Thursday, June 30, 2011

Type A Conference Recap - Blogger Outreach That Works

As I shared yesterday, I am putting up recaps from the various sessions I attended at Type A Parent Conference last week in Asheville, NC. They aren't fully edited and not my usual posts, but they contain lots of good information, and this is a great way for me to try to recall and retain at least some of it! Each post will have the session name and who presented so you can also contact them.

(The drumming circle that meets with anyone invited every Friday night in the square of Asheville)

Blogger Outreach That Works moderated by Cecily Kellogg from Uppercase Woman @CecilyK, with speakers Jessi Langson of To Kiss the Cook @tokissthecook, Ana Roca Castro of Premier Social Media @anarc and Jenn Fowler from Frugal Upstate @jennfowler.

The majority of the below is information and opinions expressed by the moderators both to PR firms who pitch bloggers, but also to bloggers receiving pitches from and pitching to PR firms.

How to Pitch Bloggers
To PR firms: Don't send pitches on "content that you could write about" - especially for an event that is happening 700 miles from our homes. The general consensus is that it treats us as though you think we don't already have enough to write about and tends to be insulting to bloggers. - from Cecily

Many PR firms now love the outreach via Twitter first - I have a pitch on this topic that pays this much. @ someone first to gauge their interest. By the time she actually emails someone, her conversion rate is really high. How many bloggers get tons of pitches and simply delete them. DM someone after you @ them. Get to know someone before you approach them. Attend conferences and events because people know that it's a good fit and they know you, so they're more likely to open it.

Worst mistakes have been made by inviting people into projects without getting to know them. Then DM, phone them. - Ana Roco-Castro

Jenn Fowler uses email. She has too many people to follow so many people. She does always go to the blog, read a few posts to see how they write. Most importantly, she makes sure they haven't ranted against the brand previously and makes sure they are interested in doing reviews/giveaways. She starts with a quick email first to generate interest - get the quick details fast to see if they're interested so they don't delete it before they get to the info on what's in it for them. "Hi, name is Jenn Fowler, blogger too, 10 second pitch, if interested in more, contact her." Maybe send a follow up a week later, then drop it if no response. Also will have catchy title like "Quick Opportunity for $50 sponsored post"

How To Pitch PR Firms
Jessi - also gets pitches from bloggers. On least favorite front "To whom it may concern, really love your product. Would love to get some of your product." v "Hey, I remember when we met at X. I remember you work with Brand X. I'm doing a series in about 2 months that focuses on Y that fits with your brand because Z" It gave enough lead time, it had a tie in, she knew where it fit, she remembered the brands worked with. When doing wrap-up - I counted Twitter followers before, counted Twitter afterwards and saw a jump. Know not the whole thing is attributable to me, but there was an impact. This is a great example of how to have something summarized that can be packaged to a client easily.

The bigger the blogger, the harder to make them comply with the project - per CecilyK. Likes to work with Bloggers who are in the 2, 3, 4 page rank range. If they turn it down, no worries, but they are easier to work with than the page rank 5 and above who she tends to have to hunt down a lot. You can't know every blogger to start. You don't want to work with the same people all the time, so have to try to expand the list over time. When searches for a brand name or a topic, keeps reader with a few thousand people in it so that there are good results coming up in the search. Some of it is going to be a leap of faith, but you look also at the community - who is following that person, do they engage with their audience, too? - per Jenn

Ana - uses geek coin (look it up) to manage campaigns. She suggests people make sure a brand puts the money in an escrow account or elsewhere so that you don't have to wait five months to be paid. This has been an issue with her getting burned in the past. It isn't always feasible or possible, however.

Jenn uses an engagement document for every project with bloggers over around $50 or so. It has all the details of what is included, required, etc so that it is very clear what is expected and it seems to increase the obligation of people to complete the project, as well. If it's an email, it turns out to be a little less reliable. Also is a big believer in a campaign document with resources, pictures, links, verbiage suggestions, information about product so don't have to search through multiple tabs in the website. It's their post, and they can include the information they want - but it makes it easier for everyone.

Blogger and Brand bill of rights
Bloggers - what they have right to expect from the brand
Professionalism - deserve to be treated like professionals. We are not hobbyists. We do this for a living and deserve to be treated that way.

