Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Vacation Week - Update

Well, I"m about half way through my vacation week.  Looking back I can't believe how ambitious I was at the beginning of the week, what was I thinking :)  Status check, here's what I've accomplished this week.

  • New blinds for the master bedroom (wasn't on my list but I've been meaning to do it for the last year since the old one was broken.)
  • Valances for the kitchen (once again wasn't on the list but since we re-did our kitchen about five years ago we've been meaning to do this one)
  • Started baking - still have a lot to do
  • Started shopping - I'll be going out this evening with my son to get quite a bit more done.
  • Cleaned kitchen pantry
  • Finished ironing
  • Cleaned linen closet (towels do need to go on my Christmas list!)
  • Inventoried cleaning items, combining duplicates that were almost empty and made list of needed items (I keep cleaning items on two floors to make cleaning easier)
Today I'll get the food made to take to Thanksgiving dinner, make another batch of cookies, clean the linen closet and do some more shopping.

That's it for me - what do you have planned for the rest of this week?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Carrot Cookie Recipe

Many, many years ago my mother belonged to a monthly recipe club.  I remember her having a large, avocado green recipe box and desert cards arriving monthly.  This recipe is one of two remaining cards my mother has kept and one of our family favorites that is made year after year. 

The cookies by themselves are a little plain but the frosting really makes them pop so I am very generous with the frosting. I hope your family enjoys them as much as mine does.

Carrot Cookies
1 cup shortening (I use half butter/half shortening)
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup mashed carrots
2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cut shredded coconut
2 cups floor

Mix shortening, sugar, eggs and carrots. Blend in flour, baking powder and salt - stir in coconut. Drop dough by teaspoonfuls about 2" apart on greased cookie sheet. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 8 - 10 minutes. Batter is loose, not your typical cookie dough. Note: Use the coconut even if you don't typically like coconut. You don't really taste it and it will change the consistency of the cookie

3 tablespoons soft butter
1 1/2 cup powder suger
2 teaspoons grated orange peel
1 tablespoons OJ
Blend butter and sugar, stir in orange peel and OJ. Beat until smooth

As I stated I go pretty heavy on the frosting so I triple this recipe. I also use the juice from a real orange since I'm zesting the orange peel.  Do not add vanilla to the frosting, it tints the frosting and detracts from the orange flavor.

Here's a couple of tips I've learned over the years.
  • Keep the batter in the refrigerator while baking.  If this batter gets warm the cookies tend to spread
  • These cookies do not brown like typical cookies so just make sure they look fully cooked (i.e. don't look runny)
  • Instead of cooking my carrots with water I cook them with some orange juice.  This gives a little additional flavor to the cookie itself.
  • Sprinkle a little bit of orange zest on the top of the cookies for additional visual appeal.
Enjoy!  I'd love to hear if your family liked them or not.

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My White House Black Market Deal

One of my favorite stores to shop is White House Black Market. I typically only buy items that are on sale and try to pair the sales with additional coupons that I've received. A friend of mine from work was given a $15 gift certificate as part of a price package that she won, since she doesn't typically shop there she gave me the certificate.

Last Sunday my husband and I were planning a trip to the mall so I rounded up all my fliers that I receive from them to find the best deal. I found a spend $10 get $10 card and a 20% off (I could only use one) so I planned to use the one that got me the most money.

When I enter the store my first stop is always the clearance rack where most of the items are 50% off. I immediately found a red cardigan that was originally $80 on sale for $40. I used my $10 off card, the $15 gift certificate and a 5% 'membership' discount for being a returning customer making my out of pocket $15.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Christmas Baking - Part 1

Today is the day I'm starting my Christmas baking. I typically take the approach of making a couple of different cookies on different days. Some of the days I just do by myself to get them done but I always try to schedule a couple of the days as a multi-generational baking day. My mom is going to come over tonight and bake cookies with me and the kids.

I sat down this morning and decided what cookies we were going to make, I then went through my pantry and put together a shopping list for what I don't have. Here's what we are going to bake this afternoon

Carrot Cookies
Pecan Fingers
Lemon Cookies

I choose these because they are fairly easy to make. I found that on our multi-generational baking day the simpler the cookies that less stressed I am. Last year my grandma was well enough to bake with us, I found that the pecan fingers were easy enough for her to roll in the powerdered suger even though her coordination was off. If you have an elderly relative or neighbor I would encourage you to invite them over for an afternoon of baking, I'm sure they would really enjoy it like my grandma did.

No, I don't have coupons but I'm not going to stress out about that either. I know it would have been cheaper to plan ahead and look for sales but that would have put a burden on me that I couldn't deal with right now.

