Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I Put On My Big Girl Pants

So I can't believe I almost forgot to tell you.... you know how I've been talking about moving to a self-hosted blog for well, forever?  I finally actually did it.  And it was so much less painful and scary than I had made it out to be in my head.

I'm still working out the kinks and unpacking and updating over there, but go check out Honest & Truly!  I've started posting there already, so scoot on over.

You'll have to resubscribe to a new feed, but I have all my social media buttons on the site and easily accessible.  While you're at it, follow me on Twitter.  And like my Facebook page.  And follow my boards on Pinterest, too.

And give me your honest thoughts on the new blog... I really want to know!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Favorite Yellow Cake - Tasty Tuesday!

My birthday was Saturday.  And if I want a cake, I have to make it myself.  Since I was already making chocolate chip cookie cupcakes for a friend's daughter's birthday party, I wasn't feeling super creative on what I wanted for myself.  I just wanted something I knew I could make easily to take to the Northwestern tailgate.  The answer is deliciously simple: my favorite yellow cake.  It's super quick to throw together, and it tastes so good!

Slice of yellow cake with mocha frosting

Favorite Yellow Cake

1 c butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 c sugar
4 eggs
3 c sifted flour
2 1/2 t baking powder
3/4 t salt
1 c milk
1 t vanilla extract
1 t almond extract  (if you have none, go with 2 t vanilla)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare your pans either by using the lazy man's way out (Pam) or butter and flouring them.  You can use a 9x13 pan or 3 9 inch rounds.  Guess which I usually do....

Beat together the butter and sugar until they are fluffy and lightened in texture, just as you do with most recipes.  It is important that the butter be room temperature.  When it's cold, it doesn't fluff as well, and you don't get the same light texture to your cake.  Trust me.

Add your eggs one at a time.  Beat well between each addition.  You want the light texture from your eggs, too, but you don't want to overbeat these, so don't leave your mixer on for minutes at a time.

Add the salt and baking powder, mixing well.  Add 1 cup of the flour and stir gently.  This is when I stop with the electric mixer and move to a large spatula to ensure I don't overmix the batter, which results in bubbles in my cake and a too dense, crumby texture.  Add half the milk, as well as the vanilla and almond extract.  Mix with your spatula until incorporated, stirring from the bottom to the top.  Add another cup of flour, stirring again.  Add the remaining milk, stir.  Add the last of the flour and stir until just combined.

Pour your batter into your prepared pans.  Bake in the 350 degree oven for 24 minutes for the rounds or 30-33 minutes for the 9x13 pan, testing to ensure the middle is baked before removing the cakes.

Let cool for ten minutes in the pan, then turn out to a wire rack to cool the rest of the way.  Frost as desired and eat within a day or two.  I made a mocha frosting for this that was awesome.  It's super easy to make frosting and so forgiving.  One day I will make a video showing how to rescue frosting from various issues because no matter how much I've accidentally put in too much milk or powdered sugar or whatever, I can always bring it back to a wonderful frosting - and you can, too, if you have the confidence.

Mocha frosting?  A little espresso, half a stick of butter, half a cup or so of cocoa powder, a couple tablespoons of milk, and 2-3 c powdered sugar.  Mix together the butter and sugar, add the milk, add the cocoa powder and espresso and mix again.  Then beat until it's fluffy.  Adjust your ratios until you like the texture, then frost immediately.

Oh, and then sing happy birthday to me.  Loudly, please.

Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday.  Rachel from A Southern Fairytale has an awesome Mouthwatering Monday linkup that I participate in, too.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Stay Debt Free Over The Holidays

It's already Cyber Monday, and I've heard nothing on the radio today but about how much money people are going to be spending today - an estimate of over $1.5 billion - and more to come.  With the most possible shopping days before Christmas, retailers are exhorting people to make the most of them.  And making the most of them is going to put a lot of people into unnecessary debt.

My gift to you this year?  My suggestions and tips on how to avoid sliding into debt over the holidays.