Access and communication - respond to us when needed

Clear terms - no mission creep. State what you're doing and stick to it. if more is being asked for, state that the project is for X. I can do Y that I am interested in, but it's outside the scope of what we've agreed to. Let's begin a new engagement and project. Or state that you aren't comfortable with Y if you aren't.

Understanding of Values - meat project for a vegetarian, for example, no no

Clear instructions - see above, plus: Reiterate what the expectations are at the end of the communications back and forth if there isn't a mission engagement document so that it's clear that you are in agreement and can point to it later if there are any issues.

Prompt payment - within reason. The bigger the brand, the slower the payment. Up to 60 to 90 days with approvals and accounting and more and more. 45-60 days is normal. It's fine to ask when.

Disclosure - It's a requirement by law to disclose relationships with sponsors. The blogger can get in trouble if they don't. Don't ask bloggers not to.

If you are signing a document, you are absolutely within your rights to amend the contract - or ask to do so - and ask questions about the restrictions like content or photo ownership. You don't have to simply take what is sent you, especially for larger projects. They may drop you, but that may have happened in the end anyway. It's a risk you may want or need to take.

Brand rights to expect from bloggers
Professionalism - they have the right to expect that from us

Access and communication - need to be able to reach us, let them know what's happening

Deadlines met - this is critical

Unique and original content - just for them and not regurgitating information they sent or what you can get elsewhere, or for that matter, what you've posted for other projects

Measuring results - they have the right to do this

Reports - if agreed upon, they have the right to ask you for analytics on your part

Disclosure - we must be disclosing what we do

You are so much more interesting than cutting and pasting a PR press release. Make it your own content. Plus, it hurts SEO of the company and SEO of the blogger, which benefits no one. Better to say why you love the article and then link to the press release on a site somewhere - something to suggest if it's something that you want to post.

You will get requests that are totally inappropriate. If you think on your feet, you can turn that around to some other opportunity. I do consulting on the side. If you need bloggers for an event, I am happy to tap into my network for $X. Don't simply send out your contacts when approached (a current pitch for an event for a brand that I received, as well). Also ask if they are the right person to talk to. Marketing, social media, PR, SEO, etc are not on the same page or team and often have different budgets and may not be on board with what others are doing.

Discussion on Blogger Trips
Bloggers tend to enjoy them, but they have to be well run. There has to be an agenda, people need to talk about the brand with a passion. You need to convert the bloggers into evangelists. A badly run trip is worse than no trip at all. Because they are bloggers coming from a different background in many cases, you need to take care of them a little bit more than you do for a typical press junket. Press are not going to become evangelists for you. They will talk about you in one article, but bloggers will become your evangelists and talk about you forever.

Give warning about trips - need time to plan for things at home. IF there is provision for childcare / food delivered to home / etc, it makes things that much easier and a more positive experience for the bloggers - especially mom bloggers. Also make sure that there is follow up after the event. Don't just go radio silent afterwards. For brands, check out the calendar to make sure that there aren't other major events going on at the same time - it will impact your attendance, especially for bloggers you want to attend. It's all about knowing your audience.

What do you have to add?

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Type A Conference Recap - Facebook Pages Session

Last week, I spent Wednesday to Sunday in Asheville, NC for the Type A Parent Conference. There were a ton of great sessions, and I was excited to attend and learn from as many as I possibly could. Knowing how much information I was about to be overwhelmed by, I made sure to take as solid of typed notes as I possibly could in an effort to ensure I retained some of the valuable information imparted. Who knows if I completely succeeded or not, but I'm happy to share what I have!

That said, it isn't completely edited, so this series won't be like my usual posts. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions or additional information. Each post will have the session name and who presented so you can also contact them.

Facebook Pages by Melanie Nelson from Blogging Basics 101 - @chilihead

Basics of Setting Up a Facebook Page
To set up your page, go to pages.php.

There are six options that affect which text boxes you can fill out later - bricks and mortar store can fill out parking info and address, etc that will allow people to do cool things like check in at your store and do loyalty discounts, etc. You can still change it down the road, but set it up right now so you don't have to go in your dashboard in your settings you can change the categories later.

