Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Back to Reality

I don't think I ever mentioned it here, but I had my house on the market for a good bit of last year. When I listed, I thought selling would be a snap. While I joke and say I live in the ghetto, my neighborhood is not the greatest but my house has been lovingly maintained and in good shape compared to some of the others on my street. I really thought it wouldn't take that long and I'd be closer to work, in a little bigger place, by the end of the summer. What I didn't realize was that some of my slumlord neighbors were trying to unload their investment properties at the same time. Adding those properties to the rest for sale on my street brought the total to more than a dozen. I took my house off the market in August and since then, there have been at least 15 house for sale on my street at any given time and as far as I know, none of them have sold.

So now I'm trying to make do with what I have. I don't want to make expensive improvements that won't see any return but at the same time, I want to improve my living space. I've come up with quite a list and prioritizing has been... interesting.

  • Replace blinds throughout the house

  • Replace kitchen faucet

  • Replace shower heads

  • Replace outside spigot/s

  • New garbage disposal

  • Replace door sweeps on front & garage door

  • New main breaker box

  • New master toilet

  • Re-caulk master bathtub

  • New oven

  • Paint kitchen cabinets

  • Paint kitchen

  • Remove downstairs carpeting and replace with tile or alternative

  • Replace counters & back-splash in kitchen

I realize those last two are probably the most pricey and give me the most pause. One of the houses for sale down the street has dropped its price by nearly 20 thousand and they made all kinds of big improvements - siding, full bathroom & kitchen renovations, etc. I'm sure they're not making any of that money back.

At least I can do most of the items on the list myself or by enticing some friends with the promise of beer/pizza/cookies/babysitting.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Feast or famine

And now, we wait. My sister-in-law is currently 39 weeks pregnant with my first niece and we are all very anxious for her arrival. The shower was lovely (I made yet another diaper cake) and this kid will be very well dressed for some time. One of the shower games was basically guessing which day you thought the baby would be born and the closest (with closest weight) gets a prize. After seeing the most recent belly pictures, my pic of the 9th is looking fairly promising. It's isn't that I want to win the prize, I just want the baby here to cuddle with and spoil rotten!

I'm actually rather proud of that cake. It's 4 tiers tall and over 100 diapers went into it. I even managed to coordinate the colors with minimal insight from the hostesses (not that I blame them - it's just hard that I live 200 miles away from everyone else).

GIS Day was mid-November and I made globe cakepops. They were such a big hit I'll bust out with Christmas tree ones later this month. Please forgive for the globes not being geographically accurate. Working with candy melts is harder than it looks; that's why most of them just spell out G-I-S D-A-Y in the background.

Following that came Thanksgiving where I spent I week in the frozen tundra that is Wisconsin. My grandmother and I covered a lot of ground - she supervised me making a batch of rolls, making little suggestions along the way, I baked a batch of Martha's Grammy's Chocolate Cookies which my grandma liked as well as 2 batches of her famous Christmas cookies. First we made the cut out cookies and I was impressed with how few times she rolls her dough. I positively let mine get tough but I think it's easier to cut that way. She did like my idea about chilling the dough for a while although we didn't really need to. We also made some of her spritz cookies that are colored like Christmas trees. I made the red dough, so my hands looked like I'd murdered someone. Here she is in her tiny kitchen. Isn't she cute? She said the rolling pin fell of the table many years ago and that's why it only has one good handle. And she really only busts out that table cloth when she's baking, even though it is holiday appropriate right now.

I made sure her pantry and freezer were stocked and left my present with her - 4 trips to beauty parlor. The big family Thanksgiving dinner was downsized a bit since part of the family branched off on their own this year. We didn't mind - it meant we could actually have a conversation over dinner and more leftovers for Grandma.

Secret Santa has started at work and I have a new employee. He filled out his form rather thoroughly as far as likes & dislikes but I had a hard time finding things to get him. So improvised and basically, all he's getting from me is goodies. Mostly store bought, but tonight I'm testing out Martha's peanut butter cookie recipe from her book. She hasn't steered me wrong until this point. The recipe says the cookies bake for 25 minutes, rotating halfway. I adjust time and temp down due to my wacky oven but even then, my cookies were burnt. I lowered the time again and yet another tray of blackened cookies. If it weren't for that dozen cookies, I would almost have the amount called for in the book and a few leftover to share at work. It looks like he'll get most of them. I guess that's OK.