Before my mom gets over here I'll measure out the ingredients for each of the cookies to make a quadruple batch. I've found that if I have everything pre-measured before everyone gets here it's less hectic and I'm able to keep my kitchen from being a complete disaster.

My plan is to have enough cookies that I'll be able to send some home with my mom, put together plates at Christmas time for some of our friends/co-workers and also serve at a couple of holiday parties. Since we live in a cold climate I don't need to worry about freezer space, I just put them out in the garage in tightly sealed containers.

I'll let you know how it goes!

Vacation Week - Yeah!

I'm fortunate enough to be off of work for the full week of Thanksgiving. It's been so crazy at work that I still have quite a few days to try and squeeze in before the end of the year. Of course, for you working women out there you know that a vacation from the job just means time to kick butt at home.

Unless we're taking a family vacation or planning day trips I typically use my vacation to get caught up on things around the house as well as maybe meet a friend or two for lunch. Since we're getting close to Christmas this week is typically spent getting into the Christmas spirit. I typically like to make myself a list of what I want to accomplish realizing I'll be lucky to get half of it done. Some people like to keep their list realistic, I like to make my list encompass everything I want to get done. I always say shoot for the stars and be happy with the moon.

Here's my game plan for the week
  • Start Christmas baking (I'll post later a specific plan for what I hope to accomplish for baking)
  • Start Christmas shopping
  • Wrap any presents purchased
  • Get the trees up and decorate the house
  • Christmas cards
  • Plan menu/buy food for my department party I'm hosting in early December
  • Prepare food to take to Thanksgiving dinner (we go to two houses but I bring dishes to each house)
  • Clean and thin out kitchen pantry
  • Clean and thin out bathroom cupboards
  • Clean and thin out linen closet - inventory towels and replace if necessary (I've noticed some of the towels I use are falling apart, since I don't do the laundry I'm not sure if it's all of them or if my son keeps giving me the bad ones!)
  • Tackle ironing pile
  • Clean my closet/drawers and get rid of clothes I don't wear
  • Go through daughter's drawers and thin out her clothes with her.
  • Thoroughly clean all rooms (vacuum behind all furniture, take down blinds/curtains, etc)
  • Inventory, consolidate and replenish cleaning supplies
  • Go through paperwork that I've set aside to destroy/file
  • Have lunch with my mom
  • Get ahead on my school work so I'm not stressed out at Christmas when the final papers are due

I'm sure a few more unexpected items will make their way to my list. I'll update next week how successful I was.

Hope you have a good week!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Busy Mom's Guide to Planning a Birthday Party - Part Two

Yesterday's blog about party planning was geared quite a bit to when money wasn't overly tight. Today I'll give you some ideas as to what I did when money was tight.

First off, just a reminder that I enjoy making the kids birthdays special. As a working mother I feel the need to build memories when we can and this is one way that I do it. I do realize it's not for everyone. The other thing to remind you of is that this is geared towards moms who don't have a lot of time. I know most moms would say that there isn't enough time in the day to get things done but sometimes we have seasons that are worse than others. My goal was to have the best party we could with the least amount of work on my end

As I stated yesterday we have two parties for the kids. The first is for the extended family and the second is a friend party. My first suggestion is....

Try to talk the kids out of a friend party
A friend party is always so attractive to the kids but it's an awful lot of work for the mom. Since both kids were old enough to make a decision (about 5) I've given them the option of having a friend party with no presents from mom & dad (they would get something small) or a really cool present from mom & dad. There have been times when my son has chosen the present over the party which was fine with me. Unfortunately most of the time my daughter has chosen the friend party.

Don't have the party at your house
Why have the party at your house when you can have it somewhere else? Having the party somewhere else doesn't have to be expensive. Think outside of the box and ask around at area businesses. Here are some of the places I've had parties before
- The karate center. My son took karate for a number of years. For one of his parties I was able to have the party at the karate center. They provided the food, cake, entertainment and party favors for about $3 per kid (keep in mind this was a number of years ago). I was thrilled with the price and we ended up inviting his whole class. Very successful party with absolutely no work on my end
- Movie theater. When my son was still having parties we had quite a number of parties at the movie theater. I allowed my son to invite two friends and we took them out for dinner and to the premier of a movie they wanted to see. This was about the time Lord of the Rings was big so it was quite the event. We didn't have a budget theater in our area of time but that would be a good option if there's one in your area
- YMCA. Our YMCA has a party room you can reserve if you are a member. The kids had to be members to get in for free but we were able to get our hands on some free passes for those who weren't members and ended up only paying for a few of the kids. We brought in a cake and the kids had a fun day of swimming and running around.
- Pizza place. The pizza place I took my kids was a local place but I know that there are chains out there like Chuck E Cheese that run coupons all the time. In our area we have a local program similar to Groupon where you can buy parties for half price.