If you click edit page, this is how you get to your dashboard on your page; you are automatically taken to your manage permissions page. Leave your settings open. She encourages all of you to allow anyone to post to the wall. If you close it to others, it's like turning your back on people in the room with you and ignoring them. By allowing others to post, they feel like their voice matters and that they're a part of the community. Sometimes there will be negativity, and how you handle that will impact your community.

Building a Community in Facebook
Know what your goals and objectives are for FB so that you know how you want to use it. That will impact what you do and how. Local businesses will frequently say they don't have a website and use FB only, know that you don't own it. You could have it taken down one day because FB takes exception to it, too many people report it as spam, etc. Use other tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, a blog, etc so that all your eggs aren't in one basket.

On your settings, you don't have to post as yourself so that it isn't confusing to people about who the person is posting - e.g., not as Michelle but as Honest & Truly. If you uncheck this option, you will show up as yourself. You can also get email notifications when people post as yourself so that you get updates when people post so you aren't surprised when 15 people have posted and you aren't aware.

If you have a FB page, you have to monitor it regularly - like every day. You can't just set it up and let it go. You don't want the community to run itself. There was a study on what the best time to post is, and it showed morning, around noon, and right around dinner time (eastern time). It also showed that best is once every other day, but we know that if we post that infrequently, we'll get lost in the shuffle. We are typically posting to other moms, who aren't going just before work, at lunch and after dinner. You have to figure out your own audience and give it to them, which may be different from the study - and probably will be. That was done on larger brands, not bloggers, small businesses, etc . If you post 10 times a day, people will stop liking them. It is still their space that you intrude on. About 70% of people say they didn't give permission to market to them. They like it because they support your product, not because they want to receive all sorts of info.

Melanie will make a resource page with her blog (Blogging Basics 101) with more info on applications, especially

To make a vanity URL - 25 people have to like the page, then you have to go to Your title needs to be what you want them to search - and it's literal. You don't want it to be smooshed together, use what you want. Honest And Truly v Honest & Truly v Honest & Truly! etc. Your username should be as prominent as your brand. You want it to be on your business cards, etc. HonestAndTruly. You cannot change your username. Once it's set, it's set. If you want to change it, you have to delete the page and start over.

Your business page is searchable outside FB, which is good.

Everyone should have a contact form. IF you're waiting for people to contact you on your wall, sometimes you may miss it, they want to contact you privately, etc. If you haven't given them a way, you're missing out on business. Go to and sign in. This is free up to 1,000 fans. Great apps at no cost.

You're automatically at the tab manager when you log in to Shortstack. Click on forms and promotions. You're creating a new database, click on custom forms. Name it and create the form. You'll get a page where you can start to add field - it's drag and drop. You need to ensure email is there. You can decide if you'd like them to include their name. You can rearrange the order by grabbing it and dragging to where you want it to go. Text area is more like a paragraph, text line is just a quick line. Add your header and footer - the URL of your banner image. You can edit this later, too. Then you save the form. You are going to publish this after that. Click on Tab Manager, then click quick publish. You'll have to allow the permissions.

Short Stack has a ton of video tutorials that are great that you can use to learn more and get more help.

iframes allows you to import all sorts of stuff. It's 520 pixels wide, your blog is probably 1000 pixels. On FB, you have the option of using it as an https - but more iframes aren't set up to run on SSL. You'll need to switch to http to view. Starting in October, if you want to do iframes, you need to have a secure server, so you'll need to have your webmaster set this up for you. WordPress has the ability to do this for you for about $50/year. Hyper Arts also has an iframe application that you can install.

Custom welcome pages can be made. You can do it via iframes (HyperArts and use their tutorials) or do it custom. This takes people to a custom welcome page instead of your typical wall. There's a 47% greater chance of them liking you. It gives you a more professional look on FB. A custom welcome page will tell them why they should like you - will be sharing articles, why they should visit, your goals and objectives stated in a conversational way. You can pull in a Twitter feed or a newsletter signup. Give them a directive - tell people what you want them to do or they are in and out. It's their stream, and they'll be in and out otherwise. Make sure you include the benefit for them, too!

