Friday, December 31, 2010


As I have done for the past twenty years or so, I'm making my new year's resolutions.  We all make them, don't we?  We vow to get organize, lose weight, learn to snorkel, be a better person and more.  These promises we make to ourselves are done with the best of intentions, but rarely do they account for real-life circumstances.  Work, kids, stubbornness, lack of time...these things and more all get in the way of sticking to our resolutions.  Then, sometime around January 5, we go back to being our slovenly selves. 

At least, I sure do.

But this year is different!

This year, I'm making only one resolution.  It is incredibly specific and will definitely make me more like my idol Martha Stewart. Ready?  Here they are...

In 2011, I will bake all CAKES and BREAD from scratch. 

No mixes, no store-bought loaves, nothing.  Of course, I still have a few cake mixes and one loaf of store-bought bread in the pantry, but after those are gone, THAT'S IT!!!  Making cakes from scratch shouldn't be a problem--I've done it many times before and I actually prefer to do it that way because it produces a much better cake.  Baking bread from scratch will be the challenge...I've never done it before, despite having a bread maker in the basement.  Time to haul that puppy up to the kitchen, dust it off, and figure out if it still works.  If it does...fresh bread for everyone!

I'll be sure to check in with you on January 5 to let you know how this grand experiment is going.  In the meantime, have a fun, happy, healthy and safe new year!  Happy 2011!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy anniversary to me!

This is the two year anniversary of The Martha Initiative. Two years!  It's amazing that I've lasted this long! And even more amazing is that I am just now hitting my stride with posts, topics, pictures and more.

And the most amazing thing of all is that I actually have readers.  Thanks to everyone who stops by this thing on any kind of regular basis.  I'm not sure what you get out of it or where I'm even going with this thing (other than riding an express train to Martha-dom! Woo woo!) but I'm glad you're here!  Thanks so much to everyone who reads and comments--I appreciate you!

I do know what I get out of blogging, though:  I get things done.  Because I need things to write about, I've tackled projects, crafts and recipes that previously I would have only thought about doing.  See the difference?  On my own, I think about things but rarely try them:  Wouldn't it be great to try this recipe?  What if I made my own gift tags? 

With this blog, I actually do those things!  After all, I need to write about something, and writing about my real-life efforts to become a domestic goddess sure beats writing about thinking of becoming a domestic goddess.  And because of that, I've expanded my own horizons and am truly becoming a tiny bit more like Martha each day. 

I started this blog with a to-do list, and I'll celebrate by doing the same thing.

1. Try video blogging.  Would that be vlogging?
2. Change up my posting schedule.
3. Decide against vlogging because the camera adds 10 pounds.
4. Remember that I don't care about my waistline, so vlog anyways.
5. Remind my readers that I adore them!!!!
6. Make millions of dollars so I can hire my own staff of 40 to do everything for me.
7. Be just like Martha Stewart. 

Thanks everyone!  Happy TMI anniversary to all of us!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Manda Monday--After Christmas sales

In the December issue of Living, Martha's calendar denotes December 3 as the day to stock up on gift-wrapping supplies. 

This is totally, absolutely, positively wrong. 

Don't stock up on your wrapping supplies weeks before Christmas when everything is still full price; instead, buy your supplies immediately after Christmas to take advantage of sales.  Buy gift wrap, bows, ribbons and more at 70-90% off, and get everything you need for next Christmas on the cheap.

In other words, TODAY is the day to restock your gift-wrapping supplies.

This has been my way of doing things for years. In fact, I so love buying gift wrap after Christmas, and could get it for so cheap, that for many years BOTH of these wrapping paper bins were full.

Three years ago, I had over forty rolls of paper.  That's a bit much, even for a gift wrap fanatic like me, so I stopped hitting the after Christmas sales.  Well, at least, I stopped buying the discounted wrapping paper.  Now, I'm down to 22 rolls of gift wrap.

Yes, I know there are 24 rolls in the bin, but two of them are basket wrap, and I don't count that as wrapping paper. 

I did the same thing with bows: I bought bags and bags of bows at 90% off, and now I have an entire storage tote dedicated to bows. 

And do you know what the crazy thing is?  I'm more of a ribbon person, so I hardly ever use bows.

My supply of tissue paper is adequate, so if I see some really cute patterns then I will snatch them up.  I have plenty of the Scotch pop-up tape refills, so I'm good there.  And I have a few rolls of ribbon left over from years past.  Normally, this amount of ribbon would be too little for me, but I'm going to avoid buying more so that I can start using up all those bows next year!

Before you put your Christmas gift wrapping supplies away, take a good look at what you have and what you need. Then, with a list in hand, hit some of the after Christmas sales for super cheap supplies. 

Trust me on this one: save money by stocking up on supplies now, and you'll be ready to wrap for next Christmas.  Happy shopping!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry chaos

Last year, the weeks leading up to Christmas were orderly and organized.  Cards were out at a reasonable time, cookies were baked and delivered with time to spare, gifts were wrapped well in advance of the big day, and all was right with the world. I even managed to have a gift-wrapping Girls Night In party!