My littlest helper, Bert, isn't so little anymore. He weighs at least 10 pounds now and doesn't fit in that blue bowl anymore so I have a hard time weighing him. He's discovered that he can jump up on the kitchen counters without assistance, so no place is safe anymore. He's also renewed his love of boxes and I'm afraid if we'll need to stage a box-hab intervention.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My new assistant

As I've mentioned before, earlier this year, one of my cats took ill and passed away. After mourning what I thought was an acceptable amount of time, I adopted a kitten in July. Actually, Julian was driving me nuts; he was so lonely and clingy, I figured a new friend would help things out. They've finally settled into their new relationship and get along as well as an 11 year old fat kitty and a 4 month old kitten can.

Meet Bert.

He's my new baking assistant. He loves to "help".

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Apologies and Dewey News

First and foremost, I need to apologize for my complete lack of posting for the last 6 months. Loosing Mustardseed was completely unexpected and spun me so much I can't even describe it. Well, I tried to, but never posted what I wrote because it seemed to self-indulgent. I really wrote it for me anyway. Long story short (too late, I know), he was a very special cat and Julian & I miss him terribly.

On to the good stuff... it's Dewey Donation time again! If you're unaware of the program, go check it out. They are really making a difference and every little bit helps. I loved going through the wishlists and picking out the books to donate. It felt like holiday shopping! But time is running out - the drive ends on Monday, so act fast!

Other news... Bakerella's book finally arrived and I'm feeling very inspired. I've got quite a few events coming up and I can't wait to start making cute cake pops. I even stopped for supplies today and spent entirely too much money. Pictures and descriptions of my attempts are guaranteed.

I'll be spending Thanksgiving with my grandmother, so I'm sure I'll be put to work on her Christmas cookies. I'm even going to bring her another new recipe, since she liked the Snickerdoodles I made when I visited her earlier this summer. I can't believe she'd never had a Snickerdoodle before!

Thanks for all of your patience and I'll try to not have such a large gaps between posts next time. Happy baking!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Baby Shower Bonanza

My best friend is having a baby and I co-hosted her shower this weekend. Since I live on the complete opposite side of town and she's really good friends with her neighbor, she (her neighbor) and I teamed up to host at her house.

I found the cutest invitations weeks ago at Hobby Lobby (quickly becoming my favorite store, btw) and slowly put together the rest of the paper products in the same pattern. The only picture was taken with my camera phone, so I won't bother posting it. You'll just have to take my word that they were cute. We all got together about a month ago to prepare the invitations and we heard back from nearly everyone. I must say it is nice when people are polite and RSVP.

So the week before, we started checking things off our lists. We'd decided to make a diaper cake for Momma and I found some interesting decorating techniques online. For example, I made washcloth roses.
I can't even begin to tell you how easy they were to make! I'm sure with more practice they would look better, for a first attempt this are pretty good.

We just decorated the diapers with ribbon and baby accessories (in this case, a teething ring and pacifiers). We thought it would take hours and it took less than one. While uncomplicated, I recommend working on this with a partner when assembling all of the diapers into the layers.

And of course, I baked. My mother came down from DFW for the shower and she was a big help. She'd given me a magazine full of cake-mix ideas, so I used one of those recipes for our cupcakes. I don't usually do cupcakes because I have a hard time judging how full to make the cups. We did a double batch, just be safe on the numbers. I didn't want anyone to miss out on seconds because we didn't have enough cupcakes. I also made the icing from scratch and while a bit of a pain, it was totally worth it. Homemade frosting with ingredients I can pronounce = win.

These are just a white cake mix, injected with lemon curd filling and topped with vanilla butter cream frosting. Mom insisted on mixing up lemon curd with bean curd, so we lost a lot of time due to hysterical laughter. She did offer an excellent suggestion of using my cooking press fitted with a frosting tip to inject the filling. While messy, it was a lot easier than how I had planned - using a plastic bag with a corner snipped off.

Focusing on the shower has helped me a lot this last month. February was probably the least fun month of my entire life and I'm still dealing with the loss of Mustardseed. I've been working on a tribute posting for him, but it just never seems finished. I think of new things I miss about him everyday.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Mega X-Mas Cookie Marathon

Or "How I Spent the Winter TV Doldrums..."

It's taken two weeks to recap my holiday baking because I'm still recovering from all of it! I had an overly ambitious idea this fall to send boxes of cookies to friends around the country as well as to my dear grandmother who did the same for me in college. So technically, it's all her fault.

Because of the overwhelming scope, I made a plan. I made a list of recipients and whittled it down to a manageable number - 16. I found perfect plastic containers at the local grocery store which were thriftier than buying new tins. I measured the tubs to determine the boxes I would need for shipping and ordered them from USPS.com in what I thought was plenty of time. More on that later, on to the baking.