How to Share Information on Facebook
Once people like you, 90% of people rely on their newsfeed to connect with you. People typically look at the most recent news, not the top news. You need to keep them informed with what you're doing - and because once people are on FB, they don't want to leave. Thus, you want as many apps in FB to keep people interacting with you.

Videos, photos, links, comments, likes - this is the order of what's going to show up in Top News for the algorithm of weighting of what shows up on people's top feed. The more you incorporate the higher weighted portions of the algorithm, the greater the likelihood that you'll be at the top of Top News.

People come to FB likes because they are educated, informed, or entertained. You because an authority on something because you don't just share you but other people's info, too, as relevant. This increases your authority in other people's eyes, too.

You can do a LiveStream tutorial and embed that in FB. Having that interaction with your fans again makes them connect with you. It is recorded, and people can view it whenever they want. If you do it regularly, people come to expect this on a certain day, etc. It also builds a library of information for you, which helps. It does live both on FB and on LiveStream.

The FB is your page. You want to keep it cleaned up for your FB fans. If there is something ad-like, if there are random bits that don't fit, feel free to delete them. If they are relevant links, however, encourage them, as it builds the community again. Reciprocal links, etc.... delete them. Once a month or so, reiterate your policy - you'll get comments like "thanks - love that you want my info"

Rules About Facebook Giveaways
FB giveaways were one of the most eye opening portions of the session - and this includes blog giveaways asking people to like you on FB. There are promotional guidelines! You have to adhere to a certain level of professionalism, even if other people aren't. You must use a FB app to ask people to do something for a contest - which you can make available only to people who like you, a workaround that is legal in the eyes of Facebook. There is also a promotions tab you can create via Short Stack (or an iframe). You cannot have "like my page, first 30 people to tell me their favorite jewelry piece have a chance to win it" - must be a third party app.

You can announce on FB that you have a giveaway on your blog because you're not collecting any data on FB, just promoting it. You cannot, however, have people like you on FB as a blog contest entry. (Yes, I'm revamping everything going forward. Oops.)

There is verbiage that you can copy but that doesn't mean you can then have people like you - verbiage that states that the info you are sharing is not associated with FB, how you're using the data collected. FB in no way wants to be associated with giveaways. That way, if you don't follow through properly, FB is not liable.

You cannot automatically enter someone into a contest, which is what the liking requires. You can't just pick someone who likes a page - if they didn't specifically enter something, they can't win. FB is very clear on this. People cannot put the contest on their status as an entry, comment on FB as an entry. You can "like gate" something where you have a third party app that is hidden until people like your page that they have to use the third party app as an entry. That restriction includes as bonus entries v required entries, it requires leaving comments on your blog that they've liked and more. You simply can't use any FB functionality whatsoever to be a part of a giveaway. You can ask people to share it on FB, but it can't be an entry!

Enough people are doing this without consequences, that a lot of people are doing this anyway. It's a question of where are you on professional integrity? We need to decide what we're going to do, and it's up to us to educate others. So easy to do the third party app instead. Won't cost any money, and they can do themselves going forward, too.

A contest is not a giveaway. If you have to submit something and outdo someone else via judging or some sort of voting, that's ok. There are applications that are robust enough that do this. These are separate.

Interacting With Your Community on Facebook
When you're looking to interact with your community, ask either or questions, fill in the blank questions, yes/no questions - don't make them think too much or have to share too much information on FB because there is the issue of potentially having the opinion knocked down or coming back to defend it, etc etc. Write a post on something and have the discussion there, but announce on FB that you're having a great conversation on X on your blog page.

What else did I miss?

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tasty Tuesday - Chocolate Cherry Smoothie

I just got back from the Type A Conference in Asheville, NC. As with all conferences, there were a ton of sponsors, many of whom were various companies who feed us throughout the time we're there. On Friday morning, Ovaltine provided a choice of four different smoothies invented by their Ovaltine Moms.

It's possible that I went back for seconds. I had never thought of using Ovaltine in a smoothie, let alone the Mocha Loco smoothie that was beyond delicious. Nonetheless it inspired me. Mister Man agreed, and I think the two of us have a new favorite smoothie flavor.