This year...not so much!  I don't know if it's because December has been really hard on us with family dealings, or if adding another child into the mix has made things more difficult, but my best laid plans have gone by the wayside.  I am way behind on everything I need to do--Martha would be appalled.  Christmas at the TMI household has been anything but orderly this year.

I wrap all the presents in the dining room.  Last year, the buffet was nice and organized with all the tissue paper, gift bags, ribbons and supplies:

This year, it's a mess.  The picture boxes actually contain candy making supplies, none of the wrapping supplies have made it out of the tote, and random Santa hats are everywhere.

On a good year, my dining room table is free from clutter so I have plenty of room to wrap presents. I keep a small basket of supplies and a bowl of bows in the middle, but that's it.

This year, everything is on the table!  The stuff you see is a mixture of presents that have come in and presents that need to go out.  Tissue paper and empty bags/containers are everywhere.  It's madness!

The kitchen is not much better.  It's a disaster area!  From left to right on the counter, you can see not one but two baking projects where the ingredients are out but no progress has been made, dinner cooking in the crockpot, a sink filled with bottles and cups that need to be washed, and a whole array of dirty cook/bake ware that needs to get into the sink.

 And on the island I have a pineapple.  Why on earth do I have a real pineapple in my house?  I don't even know how to cut the thing!

After surveying the mess last night, I decided to call in my reinforcements this morning.  Little Miss Purple Polka Dots, while incredibly cute, hasn't been much help, but Spiderman is really pitching in.

Once he figured out that the sticky side of the tape goes down, we were really in business.

I tried to give him a kiss for helping me out, but Spiderman can be kind of bashful sometimes.

Now, as soon as the rest of the Justice League arrives and gets to work, I will really be ready for Christmas!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Manda Monday--Christmas decorations

Christmas is right around the corner, and as far as my decorations are concerned, I am ready for it.  Though if you look beyond the decorations to, say, the rest of my house, it's a completely different story

The Big Guy and Little Guy decorated the tree in the living room. Because that also doubles as the toy room, the ornaments we used this year are break-resistant. 

If you look closely, you'll see that some branches contain several ornaments while others are bare.  Can you guess who helped hang the ornaments?

Yep, it's the Little Guy!  Who can also put Sesame Street character play cups on his head.  He's a man of many talents.

The tree skirt is from the (now non-existent) Martha Stewart Everyday line at KMart. I bought it years ago, and it's held up really well. Because the print features Christmas joys and toys, I thought it fitting that it go with the tree in the toy (living) room.

Something I do every year is display the incoming Christmas cards on the wall.  This year, I finally hung a lovely handmade piece from my Grandmother in the foyer, and the cards frame it well. As cards come in, the display gets bigger and bigger, and I do my best to keep it symmetrical.

One new decoration is the ribbon on the four columns in the foyer.  I had 60 feet of peppermint striped ribbon begging to be used, and this was the perfect spot for it.  Also, did I mention that my son likes to put cups on his head?  Because he does. 

Here's a close-up of the ribbon:

While I love my old Christmas decoration traditions, it's nice to add something new into the mix. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Christmas-time birthday

I feel bad for people who have their birthday near Christmas, because it always seems like their big day is overshadowed by THE big day.  This came up at my work: my Secret Santa recipient has a birthday not ten days before Christmas.  And this year, her birthday was also the day of the office Christmas party. 

Clearly, something had to be done so the birthday didn't get lost in the Christmas commotion! 

To save the day in my own little Martha-dom, I made a birthday cake for my Secret Santa giftee, and a Christmas dessert for everyone else.  Everyone wins!

The cake is a double layer chocolate sheet cake with my usual buttercream frosting.  The light bulb chocolates are made from a Wilton candy mold.  I dusted a small amount of red, blue, gold and silver edible glitter on top.  I piped green frosting around the cake to look like a cord, and then "plugged in" the chocolate lights.  Fun!

To make sure I had enough dessert for 50 people, I also made a batch of cupcakes.  These are vanilla cake with buttercream frosting.  Each cupcake also got a chocolate light bulb.

People were impressed with the display and I think the birthday girl really enjoyed the fuss.  Happy birthday to Samantha, and a special shout-out to everyone at ACC!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Halfway there

I've made six batches of cookies, which means I'm only halfway through my holiday baking.  Seriously, the amount of butter I go through this time of year is obscene.  Cookies make great gifts for neighbors, co-workers and friends, so I like to bake enough to cover everyone, and hopefully have some left over for my family. 

Most of my recipes are coming from these books:

I made Martha's snickerdoodles as found in the Cookies book.  This year, I kicked the flavor up a notch by adding cardamom, ginger and ground cloves to the cinnamon/sugar mixture.  Delicious!

I also tackled Martha's Chocolate Crackles.  I've wanted to do these cookies for a long time and I'm so glad I finally did it:  these are so good and rich!  Perfect for a chocolate lover such as myself.

