martha came out with her Cupcakes book. This week, it's cupcake week on the Martha Stewart Show. And on Martha Stewart .com, she's having a Cutest Cupcakes contest.

And you know what that means, my dear readers: If Martha is into cupcakes, I'm into cupcakes. Like this coconut cupcake:

Other than wanting to be just like Martha, and other than wanting to win the Cutest Cupcake contest, I do have a great reason for having cupcakes on the brain: two coworkers have birthdays in the next week, and I want to bake something special for the two people I have come to rely on for laughs and camaraderie here at work.

Perhaps the vanilla letter cupcakes are the way to go?

But I do want something fun and playful. I really like the theme Martha has with these shark and beach cupcakes. And since we work right by the Lake, these make perfect sense.

My current plan: use Martha's coconut cupcake recipe with this beach theme. If everything goes according to plan, I'll bake and decorate terrific cupcakes, give a great gift to my coworkers, win the Cutest Cupcakes contest and begin Phase 2 of my plan for world domination.*****

*****Forget I said that last part. No need for you to worry about that! There's no TMI plan for world domination. Especially one that's really thought out with several phases. And a comprehensive to-do list. With highly detailed drawings. That I've been working on for several years. Nope, no evil mastermind genius plans here!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Fried rice

Every now and then, I have a wayward onion and green pepper in my fridge. They hopefully stare at me every time I open the veggie drawer, imploring me to make use of them before they go bad.

Then I remember, Duh! Fried rice! I should make fried rice! So I do.

TMI's step-by-step fried rice recipe (serves 2)

1. Cook some rice. You'll need about 2 cups cooked.
2. Gently beat two eggs.

3. Get out the soy'll need it later.
4. Finely dice 1/2 onion and 1 entire green pepper.
5. Spray a non-stick frying pan. Turn on the heat.

6. Scramble the eggs.
7. Add the onion and green pepper.

8. At this point, you might be getting hungry and anxious for your delicious fried rice to be ready. That's where the carrots come in. Have some on hand to munch.

9. Let the onion and green pepper cook for a minute or two.
10. Add some soy sauce. Not too much. You can always add more if you need to. Aren't you glad you had it sitting on the counter already?

11. Add the rice.
12. Marvel at how that 1/2 cup of uncooked rice turned into 2 cups cooked.
13. Contemplate getting out a bigger frying pan.
14. Realize you don't want to do more dishes, so decide to stick with the pan you are already using.

15. If you were adding cooked chicken or shrimp, you would throw it in now. But trust me, this recipe stands on it's own just fine.
16. Stir in all the rice.
17. Let it cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently.

18. Stand back and admire your work. Doesn't that look delicious?
19. Turn off the heat and let it cool for a minute or two.
20. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A long and twisted tale of tomatoes, thievery and a mother's love

Wow! Is that a dramatic title or what?!

Sit down, readers. Get comfortable, because I have a story for you. It's a story of fresh produce, thievery, shady (or at least confused) salespeople, finding that which is lost and having the courage to get it back. Mostly, it is about a mother's deep and abiding love for her child. And tomatoes. Two pounds of tomatoes.

This is the story of my trip to the farmer's market.

Only one vendor was selling tomatoes this week: $3/pound for regular, $4/pound for on-the-vine. As I was picking out three wonderful, perfectly ripe and non-bruised tomatoes (shown above), there was a Tomato-Taking Woman (I'll call her TTW) right next to me making a large purchase. The saleswoman weighed TTW's on-the-vine tomatoes and totalled her order. The saleswoman then weighed my regular tomatoes, gave me my total, and then took money from TTW for TTW's order. In the ten seconds it took me to take my wallet out of my purse, BAM! My tomatoes were gone.

I stood there, stunned, with my money in my hand. "Where are my tomatoes?"
At that moment, the saleswoman took my money for the now-gone tomatoes, and I noticed TTW was gone. I raised a ruckus, and we surmised that TTW had 'accidentally' taken my pound of delicious red fruit.

Since I had already given the saleswoman my money, she told me to pick out another pound of regular tomatoes. Sadly, the original tomatoes I picked out were the last of the good regular ones. I had to settle for bruised and somewhat icky fruits (see above).

I had the saleswoman weight the new tomatoes to make sure I was getting what I had already paid for. The totalled one pound, and she said to me, "That'll be $3.00."
Of course, I didn't say that to her. I had been in front of her the entire time, I was still holding the change from the original purchase in my hand, and there was no way I was paying again. So, I grabbed the bag, raised my eyebrow at her, and walked away.

The story doesn't end there. As I was walking back to work, I SAW TTW. I went right up to her, and explained that she had taken my tomatoes. TTW said no, that wasn't possible, so I pointed right to my tomatoes at the top of her bag. "I had regular tomatoes, and you had on-the-vine tomatoes."
Busted! TTW then insisted that the saleswoman must have given her tomatoes to someone else, and my tomatoes to her. "I really think you should check your bags, because I'm sure you have them."
TTW half-heartedly looked at her bags. "No, they're not here."
I raised my eyebrow. "Check again."
Lo and behold, with a deeper search (one that involved actually sticking her hand in the bags, rather than just peering into them) her tomatoes were there. Busted!
I took my original tomatoes from TTW. With tomato purchases #1 and #2 firmly in hand, I walked away. And why would I do all that for tomatoes, you ask? Here's why:

The Little Guy is currently on a tomato kick. He can eat an entire one in one sitting. And since that is the only fruit/veggie he is hooked on at the moment, it's important that I have them on hand to make sure he's getting some super healthy food in him.

The Little Guy just love his tomatoes. Six months ago, it was green beans. Then it was peas, then broccoli and cauliflower, then just broccoli. Now, he's on a tomato binge.

"TTW tried to take our tomatoes? Oh no! That's not nice."

"But you found her and got the tomatoes back. Way to go, Mom! I love tomatoes."

So that's my story of tomatoes, theft, and my unending, unmeasurable love for my child. My baby likes tomatoes, my baby will actually eat tomatoes, so my baby shall have tomatoes.

Plus, I like tomatoes, too. Especially on my hamburger. Can't eat a hamburger without tomatoes. Two slices, please.