If you have to have the friend party at your house.......
I usually like the sleep over. You can keep the guest list small and this is probably the cheapest party of all. Frozen pizza, cake, potato chips and cereal for breakfast. When the kids were smaller I would look for an inexpensive craft for them to make, now that they're older I just rent a couple of movies. I don't bother with goody bags or anything. What mother wants more junk at her house?

I like having the extended family over for parties and I like to have a 'meal' versus pizza. Here are some options I've done for meals when I couldn't afford to have it catered
- Chili is a favorite of mine. You can make a big batch of chili for practically nothing. meat, beans, tomatoes and spices. I can make enough chili to feed at least 20 people for under $15. Throw some saltines, sour cream and cheese out on with counter with homemade bread and you have a feast.
- Ham and turkey sandwiches. This may not work for everyone but this was one of our cheapest meals. Every year I would get a turkey free from work and my husband got a free ham. I'd have the butcher slice the ham up for me and warm it up in the crock pot. The turkey I'd cook the day before and serve cold. All I ended up buying was the buns and condiments. I would typically make a salad or something to go with it. Obviously not everyone gets free meat or has birthdays at Thanksgiving or Christmas but it's an option if you can find sales. There's a grocery store by us that has ham on sale every Sunday and they also throw in free buns.
- Lasagna & Macaroni Cheese. Once again this is a super simple, cheap meal that I could make ahead of time. Throw in a salad and some bread, you have a full meal.
-Homemade cakes. When money was tight and I didn't want to pay $20 for a store bought cake I'd make a 'special' cake for the kids. My go to cake for my daughter is a triple chocolate bundt cake and for my son it's a pineapple upside cake. It may not be the traditional cake but they haven't really cared because they are getting the cake that's important to them. I've also found shaped cake pans (Barney or Barbie) when they were smaller, but that takes a lot more time.

The above may not work for everyone but it's worked pretty well for me. Both of my kids love their birthdays and always talk fondly of their parties. There have been quite a few women at work who don't have parties for their kids because it's to much work or to expensive, I just want to show that it doesn't have to be either. I'd love to hear any ideas that you may have.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Busy Mom's Guide to Planning a Birthday Party - Part One

In our household we go out of our way to make birthdays (at least the kid's) really special. It started when my was born right at Christmas time. I never wanted him to feel like his birthday was meshed with Christmas so we always tried to make his birthday larger than life. Of course when my daughter came along we kept it up for her.

Over the years there have been birthdays when I've had more time than money, others when I've had more money than time and even more when I didn't have a lot of either. This year I have a little bit more money than time so for this posting I'm going to talk about ways that I save time while still planning a special party.

A typical birthday at our house consists of at least two parties - one for family and one for friends. I know some people like to put them together but I prefer not to subject my family to a bunch of screaming kids if I can help it (yes - I have done it before when that was the best option for my sanity). The family party consists of a dinner for about 20 people while the friend party size depends on what we're doing.

This year I'm keeping things simple to save my sanity. My number one go to when money isn't a huge problem - HIRE A CATERER! I know this sounds expensive but it really doesn't need to be. I found an upscale cafeteria here that has a wide menu that I have used for personal parties, Girl Scout dinners and even my department Christmas party. This year I'm doing a sandwich buffet that includes an assortment of artisan breads, quality lunch meats, cheeses, a tortellini/portabella mushroom salad, a tomato/mozzarella salad and an assortment of desserts. They also throw in all the condiments, plates, napkins and cutlery for the low price of $8.25/person plus tax. If I looked for sales, clipped coupons, ran to different stores and spent the time putting it together I do realize I could do it cheaper. However my time is pretty valuable to so I'd rather just pay someone to do it all. I would encourage you to explore the options in your city, you might be pleasantly surprised.

My second rule to keep my sanity - HAVE SOMEONE ELSE CLEAN YOUR HOUSE! I asked my mother to come clean my house instead of giving me a birthday present this year. She's coming over this Thursday to clean my house for the party that's on Saturday. The family will be under strict orders to not mess anything up under penalty of death. The guests will need to live with any dust or dirt that winds up on the floor between now and then. My mom doesn't do quite the white glove job that I do but I'm trying to live with my new motto of "it's good enough".

My third rule - DON'T GO CRAZY DECORATING THE HOUSE! When the kids were younger I always felt the need to go for the theme birthdays. I don't even bother with special napkins - one less thing for me to stress about or pick up afterwards

Saturday morning all I will need to do is pick up the food, pick up the cake and relax. If I can pull this off it will be a first since I'm usually stressed to the max by the time the party starts. Who wants an exhausted, crabby hostess?