They didn't turn out quite like Martha's, I think because the balls were too big and therefore spread out too much upon baking, which messes with the crackle appearance.  I was worried that as the name states, these would be really hard cookies but instead they are so soft and chewy. Yum!

The next two recipes came from my latest cookbook acquisition:  Hershey's Recipe Collection.  I took the recipe for Double Chocolate Mini-Kisses Cookies and made it my own by adding peppermint extract instead of vanilla, and peppermint baking bits instead of chocolate chips.  I omitted the nuts entirely.

I bake some version of this cookie every year, and I've been searching for a solid recipe to stick with.  I'm not sure if this is it, but it was darn good.  Peppermint and chocolate has to be my favorite flavor combination for the entire month of December. 

Also from the Hershey's Recipe Collection was Oatmeal Scotchies.  Of course, the Hershey's company calls them "Oatmeal Butterscotch Cookies" but that sounds boring to me. 

For my next round of baking, I'll take a few cookies from the Baker's Field Guide to Christmas Cookies.  Have you seen the Baker's Field Guide collection?  These books, all about Christmas cookies, candy, chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes, are wonderful.  All cookbooks should be this easy to follow

For my next round of Christmas baking, I'm thinking of cardamom wafers, toffee bars/cookies and perhaps some more peppermint.  Isn't Christmas time wonderful?  And tasty?  It's a wonderfully tasty time.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Martha Monday--pastry puffs

In the December issue of Everyday Food, there's a step-by-step tutorial for making pastry puffs along with several ideas for embellishment (chocolate-glazed raspberry cream puffs, for example).  With only five ingredients and several pictures of the puff-making process, I decided to tackle this recipe and make the puff and eclair versions.   

While the recipe warned that it would make a lot of puffs, I really didn't comprehend just how many.  I had puffs up to my ears!  The recipe also urged me to tap down the stiff peaks of the dough on the small puffs, but I was in a hurry and ignored this advice.  Shame on me.  Instead of having nice round puffs, my small puffs resembled Hershey's kisses.  Which is fine, but just not the look I was going for. 

The recipe did not warn me that baking pastry puffs stinks.  Literally.  My kitchen was filled with that "cooking eggs" smell.  Now, if you like eggs, then this won't bother you in the least.  But if you only eat eggs once or twice a year and believe that their main reason for being is to contribute to cakes, cookies, muffins, etc.  then this might bother you a bit.  Guess which category I belong to? 

To put a TMI twist on Everyday Food's pastry puffs, I filled them with peppermint buttercream.  To do this, just poke holes in the eclairs first, then squeeze in the frosting (or whatever filling you prefer) into the puff with a regular frosting bag fitted with a small tip.  I used size 4.

Note: the Everyday Food instructions call for making the holes on the bottom of the puff/eclair, but since I wanted the holes to be fully hidden, I made them on top.  After filling the puffs, I dipped the tops in melted Wilton candy melts. 

Then I rolled the tops in crushed candy canes.  To crush the candy canes, place them in a sturdy ziploc bag and hand them to your brother.  He'll take them to the basement, crush them with a hammer, and bring them up to you in the kitchen for use.  Isn't that easy? 

Here's my finished product:

The pastry puffs turned out great and the peppermint flavor really worked well with such a delicate shell.  I like the step-by-step tutorial in the magazine--the pictures and corresponding instructions were a huge help.  If I can learn to ignore the egg smell while they're cooking, then this might become a solid recipe for my dessert repertoire.  Maybe.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


When I was a kid, my grandmother made our Christmas stockings. Each was made with a different pattern and our names were on them in thread (embroidery? stitching?).  These stockings are gorgeous--true family heirlooms. 

I wanted to do the same thing for my family.  However, my grandmother was a very talented seamstress, and I am a ding-dong with a sewing machine.  Hilarity, and an obscene amount of swearing, ensue whenever I bring it out. 

Here's a stocking I made a few years ago pre-kids:

It's shape and size are based on the stockings my grandmother made 25+ years ago.  Without having a copy of that pattern on hand, I used my red star stocking as a basis for the new stockings. 

As I said, I am no master seamstress. Rather than tracing the stocking onto pattern paper, and then pinning it to new fabric as I should do, I just put the old stocking on the new fabric, and cut around it.  Whatever works, right?

This is the Little Guy's new stocking:

Here's a close-up picture of the material: 

Baby Girl also got a stocking. 

It's hard to tell, but the main color is a hot/salmon pink.  Here's a close-up picture of her stocking's material:

The Big Guy got a new stocking, too.  When I made the original stocking pre-kids, I actually made two that matched.  Since I had the sewing machine out and the kids were getting personalized stockings, the Big Guy requested one of his own.

Here's a close-up picture of the material I used:

While the mantel is not fully decorated, all the stockings were hung with care by our very friendly neighborhood Spiderman... 

...who has informed me that he is, in fact, a reindeer.  And when Spiderman puts on his reindeer antlers, you know Christmas is right around the corner.