Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gifts for my kids

It's easy to go overboard with Christmas gift-giving, especially when kids are involved.  The urge to buy my kids stuff, stuff, stuff is strong, but fortunately I don't have unlimited space or funds to indulge in this madness.  Gifts from Mommy and Daddy follow this handy rhyme:

Something you want; something you need. Something to wear and something to read.

Little Guy and Little Miss's gifts stay in line with this credo. Additionally, they get a gift from Santa and a stocking full of goodies, small toys and treats.     

This year, their "something to wear" happens to be Halloween costumes I bought on clearance.  We play dress up a lot and these will be a big hit.  In a few years, I'm sure more practical clothing options will replace the superhero and storybook costumes, so I'm enjoying (and indulging!) this dress-up phase for as long as I can.

While not everything is pictured, nearly all the gift-buying for my kids is done. I have a few more stocking stuffers to buy, but that's it.  There is one gift in the making, however.  The big project is the gift from Santa.  Handy Freddy and I are calling it "Project Sony."

We got this television from the side of the road several months ago. After confirming that it doesn't work, Handy Freddy gutted it.  My plan is to spray paint the inside, and MOM2 is sewing a curtain to go across the top.  What will that give us? 

A super-cool puppet theater for Little Guy and Little Miss, direct from Santa. With a little help from his elves, of course.  Stay tuned!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Manda Monday--Countdown to Christmas

Christmas is right around the corner. I started preparing over a week ago with shopping and decorating so I have good head start on this busy season.

Before Thanksgiving, we managed to get five Christmas trees up, and four of them are decorated.  The Christmas Village has yet to make an appearance, despite Little Guy asking me to put it up at least four times a day.  I hope to get that done, along with decorating the big tree and setting up the remaining trees, this week.  And if the weather is dry and not bone-chillingly cold, the outside lights might get put up as well.

For the record, we are the proud owners of eight Christmas trees of various sizes. My goal has always been to have a personalized or themed tree in each major room of my house.  But not in the bathrooms, because that would just be excessive.

When the decorating is done, I'll turn my attention to shopping and baking.  Little Guy is not much into shopping, but he is just as excited as I am to start baking. Already we've gone through six cookbooks to mark the recipes we want to try.  While he declares every recipe as one we have to make, I'm going to try to limit our efforts to just 10-12 varieties of cookies.  I don't want to go overboard--my Christmas is all about moderation.

In all seriousness, I do like to give baked goods as gifts.  Our neighbors and coworkers will get cookies this year...all 93 of them! I'll be making three batches of each of those 10-12 cookie varieties.  The amount of butter I go through at this time of year is criminal.  

Shopping will certainly take some time.  All told, we buy gifts for at least 38 people, not including the TMI household.  Fortunately, gifts for Little Miss, Little Guy and Big Guy are almost entirely done, and that is a big load off my shoulders.   

When it comes to shopping, organization is key.  I already have my gift ideas and budget on an Excel spreadsheet, and I'll take that with me to the stores. I find that this one piece of paper saves me a ton of time and money. Time, because I go into a store with a good idea of what to look for, and money, because I have a set budget and seeing it in print helps me stick to it.  If you have problems shopping for gifts, I strongly recommend that you make a list and budget, and then stick to it.  Hey, it works for Santa!

In addition to the decorating, baking and shopping, I'd like to get the kids out to see fun Christmas light displays, a trip or two to see Santa and some other fun holiday activities in the lovely city of Aurora.

This is going to be a busy, and fun, season! 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Full of thanks

When I host Thanksgiving, I make everyone hold hands before the meal and say what they are grateful for.  The usual suspects always come up: family, friends, home, health, plenty of food.  These are all wonderful things, but I suspect that if each of us had more time to talk, and was comfortable baring our souls, the things we give thanks for would be a lot more specific and personal. 