Chocolate Cherry Smoothie

1 c plain Greek yogurt
1 1/2 c frozen cherries
3 T Ovaltine
1/4 milk

Place all the ingredients in your blender, and the higher powered the blender, the better. Have I mentioned how much I love my Vitamix? Blend it starting on low then turn to the max. Keep going just until it's all blended. You may need to turn it off to scrape down the sides once or twice to ensure everything gets mixed together.

Serve immediately and enjoy. This makes four snack size portions.

Yum! Enjoy this and more with Tempt My Tummy Tuesday and Blessed with Grace and my newly discovered (oops, sorry, Rachel!) Mouthwatering Mondays.

Mouthwatering Mondays

PS No, I had no involvement from Ovaltine in this whatsoever. I was truly inspired, and they don't even know I'm posting this.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Now This Is My Kind Of Travel

When I graduated from college, my parents gave me an awesome graduation present. While a car would have been cool and probably far more practical, instead we went on a family vacation to China. We spent three weeks cruising from Beijing (ok, Tianjin but we had a few days on land in Beijing) to Ningbo to Hong Kong and more.

It was fabulous. I saw so many places that I otherwise never would have seen. As we were on a cruise, the majority of our experiences and excursions were with the other passengers, most of whom were Americans. That was the only non-fabulous part of it.

When I travel, I want to see and experience the local place I'm visiting. I want to meet the local people and taste the local food. I want to learn about their customs and history. I want to pretend, just for a little while, that I'm from that place, too, before I go back to my life in Chicago with all the modern amenities and fast pace that I'm used to dealing with daily.

I appear to be in the minority, however. There were so many instances of people showing the stereotypical Ugly American that I actually did pretend I was from Canada at one point to avoid being associated with a specific small group.

Some of the highlights:

The countless chopsticks stolen at nearly every meal. Interestingly, few of those at the meals were able to use chopsticks - or interested in trying. And the chopsticks they stole were not the disposable ones that are typically provided in Chinese restaurants in the States. They were very nice polished wood ones and sometimes gorgeously engraved ones made of various metals. Apparently, stealing silverware was de rigeur for them.

The need to experience every American chain seen. There were only two Carvel ice cream parlors in the city of Shanghai when we visited the town on a tour. Those on the bus with me happened to spot one of them and made the bus stop and wait for them to all go get ice cream. When they returned to the bus, they weren't happy. They couldn't believe they could only have vanilla ice cream and I think one other flavor - and, worse yet, it didn't taste the same as it did back home. The same thing happened whenever we passed the rare McDonalds or KFC or Pizza Hut. There was a mad rush to eat the "American" food there, even when it was nowhere near a mealtime or they'd just eaten.

The disrespect for locals. Shockingly, this was a big issue at mealtime. We ate at a restaurant at the Great Wall of China, which was a prix fixe meal and included our food and drinks. The drinks were water and two bottles of Coca Cola for the table to share. Sharing wasn't working so well after the first couple people drank whole bottles. They gestured wait staff over to ask for more Coke, which wasn't included in our package. When the wait staff - who didn't speak English - didn't understand, they simply shouted, louder and louder. Eventually, they walked into the kitchen and simply took bottles themselves. Did I mention that they complained that the Coke was warm?

The inability to try something new. Customs are different. And some things are less comfortable for some people than for others. I so get that. When the people returned from their run to the kitchen to steal the Coke, they started telling everyone at the table not to eat the green beans. Apparently there was a several foot high stack of beans in the kitchen on the floor, and they were cooking the beans in boiling water directly from the top of the pile. Was it the most sanitary thing ever? No, but hey, they were still being boiled, and it's not killing anyone. When I took a mouthful of beans after that, someone leaned over the table and stage whispered, "Did you not hear about the beans? They were from the floor!" Obnoxious recent college grad that I was, I simply smiled and took another bite. Really, how much cleaner were they expecting the food to be elsewhere, especially after we got into some of the more rural areas? Stay out of the kitchen; you'll be happier.

The list goes on and on, and unfortunately I don't remember everything. I had kept a journal while I was there that detailed what we did each day - where we were, what we learned, and my impressions. It was lost somewhere along the way, although I have some hope of digging it up at some point. What are your favorite travel memories?