Avoid holiday debt

1. Holidays are about people - or should be.  Have conversations with your family about what really matters to you and what you want most.  Explain to your son that this year you won't be buying a new video game console, but you'll offer $25 or $50 towards buying it.  Discuss with your spouse whether you really want to exchange gifts or maybe set strict spending limits - and stick to them.  Explain to your kids that they will receive fewer gifts this year because the focus is shifting.  The wee ones know that Jesus got three gifts, and they get three gifts.  And they're fine with that.

2.  With extended family members or groups of friends where you regularly exchange gifts, have a similar conversation.  Do you want to exchange gifts?  Can you maybe simply purchase gifts for the kids and not the adults?  What about drawing names and buying one gift for someone in the group instead of each buying a gift for every person?  Have you ever though of doing a white elephant exchange with a $5 or $10 limit?  They are so much fun.

3.  Don't add anyone else to your gift giving list.  I know you love you new best friend or there's someone who you could start the gift exchange with, but ... don't.  In all likelihood they need a gift from you just as much as you need one from them, so save the cash on both sides.  Go out for a drink or dinner instead.  Bake cookies and share them.  But don't start giving more gifts if you can help it.

4.  Don't just spend money, raise it.  If I look around my house, I see so many things that I no longer need or want - from gifts that people gave me to books the wee ones no longer read to clothes they've outgrown to kitchen gadgets I don't use.  The season for garage sales is over in Chicago, but Craigslist is your friend.  So is eBay.  And I told you about the awesome Buy/Sell/Trade groups on Facebook.  If you're going to spend money, make sure you have it.

5.  Speaking of those gifts people gave you that you've never actually opened or used... regift.  I have no issues receiving an item that someone else received as a gift that didn't fit for them so long as it is a good fit for me.  If you don't cook and received an immersion blender and need to get me something, pass that sucker along.  No one will know - or care (or if they do, shame on them) - and this is a great way to upcycle items that are otherwise just taking up space.

6.  Put away the credit cards.  This one is an obvious one, I suppose.  It's really easy to forget how much you're spending when you don't have to open your wallet and remove the green.  In fact, figure out how much you can afford to spend, put it in an envelope marked "Christmas money" and use that to buy everything.  If you run out, you're done.  And if you have some left over, deposit in the bank.  It is not a windfall.  It's your hard earned money that you can use for something else you really need later.

7.  Create your own gifts.  Giving the gift of time or talent is wonderful.  So many of us have more than we need.  Instead of another... thing, give people you.  Create a gift certificate for an hour of organizing or a home cooked dinner or babysitting or three hours of window cleaning or anything that you can do that your recipient would appreciate.  Maybe it's a date to the movies.  Maybe it's reading to your niece before bedtime.  Those are the gifts that people remember fifteen years from now.  Those are the ones I want to receive.

8.  Buy the large gift baskets and split them up.  I do this all the time, especially for gifts I need to purchase for teachers and therapists where all of a sudden, I have to purchase 11 more gifts for the people who do so much for my children.  If I buy a large gift basket, I suddenly have a bunch of gifts that are much cheaper than they were individually.  And they are often pre-wrapped very prettily, which saves me time.

9.  Search for coupons for every item you want to buy.  It's amazing what's out there.  I was looking for a Black & Decker smart battery charger (or something similar) for my car the other day.  I first found one for $157.  After searching and coupons, I managed to bring the price down for the same model to $84.53.  Search.  Whether you're buying offline or on, search for a coupon both for the item and for retailers where you might purchase it.

10. Save your receipts.  You may have thought you got the best deal ever when you went shopping on Black Friday.  But maybe you didn't.  Or maybe that perfect gift wasn't perfect and now you've found the perfect gift - and it's cheaper.  Save your receipts so that you can return any unwanted items that you bought in the heat of the moment and you can bring back the items that are now cheaper at another retailer.  Plus, many retailers will credit you with the newly discounted price within a certain time period (usually two weeks) if they now sell it for a lower price.  You simply have to bring in your receipt, and they'll credit you for that amount.