I broke the baking into 2 segments - shipments & out of town deliveries vs. local deliveries. I knew I had to get my shipments out by a specific date so they would arrive well before Christmas. I chose three types of cookies (down from 6, plus fudge and/or candied pecans, like I said, I was very ambitious at the start) - Gingersnaps, the classic Iced Sugar Cookie, and everyone's favorite Chocolate Chip. All Grandma's recipes, all time-tested and taste bud approved. To fill the first 10 tubs for shipment, I made double batches of the gingersnaps and chocolate chips and a single batch of the sugars because that makes a ton of cookies. After filling the tubs, I realized I probably could have added one more variety but I just didn't have time. I baked the cookies over the course of a week, as well as a batch of pumpkin bread to fulfill a Secret Santa obligation.

At the very latest, I wanted to send the boxes out 2 weeks before Christmas itself, to ensure delivery. This is where the postal service failed me. The boxes I ordered were free, and the website said they would be delivered within 7-10 business days of the order. I even got an email notification when they were shipped but the notice offered nothing as a means of tracking my shipment. I received that notice a week before I wanted to send them out, so I thought I was well on my way to making this work. As the baking week progressed, the boxes didn't come. I took a partial day from work to start a long holiday weekend and the boxes hadn't arrived. So I loaded all of the tubs in the trunk and headed home for a weekend with the family. I ended up taking the tubs to the UPS store and paying 3x what I would have paid at the post office. By that point, I was so upset I didn't care - I felt like I was protesting the post office. Ultimately, I shipped 8 boxes since one was delivered en route to my parents to my college roommate and the other went to my brother & his wife.

The next round of baking was much less hectic as I didn't have a set deadline. I wanted to deliver over the weekend before Christmas, so I just needed to get things finished by the weekend. I think I did actual do a batch of cookies on Saturday morning, and delivered that evening. Having learned the capacity of the tubs, I decided to include 4 varieties of cookies and I changed things up a bit since they didn't need to be sturdy enough to handle shipping - Gingersnaps, Iced Sugar, Pressed Sugar (they crumble if you look at them funny, but boy, are they yummy!), and Martha's Grammy's Chocolate. The yields of the various batches worked well enough that each tub had a few more than a dozen of each type with a little room to spare. That iced sugar recipe turns out so many cookies - I tried to use similar sized cutters to keep baking even - that I had quite a few of those left. So I brought 2 tubs to work and the remainder went to friends.

Not wanting to waste those left over cookies, I made good on a promise and delivered those as well as a Christmas Eve batch of chocolate chip cookies to my favorite fire station. Those were very well received. It wasn't until the end of my visit with them that I saw the pile of goodies they had in the kitchen. If that shift didn't eat them all, I'm sure the next shift didn't mind the leftovers!

I tried to summarize the amounts of butter, flour and sugar that I used during this after the fact but I can't process that right now. I'll try to do better next year and keep a tally as I go. Best estimates were around 4 pounds of butter, 10 pounds of flour and 12 pounds of sugar, but that's just a guess.

Now I'm considering shipping cookies to soldiers overseas. I'm a glutton for punishment.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

It's Always Something (Icebox Cookies)

The other day I was shopping and passed by Sur La Table and for those of you unfamiliar, it is a higher end kitchen & cooking supply store. It's a lot like I would imagine heaven would be like, actually. I couldn't skip by without peeking inside so I made my way to the back, where all of the baking supplies live. Granted, most of the things that I need I can find at the grocery store for a better price (sanding sugar, vanilla extract) but if I ever need a kangaroo shaped cookie cutter, I know where to find it. I also noticed that they had some really nice baking chocolate and different varities of cocoa powder. That's been sort of a quest for me lately so I had to check it out. And I found this...
I realize that it isn't my precious dutch process powder, but come on, it's Valrhona! Probably one of the best chocolate makers in the world. I had to have it. So I bought it. And then I had to scan through "the book" to find recipes I could use it in.

Icebox Bull's Eyes & Spirals sounded easy enough, even if it was a little futzy, with dividing the dough into portions and rests in the refrigerator. The only modification I made was using 1% milk rather than whole, only because I didn't want to make a trip to the store on a Sunday.

Bull's Eyes, pre-oven

Spirals, pre-oven

Martha would not be pleased with the shapes of my spirals and bull's eyes but cut me some slack, it's my first try.

Bull's Eyes, post oven

Spirals, post oven

Since I had so much down time while the dough rested, I tried to keep up with the mess I'd made. I put the mixing bowl in the sink and filled it with warm, soapy water to let the other utensils soak for a bit. Me being the klutz that I am, I managed to knock it over, spilling a lot of water on the counter, on "the book" and all over the floor. I salvaged the book, although now a lot of the pages are going to show some wear. And on the plus side, I've put a little dent in washing the kitchen floor!