In the interest of full disclosure, this post was inspired by the book "The Unexpected Circumnavigation: Unusual Boat, Unusual People Part I " by Christi Grab, a part of the From Left To Write book club where we are sent books to read but don't write traditional reviews. There is no compensation involved, and all opinions expressed are my own.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Reason To Be Proud

Mister Man is seven, which means that he's well into the process of losing his baby teeth. He's currently without his two front teeth, which means that sadly he won't be able to sing "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" and give it a special meaning this year. It hasn't been an easy process for him, however.

When his first tooth was loose, he wiggled it but only a little. When I began to feel the adult tooth growing in behind it, we told him it had to come out. As I wasn't anxious to pay the dentist for something Mister Man should be able to do himself, I explained that the tooth fairy doesn't come if the dentist pulls a tooth. And my husband pulled the tooth out one Friday night as I was out to dinner with friends.

When his next tooth came loose, we had the same issue. And my husband again pulled it out. Mister Man was somewhat traumatized by it, and when his top tooth became loose, he wiggled it this time. Unfortunately, he couldn't wiggle it enough, and once again it was time to remove the tooth manually. This time I was in charge, as Mister Man wisely wouldn't let my husband near his mouth. I made a loop with dental floss and put it around his very loose tooth. I pulled both ends, and the tooth popped out with no fuss. We used the same strategy when his next tooth was also loose but wasn't coming out.

I resigned myself to Mister Man's inability to wiggle his teeth - knowing that his sensory issues as part of his autism plays a significant role. Periodically, I've asked him if he has a loose tooth, but it's been pretty quiet on that front.

This week, Mister Man was in my parents' basement helping my dad build his model train. He came thumping up the stairs at a rapid clip, shouting and sobbing, Mommy! Grandma! Mommy! Come quick! I need you! Mommy!

My mom and I looked at each other in dread and dropped what we were doing to head towards him, both wondering where my dad was and what he was doing. As he appeared around the corner, we could see that he was holding his mouth and tears were streaming down his face. Mommy, watch! My tooth is coming out of my mouth. My tooth is coming out right now!

He didn't have a loose tooth. At least, he didn't so far as I knew. Uh-oh. Did he fall in the basement? Did something happen? I could see blood beginning to trickle down his chin, but then his hand popped loose and he triumphantly showed us a tiny little tooth.

The sobbing intensified. His babbling was becoming near unintelligible, which worried me. I eventually began to work out what he was saying. I'm so proud. Mommy, I did it. I got my own tooth out all by myself. I'm so proud. I'm so proud of myself. Look what I did all by myself!

I hugged him and watched the tears fall as he smiled and sobbed at the same time, blood dripping down his face. I was pretty proud of him, too.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

My Husband, The Cynic

On Father's Day, the wee ones were super excited to find a gift for my husband. They wanted to find something that was all their own that they were giving him. Since they didn't decide this until Father's Day, their choices were somewhat limited. That didn't deter them, and Mister Man found his Luke Skywalker action figure to give to Daddy, and Little Miss discovered a Chicago Wolves hockey stick that she thought he'd enjoy since he loves sports so much.

As we trooped upstairs with our chocolate cherry (homemade) scones for Daddy's breakfast in bed, the wee ones whispered together then scurried back downstairs, begging me to wait for "just a few minutes, Mommy, please!" I set the tray down and waited for them to head back upstairs. Within a few moments, they reappeared on the stairs, and we continued on our merry way to feed - and more importantly, coffee - my husband.

After passing the tray to my husband, the wee ones presented him with their gifts. He smiled at them and tried to graciously give them back. Mister Man then piped up, And, Daddy, Little Miss and I cleaned up the homework room for you, too. There's no more Legos and stuff all over the floor. Happy Father's Day, Daddy!

After my husband opened the remainder of his gifts and started eating his breakfast, the wee ones remembered that they were hungry, too, and had left scones sitting down at their places at the kitchen table. They scampered away, and my husband turned to me with a smile on his face.

I'm going to mow the lawn this week, Honey. Happy anniversary.


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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wordless Wednesday - I Am Not A Cake Decorator

I bake things to taste good. Looking good is beyond me. As I prepared to head out to Little Miss's birthday party with her completely plain chocolate frosted (yummy) cake, I panicked. I grabbed the purple gel writer I happened to have on hand and stuck in a couple extra froggy cookies from her goodie bag. The good news is that you can't see how the purple gel ran in this photo my friend took.