This Thanksgiving, I'm comfortable baring my soul, and this blog gives me all the time in the world.  Here are just a few of the things for which I am deeply thankful: 

Little Miss's hair feels like silk. Her dimple melts my heart every single time I see it.  She's learning more and more words each day, and I am fortunate to hear her say "I want Momma" on a regular basis.  While she is mostly on the go, she still wants to be rocked and read to daily.  I always hoped for a daughter that would be sassy and smart enough to conquer the world by the time she was fortunate am I that she is ready to do this at 21 months!

Little Guy's enthusiasm about Christmas is incredible and infectious.  I am fortunate, and grateful, that he briefly mentions toys he wants and then moves on to something else. Right now he is much happier to be putting up decorations, and the only thing he begs for is to put up the Christmas village.  The real blessing is that his attitude towards Christmas is really no different from his attitude about any other subject we come across: everything is amazing, everything is fun, and everything is worth exploring. 

Big Guy is my other half and I give thanks for this every day. But he makes my life better in a thousand tiny ways, some of which I'm sure I don't even realize.  Big Guy takes care of Barley if I am too tired to do it. He never complains about my hectic night schedule of teaching at Waubonsee or meetings for my day job. He is supportive of my biggest plans, whether that plan is to transform the backyard or transform my life.  And if the plan isn't too crazy, he jumps right in to help.   

I am extremely thankful for my Waubonsee students.  My classes really took off this year, and each one was filled with fun people. It was a joy to spend time with them.  Teaching at Waubonsee is less like a part-time job and more like a great opportunity to meet and talk with people in my community on a weekly basis.  And the good folks who sign up for my classes are less like students, and a lot more like great people I am happy to hang out with once a week. 

Finally, I am really thankful for all of my blog and facebook readers.  This means you!  Some of you I know, but many I do not. Thanks for coming here and reading about my bizarre attempts to turn myself into Martha Stewart.  And thanks for not telling how crazy I am as I try to do this.  I hope you are getting something (if only a chuckle or two!) from this blog as what you are giving me is far greater.  Knowing that you all are out there reading encourages me to tackle new projects, try new recipes and learn new skills so that I can share those experiences with you.  And in doing all that, I become more and more like the person I want to be. 

No, not Martha Stewart.  Okay, sort of like Martha Stewart. 

The person I want to be, and the person I am becoming, is a better version of myself.  The motivation to do this comes from all the reasons I've listed here.  

And for that, I am extremely grateful.  Thanks for being here.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My Martha street cred

My Martha street cred has gone through the roof.  Seriously. 

Let me explain: my goal is to be like Martha Stewart as much as possible, and when I can't do something just like her, I'll put my own spin on things.  This applies to anything Martha does: homekeeping, crafting, entertaining, gardening, decorating and more.  Now, though, I've truly done it. 

I made homemade pumpkin pie, using puree made from PUMPKINS I GREW IN MY OWN GARDEN. 

Just. like. Martha. Stewart.

I have achieved Martha-ness.  I grew something, harvested it, AND TURNED IT INTO A PIE.  Let me tell you, it feels amazing!  This must be what it feels like to rule the world!

Ahem.  Sorry, I got carried away there.

The great news in all this is that not only have I achieved (if only for a few hours) Martha-ocity, but you can too!  Making pumpkin puree is actually quite easy, and you don't even have to grow your own pumpkins to do it.

I simply followed the directions on Martha's website.  Start with a small sugar or baking pumpkin.  Pierce the pumpkin all the way through with a sharp knife, and bake it for 60-90 minutes at 400F.   Martha's directions state to put the pumpkin in a baking dish along with an inch of water, but my pumpkins were too big for that. I placed them on a foil-lined cookie sheet with a bit of water, and just added more water as necessary.

The pumpkins get nice and soft, and the rind starts to separate itself from the pulp.  Very easy!

When the pumpkins were cool enough to handle, I cut them apart.  Seeds and stringy stuff when into the compost bin, and pulp went into a big bowl.  When I had enough in the bowl, I ran it through the food processor.  Of course, I should have put the pulp right into the food processor and not dirtied up a dish, but I didn't think about that until the process was over.  See what I mean about putting my own spin on things?  That's just how I roll sometimes!