I'm staying out of debt this holiday season - and beyond.  What are your tips beyond the ten I've shared here?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chocolate Chip Cookie Cupcakes - Tasty Tuesday

I know, I know... it's not Tuesday.  I bet you thought I forgot about posting my usual Tuesday recipe.  Believe me, I tried.  Unfortunately, I had a stomach bug, and writing about food was painful - literally.  Fortunately, I'm feeling at least moderately better today, so I still get my post up.

This week is another focus on sweet treats.  I'm grateful that Mister Man's school doesn't only still allow students to bring in birthday treats, but the treats can be homemade.  I know this is becoming more and more rare and that there are plenty of people who have an issue with it, but we don't do sweets often, so I'm fine with it.

This year, he told me that he didn't care what kind of cupcakes I made for school "because they're always yummy, Mommy."  And he'd already put in a special request for apple cupcakes for his birthday party.  And apparently that's another recipe I need to post -  they were awesome, although some of the eight and nine year olds' palates weren't quite ready for them.

So what did I do for school?  I made chocolate chip cookie cupcakes - the best of both worlds!

chocolate chip cookie cupcakes just baked

Chocolate Chip Cookie Cupcakes

1/2 c butter
1 1/4 c brown sugar, separated
1 t vanilla, separated,
2 eggs
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 c flour
1 c chocolate chips

In a bowl, beat together the butter and 3/4 c of the brown sugar until it is lightened in color and fluffy.  Add one egg and 1/2 t of vanilla, and beat again for another minute.  Add the baking soda and salt and mix again.  Add the flour and stir until just combined.  This will be much thicker than your usual cupcake batter, but you did it right - don't worry!

Set up your cupcake tins with liners, and fill each liner about half full of the cupcake batter.  Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes.  While these are baking, start the chocolate chip cookie topping.

In another bowl (or the same one if you're feeling like washing fewer dishes), mix together the last 1/2 cup of brown sugar, the second egg, and a pinch of salt.  Beat at high speed until it's formed almost a meringue.  This will take a few minutes, and it will be very runny.

The batter will be light and fluffy and very thin

Stir in the chocolate chips and other 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla.  When the cupcakes have finished their 15 minutes in the oven, turn the oven up to 425 degrees.  Spoon a dollop of the topping onto each cupcake.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Cupcakes ready for second bake

Bake the cupcakes at 425 for another 10 minutes.  Let the cupcakes cool in the pan before frosting.  When you frost them, keep in mind that the topping really is like a meringue and will crack if you put too much pressure on it.  Instead, pipe frosting on, or do a ganache that is really liquidy when you apply it to keep it from ruining your cupcakes.
Chocolate ganache topped chocolate chip cookie cupcakes


Enjoy this and more with Blessed With Grace and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday.  Rachel from A Southern Fairytale has an awesome Mouthwatering Monday linkup that I participate in, too.

Monday, November 19, 2012

It's Only Superstitious If It Doesn't Work

Dear Northwestern Football,
My deepest apologies.  I am fully to blame for your three losses this year, and I regret not having done my part to ensure your victory.  Unfortunately, I didn't realize how exact I must be to guarantee a win.  I have rectified my error, however, and I promise to do my part this coming Saturday.

Do you remember when I wrote about my football nail art that I've been doing this season?  Well, apparently, it isn't good enough to simply do it.  The weeks you played Penn State and Nebraska?  Well, I was a little lazy.  For Penn State, I did the brown on Friday but finished up the manicure Saturday morning while at Mister Man's Tae Kwon Do.  And Nebraska?  I did that one completely on Saturday morning.  Michigan is the most embarrassing.  I simply forgot to do it and left on my old manicure.

I was doing the rest of it right.  I got my venti Starbucks in the morning.  I dressed in purple.  And I wore my NU football necklace and 'Cats earrings.  I've confirmed that the purple ring doesn't make a difference one way or the other, but I didn't realize how crucial the football manicure was.