I thought being funny might help, thus the "Hoppy" birthday for her frog themed party. I have a feeling no bakery is going to hire me anytime soon!

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tasty Tuesday - Super Sugar Cookies

Last night was Little Miss's birthday party - even though, yes, her birthday is in August. We found over the years that too many of her friends travel and are out of town in August, so she ends up with only a few children at her party when she has it then. The idea was to have it right after school gets out so that more friends are able to join her.

Once we settled on that, it was time to think about the goodie bags. Personally, I hate them. H.A.T.E them. They are almost always full of little toys that break instantly or all sorts of junk foods we don't eat. I love doing craft type parties because then the craft is the goodie bag - like with Mister Man's ornaments we made this past year.

Since we were having a jumping party, I went with the theme of frogs. We weren't going to have time to do anything crafty, but I could at least find something that wouldn't be too useless. I found some really cute frogs squeezy balls whose eyes pop out. Fun and silly, but not total junk. I also got a bunch of frog tattoos because, really, who doesn't love tattoos? (Don't answer that.) And then I decided to make cookies to put into the goodie bags.

It took me awhile to find frog shaped cookie cutters, but I finally did. The end product turned out ok - they tasted great because I used my favorite adapted sugar cookie recipe, and they actually looked sorta cute. Best of all, they were dairy free since I made them that way, but you can make them with butter instead, and they're just as yummy.

Super Sugar Cookies

10 T Earth Balance or other butter substitute (or unsalted butter, softened)
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 t vanilla extract
1 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
2 cups flour

Directions (note that this is a refrigerated dough, so plan ahead):
Beat butter (substitute) and sugar until they are creamy and have come back together. The color is lightened, too.

Add egg and vanilla, and mix to combine. Once it's mixed together and won't splatter liquid out, turn it up to high again for another thirty or so seconds to get it nice and fluffy. This is one of the secrets of light cookies.

Add the salt and baking powder, and mix well. Then add the flour, and stir slowly until it's combined.

Create two flat disks, wrapped in plastic. The flatter they are now, the easier it will be to roll them and shape them later. Chill 2 hours or overnight in your fridge. Don't let them sit much longer than that, or they'll start to dry out and get crumbly when you want to roll them.

Roll dough and cut into shapes. You can reroll the scraps to make more cookies, but try to get as many cookies onto each cutting as possible so that you aren't rolling out the scraps too many times.

Bake on ungreased cookie sheets - and this is one time I really do the plain cookie sheet and not my sil pat - in a preheated 350 degree oven until edges are golden, about 7-9 minutes. Cool the cookies on your sheets 5 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely

Once they are totally cooled, have fun decorating. I did a batch of cooked icing (I like to cook my frostings and icings, as I think they taste better that way) that I tinted green (thank you Wilton for making such great colors and so easy to use!), another batch that I kept white to make froggy eyes, which I then turned into chocolate for the pupils and to decorate Little Miss's cake after making it thicker.

To make icing, it's pretty simply. Put in some butter (substitute) and melt it, add a little bit of milk (rice, soy, coconut, regular, etc), then add powdered sugar until it's the consistency you like. You can also add vanilla, which I generally do, though I didn't want the brown to adulterate my colors, so I left it out except for the chocolate at the end.

When I am icing cookies, I keep it very thin. Remove it from the heat, and let it sit a few minutes to come down in temperature. Then stir it well. I dip the cookie face down in the icing, then use a fine spatula to scrape off the excess icing. For detail work, I use an ice tea spoon to drip or - if I have more time and motivation - thicken it slightly then put it in a bag an snip off the end to do more fine detail.

My frogs turned out cute. They may have needed a little more decoration - a smile would have been nice, as would spots on their backs and some darker green detailing of their legs, but ... well, I'll show you tomorrow why I don't decorate cakes. I can make things taste awesome, but looking pretty is a bit beyond my skill level!