Puree went into quart size freezer bags.  Four pumpkins gave me approximately eights quart bags of pumpkin puree.  The puree from the fully mature pumpkins will need to be squeezed out before I use it, but that can be done easily using a cheesecloth.  Or, I might turn that batch into pumpkin soup.  The rest of the puree will be used for pies, Martha's delicious Pumpkin Donut Muffins, Pumpkin Cookies with Brown Butter Icing and more.  Yum!

Here's where that amazing "Oh-my-God-I-am-just-like-Martha-Stewart-gaze-upon-my-creation-in-awe!" feeling began to wear off and turn into a "gee-whiz-that-is-a-ridiculous-amount-of-pumpkin-puree-and-I'm-really-tired-I-could-use-a-break" feeling:

Achieving Martha-ness is awesome, but it sure does make a mess.  Next step: acquire Martha Stewart's staff of 40 to start cleaning up after me.  And then the student will truly become the master. 

A girl can dream, right? 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Martha Monday--Martha's pumpkin pie

Thanksgiving would not be Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.  That, and the turkey, are what make the meal. The sides can change (well, not at my house) but pumpkin pie and turkey are the holiday's constant companions.  Now that my turkey recipe and procedure are tried, true and set in stone, I decided to experiment a bit with my pumpkin pie.

Using puree made from pumpkins I grew over the summer (more on that tomorrow), I made two pumpkin pies:  the Libby's version and Martha's version.  Of course, my two favorite chef's assistants helped.

As I mentioned, the pumpkin puree came from my own pumpkins. However, the one used for these recipes was quite immature when I harvested it, and it had a milder pumpkin flavor than what I was used to.

Martha's pumpkin pie baked up nice and golden, though I must say that it took almost 50 minutes to bake, not the 30 minutes as stated in the recipe.

The Libby's version, which is the pumpkin pie recipe printed on their cans of pureed pumpkin, also did well with my homemade puree.

To be fair, I conducted a blind taste test with my neighbor Yogi and with my coworkers.  Overwhelmingly, people liked Martha's version of pumpkin pie more.  Because her recipe uses a full cup of brown sugar, instead of the 3/4 cup of white sugar, it is a sweeter pie.

I have to admit that at first, I preferred the Libby's version of the pie.  I am not a fan of eggs, and since Martha's recipe uses three instead of two, there was just a bit too much egg taste in there for me. However, once the pies had rested in the fridge for a day or two and I re-tasted them, I did like the Martha recipe better. It is a sweeter pie and comes across as a more sophisticated version of the regular pumpkin pie. 

For this Thanksgiving at my in-laws, I'll be making both versions again to get another round of feedback. The winner will get a permanent place on my Thanksgiving menu.  But if you are looking for a more elegant pumpkin pie, give Martha's recipe a try. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hand- and footprint crafts for Thanksgiving

I love Pinterest, I really, really do.  For a while I've been pinning super-cute kid art made with their hand- and footprints. Little Guy, Little Miss and neighbor Adithi made some fun art for Halloween by sticking their hands and feet in paint.  Now, there are a few ideas on my "Hand and Foot Print Art" board that are perfect for Thanksgiving.

Making any or all of these would be a great project for the kids leading up to Thanksgiving, or on the day of as they are waiting for the feast to begin:

My best advice, if you are using this as an activity on Thanksgiving Day, is to enlist the help of older kids or teenagers to help the younger ones.  This gets the older kids involved and keeps the younger kids busy so you can focus on guests or cooking.  But not cooking your guests, because that would be wrong.