NU earrings and necklace, with football nail art

This week when you played Michigan State, I made sure to complete my football manicure Friday night.  Even though I didn't get home until late, I made sure to stay up long enough to complete the football nail art and let it dry.

And it worked!  (Of course.)

I promise to ensure that I get my manicure completed this Friday before the Illinois game.  After all, it's my birthday that day, and what better present than an NU win?


Friday, November 16, 2012

My Fall Fashion Obsession

I'm not a fashion blogger.  I don't talk about what I wear and what I love, but... I do love clothes.  And shoes.  And accessories.  And call me silly, but I love listening to and reading "normal" people and what and how they put their wardrobes together more than I do fashion bloggers because I feel like the fashion bloggers are a little too out there, and I'd rather find items that I'd wear and that fit me.

So this week, Jessica McFadden of A Parent in America asks the #VlogMom question:

What are your favorite fall/winter fashion items, either already in your closet or on your shopping wish list?

And my heretofore unknown boot obsession comes to light....  But I need your help, too!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I Wish I Had Expat Kids

When I was eight, my family moved to Belgium.  You knew that about me, right?  No?  Well, we did, and we were there for a little over a year (not the three to five it was supposed to be, but that's a different story).  Honestly?  It was my favorite place I ever lived.

In Belgium (at least at the time), non-citizens weren't allowed to own houses, so we rented a 500 year old farmhouse.  We had a huge backyard with apple and pear trees and lived on a one lane cobblestone road - gloriously named Chemin du Bas Ransbeck in the tiny village of Ohain just outside Waterloo.  I remember the stone floors and the root cellar, the chalkboard on the kitchen wall for the daily shopping list, the lack of screen on the windows because there are no bugs, and the lack of closets in the house.

It was eye opening for an eight year old.  Not every country has closets built into the house?  You have to purchase wardrobes instead?  People go shopping on a daily basis instead of stocking up for the week (that was my mom's favorite - and she never made it to school to pick us up with a loaf of bread intact)?  And wait... they eat horse meat?  That one we discovered when my mom cooked a roast that just wouldn't bake.  It stayed pink/red and never turned brown.  After three hours, she finally threw it out, only to discover later that "cheval" means horse in French.  She was really careful about what she bought after that.

French grammar book and verb conjugation dictionary

My sister an I attended St. John's, an international school not too far from our house.  It was taught in English, but every student learned French.  I don't mean "studied" or "had a half hour class once or twice a week."  We learned it through songs and slideshows and conversations and more.  Apparently I was pretty fluent by the time we left.  And had I stayed into fourth grade, that's when they added a third language aside from English and French.  And a fourth language followed.  Did I mention that they followed the block schedule even in elementary school so that we studied our subjects in big blocks of time to get through the material without having to rush to get to the next subject?  I found that fascinating, and it was a hard adjustment when I moved back to the States.

I would move back in a heartbeat, but my husband's job isn't made for us to be expats, so the wee ones will never have the same experience I did - driving through Europe on weekends to visit Poland and Spain and West Germany (hey, it was the 80s - there was a West Germany) and more.  I saw so many things that were just normal to me that made a lasting impression.

I'm grateful that Little Miss is in a Spanish immersion program and will have the language - and a little culture - that most Americans don't receive in elementary school.  I'm happy that Mister Man takes a Spanish class once a week to at least expose him to the language.  And one day, I hope we'll be able to spend the summer renting an apartment in Europe so that they can have some of that experience.  Regardless, I'll encourage them to do a study abroad program in college if not in high school.

Because this understanding the rest of the world and where we fit into it ? It's kind of important stuff.  Have you ever lived abroad?  Would you want to - with or without kids?

Cover for The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

In the interest of full disclosure, this post is part of the From Left to Write book club where we write posts based on books we read as opposed to traditional book reviews.  I received a copy of "The Headmaster's Wager" by Vincent Lam to facilitate my post, but I was not compensated.  All opinions remain my own.

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