Since my daughter is turning 14 we don't go all out for friends birthdays. This year I'm letting her invite 10 girls to a sleep over (I'm crossing my fingers they won't all come). We have a finished family room in the basement so I won't really hear them once they are downstairs for the night, which they will be shortly after they get here. We'll have frozen pizza for dinner and an inexpensive bakery cake. I won't be out much money or aggravation since they won't want to be by me any more than I want to be by them. My husband was the one who agreed to the 10 girls, easy for him to say yes since he'll be working 3rd shift and I'll be home all alone with them :)

Any ideas for having a stress free party?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Freezer Cooking Wrap Up

Today I did some freezer cooking. In case you didn't notice, when I do a freezer cooking day I don't go crazy. First - I don't have a whole day to devote to cooking and second - the way we eat doesn't dictate that I have a freezer full of meals. What works for me is to have some meals (like my meatloaf) and then pieces of meals that I can grab when I need them. Today I accomplished the following.

5 lbs of shredded pork
A few months ago I found 5 lbs of pork in our grocers clearance meat section for $3. Even though I didn't know for sure what to do with it I bought it. I decided to buy a pork run, cook it in the slow cooker and then shred it. I separated the pork into different bags. Three single serving bags so I could make myself pork carnitas for lunch and two larger serving bags so that my husband could make himself snacks or I could serve it with barbecue sauce for the kids one evening.

8 lbs of shredded chicken
Once again, in our grocers clearance section there were free range organic chickens for a little over a dollar per pound. I typically bake a couple of chickens and then shred them into about one chicken per bag. I then can use these bags for chicken tacos, chicken salads, etc. It's quick and easy to pull them out of the freezer when I need them.

1 serving of mashed potatoes
As I stated in an earlier post I'm cooking a Thanksgiving meal for my family tomorrow. Instead of spending the whole day cooking and then being to exhausted to enjoy our family dinner I decided to get some of the work done today. I made a double batch of mash potatoes using my secret cauliflower recipes (kids don't even know what they are eating) and separated into two bags. One for dinner tomorrow and one for the freezer with one of the meatloafs.

1 serving of stuffing
I pre-made the stuffing for the turkey tomorrow but I'm not quite done. I don't typically stuff my turkey but I use the juice when I bake my stuffing. Tomorrow I'll bake both batches and then freeze the second one for a future meal.

Ok - these probably aren't going to make it into the freezer even though I do typically freeze my cookies instead of using a cookie jar. However, as I stated in my earlier post we're going out for dinner tonight and our kids will be staying home. I make killer cookies (thanks to Alton Brown)
so I typically try to have cookies on hand whenever they come over.

All total I've spent about 3-4 hours in prep, cooking and clean-up spread out througout the day. As I stated before, I may not have a month of meals but I have enough to make my life a little easier without completely overwhelming myself.

Now off to beautify myself for my night out :)

As a final note - my turkey turned out magnificently! I typically cook a pretty good turkey but even my husband agreed this was the best. I'll just need to remember next time what I did differently!

November Freezer Cooking Plan

I really like these freezer cooking weekends because it motivates me to take a look at my freezer. Due to the family's schedule I don't cook a lot so prepared food isn't always on the top of my mind. When someone else starts talking about it I decide to take a look at what I have and what I can get done.

Yesterday was 'date' night with my husband. Date night for us typically includes dinner, errands and grocery shopping. Last night we dropped my car off for an oil change (loooong overdue!), grocery shopped and had dinner at Panera's. When grocery shopping my husband came up with the great idea (he doesn't have to do the work) to have a Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday. Cooking a Thanksgiving dinner is a lot of work but the family truly enjoys it (we do it fairly frequently throughout the winter).

When I did an inventory of the freezer I still had quite a bit of applesauce, cranberry relish and meatloaf from my last freezer cooking day. I did have some meat (two chickens and a pork roast) that has been sitting in my freezer. This is what I plan to do today for my freezer cooking day.

For the freezer
Bake and shred two chickens
Cook the pork roast in the slow cooker and shred

Prep for Sunday Dinner
Prepare stuffing
Mash potatoes (I think I have enough potatoes that I can also freeze a serving)

In addition we're going out with friends this evening so I'm going to try and whip up a batch of cookies for the kids this evening

The other thing that I have on the list to do today is finalize some birthday plans for my daughter's birthday. We're having the family party next week so for lunch my husband and I are going to go check out the caterer that we usually use to get that squared away. I also need to meet with a specialty baker in the area who does specialty cakes. My daughter is really into shows like Amazing Cakes and Cake Boss. If I can get a cake made without it being to outrageous I thought she would really get a kick out of it.