Please note: these art ideas are not mine.  They were found by me and pinned, or pinned by other Pinterest users and then re-pinned by me. For original sources, please visit my Pinterest boards and you can find the source material/links there.  Thank you!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

From Martha to me to you

I'm not hosting Thanksgiving this year (sniff, sniff!) but if I were, I'd be using these awesome and free printables from Martha Stewart.  That she personally gave to me, because we are best friends.  And I told her, "Martha, these are just too cute! You should put these on your website so everyone can use them."

And Martha said, "Amanda, that is a brilliant idea!  You are always thinking of others. What would I do without you?"

And with that we both laughed and had another cocktail.  The next day, Martha put these printables on her website for everyone to enjoy.  YOU'RE WELCOME.*

These turkey place cards are so elegant.  Love these!  Though I'm not sure I'd invite anyone named "Kirk" to my Thanksgiving dinner. He just sounds shady, you know?

I love having crafts and activities for kids at holiday gatherings, and these adorable pilgrim hats and bonnets fit the bill.  Except that boy in the middle totally doesn't deserve his. Someone take that darling pilgrim hat away from him and give it to a kid who knows how to smile for a decent picture.

A fun game of turkey trivia is another great way to entertain the kids.  Martha has both the printable and the trivia questions on her website.  That woman thinks of everything!

Martha know how much I like chocolate, so she designed these candy bar wrappers that double as place cards.  That Martha! She knows me so well!**

You can find the whole set of Martha's free Thanksgiving printable place cards, activities, and decorations here. Enjoy!

*Disclaimer: that conversation never happened, except in my head. So it sort of happened, just not with the real Martha Stewart.
**Yet another disclaimer: This is probably mostly totally an untrue statement.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Scarborough Fair turkey

My take on Martha's Roast Turkey with Herb Butter is actually a combination of Martha's preparation method, and suggested seasonings from a college friend. I call it Scarborough Fair Turkey, and here's how I do it:

Start with a brined turkey.  Melt/soften a stick of butter in the microwave.  Don't melt it completely.

Prepare the seasoning.  This is the bit I got from my college friend as she was raving about how her mother made their Thanksgiving turkey...the spices come from the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair song: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.  College friend's mom threw marjoram in there as well, and that seems to work well in the herb combination.  I don't measure the seasoning, but I do include equal amounts of each.

Mix the butter with the herbs to create a thick paste. 

Scoop up the butter-herb paste and spread it under the turkey skin but over the meat.  It helps if you go in first without the seasonings to separate the skin from the meat.  Good times.

Actually, this part is gross and really messy. I don't like dealing with uncooked meat of any kind,but I get through it only because I know that at this point I am a few hours away from an amazing turkey.  It's totally worth it!

It's important to get the butter-herb paste all over.  It needs to go over the breast meat, legs, wings, etc. as well as in the chest cavity. 

As I mentioned, this process is really messy.  A lot of the butter-herb paste will go into the bird, but a lot remains on the hands. I "wipe" my hands off on the outside of the bird so I don't waste a bit of that Scarborough Fair goodness. 

Once the bird is herbed up, it goes in the oven according to basic roasting instructions (15-20 minutes for every pound of meat). 

I don't have a picture of the roasted turkey, because that would make too much sense.  You'll have to trust me when I say that this is so delicious, it is the only way I will prepare a Thanksgiving turkey now and forever.  I will swear to you, to all things Thanksgiving and to Martha Stewart herself that this spice combination and process makes a phenomenal turkey.  Are you making a turkey this year? Give this recipe and method a won't be sorry! 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Martha Monday--Brine that turkey!

Years ago, before I ever decided to become my own version of Martha Stewart, I roasted a turkey or two or three.  Having had no previous experience (I'm not one of those people who spent her childhood in the kitchen with older, wiser relatives learning to cook and bake), I simply called my Dad for advice and he gave me the basics over the phone:  Take out the gravy packet, neck and giblets. Wash the turkey. Butter it up.  Cook it.  Armed with his words of encouragement, I made some decent turkeys.  Of course, I called my dad before I made each and every turkey and called him afterward to ask what to do with the carcass.  For the carcass:  Put it in a crock pot and make broth. Get all the meat off.  Throw the bones away.  Good times!

Then, I got married and wanted to host holiday dinners at my house and realized that in order for that to happen, it was time for me to figure this whole turkey thing out FOR REAL and stop calling my dad every time I was faced with a dead bird on my counter. I needed to be able to do this on my own, and I wanted to do it just like Martha Stewart.  So I read everything I could on her website about roasting a turkey, committed it to memory, made the turkey a few times and then mastered the process.  I can now make a delicious, moist, amazing Thanksgiving turkey in my sleep. 

The first step to making a great turkey according to Martha, and fiercely advocated by yours truly, is to brine the bird. You can find full instructions here, and these are the same instruction I learned from.  Of course, now I do mine a bit differently, but the process is essentially the same and produces a moist, tender turkey every time. 

Start with an oven bag, but any large, clean, thick plastic bag will do (read: plastic garbage bag).

Turkeys should be brined for at least 24 hours, and it will need to be in a cool space during that time. I like to keep mine in the fridge, so I just throw the whole thing in the vegetable drawer.  In the oven bag, of course.

Clear out the vegetable drawer, open the oven bag, put in the cleaned turkey, and pour your brine over the turkey.  Secure the bag, making sure that the turkey is completely covered by the brining solution. If your turkey isn't covered, you'll need to turn it midway through the brining process.

Stick the whole thing in the fridge for 24-36 hours and let the magic happen.

Take the bird out an hour before you begin roasting it and rinse it off.  Now, you're ready to season the bird.  While it may seem complicated, brining a turkey is actually quite easy and the time spent on the bird is minimal.  By far, the longest part of the process is just allowing the bird to sit in the brine in the fridge/cooler.

If you do only one thing of Martha's for your Thanksgiving meal, then brining the turkey has to be it. I'm convinced that this, not the type of turkey, not the seasoning, not anything else, is the secret to a perfect Thanksgiving turkey. Try it yourself and see! 

Tomorrow, I'll share my take on Martha's Roast Turkey with Herb Butter.  Paired with a well-brined turkey, it is absolute holiday meal heaven. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Desserts for dinosaurs

So I'm still working on the whole fancy-pants dessert table concept (see anything featured by Amy Atlas) so there's no cutesy backdrop for my sweets. 

The cake and cookies more than make up for the lack of backdrop, however:

The cake is chocolate with buttercream frosting and features a volcano.  A cookie Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Triceratops standing around the "4" candle complete the scene. 

To go along with the cake, I made chocolate-frosted pretzels covered with Dino sprinkles from Karen's Cookies Shop.

I put out a dish of M&M's flanked by dinosaurs.  I tried to use the Little Guy's dinosaurs throughout the house for decorations. 

This Spinosaurus is either really scary as he guards the cookies...or really happy to be so close to the cookies.  I'm not sure which!

Take a look at the cookies, and you can be the judge of his demeanor.

All of the dinosaur cookies were made with cutters from Karen's Cookies.  For anyone looking for specialty cutters that you just can't find in a store, I highly recommend them!  I baked all the cookies (with help from my family, of course!) and the Big Guy and Handy Freddy helped flood the cookies after I outlined them.  The frosting is Karen's meringue powder buttercream recipe, and I've been using it for years. 

The Dino footprint cookie was Handy Freddy's idea.  I had an egg cookie cutter, and I had planned to do speckled dinosaur egg cookies.  Freddy suggested cutting a "M" shape into the wide part of the egg to turn it into a footprint to match the chalk footprints outside the houseIsn't that brilliant?

For a dramatic presentation of the cake, I put 6 trick sparkler candles into the volcano part of the cake.  Grouping them so close together gave me a huge flame rather than sparks, but since no one was burned and the house didn't catch on fire, I'm declaring it a success.

And that's how we do things for a Dino-riffic 4th birthday party!

Have a great weekend, everyone! And Happy Veterans Day!