Enjoy this and more with Tempt My Tummy and Blessed with Grace. Yum.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Bullying And Autism

I've posted three of the sessions I attended from Autism One. I fully intend to post all the sessions I viewed, though it is taking me awhile. The interesting thing to me is how many of these are applicable not just to people affected by autism but by anyone - interestingly, frequently for both children and adults. One topic near and dear to my heart was "Bullying And Autism" with Leslie Phillips.

Mister Man is high functioning. He attends a private school with no supports in school. Yet he has social deficits, and I can look at him and see how he can easily have a huge target on his back. If someone is looking to bully - and thank goodness it isn't tolerated at all in his school and isn't an issue - he's one they'll choose because of how he reacts. As we look to moving him to public school at some point, ensuring he doesn't have issues with bullying is very much at the front of my mind.

The session with Leslie Phillips focused on both helping to prevent bullying and also steps to take if bullying becomes an issue. There are some great steps she suggested for any parent, whether with a neurotypical child or not.

First up comes the definition. Bulling is a behavior that is unwanted, negative actions. It’s characterized by an imbalance of power. "It may be a subtle one where there is an exchange where the person who is more powerful changes. One of the parties feels unable to defend him or herself – he may try but in the end doesn’t feel able to do so," Leslie explained. I found it interesting to remember that the person who is more powerful and does the bullying may change, even between the same people.

How do you help yourself as a parent? The first step, she shares, is to "familiarize yourself with the code of conduct for your school. You need to know what is considered bullying and what isn't. You need to know the consequences of the actions and what the process for discipline involves."

Leslie also reminded us that bullying is so much more than it was when we were growing up where someone would knock a child down to steal the lunch money. "Bullying can be manipulative where a child is coerced or controlled. It may be a conditional friendship where the friendship is alternated with bullying behavior – you'll see it a lot in the neighborhood where kids will play but then at school ostracizes the child because they don’t want to align with that child in school because the child sticks out. Exploitative features of the child’s condition are also used via texting and other media." And that's just the start.

There are many types of bullying. "Verbal bullying including derogatory comments, name-calling and taunting. There is bullying through social exclusion or isolation, as well as the more familiar physical bullying such as hitting, kicking, shoving and spitting. You can have bullying through lies and false rumors and through having money or other things taken or damaged by students who bully. There are kids who are being threatened or being forced to do things by students who bully them. And of course, there's racial bullying, sexual bullying, and cyber bullying – via cell phone or the Internet," Leslie details. That's a lot to keep track of, both as a parent trying to protect our children from being bullied and ensuring that our children don't bully others.

Interestingly, "students who bully tend to do so during unsupervised time – lunchtime, in the bathroom, on the bus, and the like. Adults can set the stage for bullying by how they act as well – when they are aggressive, it models that for children," Leslie explains. And really, that makes a lot of sense. It's opportunity and taking what they see adults doing and stretching it just a little more.

The scary statistic Leslie shared is that children with autism are at increased risk for bullying. Sixty percent of students with disabilities reported being bullied, compared to 25% of the general student population (British Journal of Learning Support). Eighty-eight percent of children were autism were reported by parents to have been the victim of bullying (MA Advocacy for Children). In general, bullying is most common in grades 6-8 (JAMA). Sixty-five percent of parents reported that children with Aspergers have been bullied: 1 time 11.7%, 2-5 days 9.3%, 2-4 weeks 11.4%, etc
(Study: Walk a Mile in My Shoes). Wow. Those statistics are really scary.

One thing for us to understand is why our kids are targets. Her explanation is that "the most important issue tends to be the poor self-regulation issue and low frustration tolerance. It’s great fun for the bullies to push the buttons of children and watch the reactions. They purposefully and cleverly push the buttons when adults are not watching to get their friends. It’s not hard to find what those buttons are. That the case more than bullying for delayed motor skills or language skills, etc."

"We think primarily of the bullying involving just the bully and the victim. It’s also the bystanders who watch it, the teachers and other professionals who set the environment," Leslie states. And getting past the bystander issue is key. I know it's something that Mister Man's school focuses heavily on. To solve the problem, "the closer you get to the student with strategies the greater the likelihood to help. One group that’s really been identified as critical to helping bullying are the bystanders – those who egg them on, laugh and sometimes participate."

As parents, our children don't always tell us everything that is going on with them for a variety of reasons. A friend's son was being slapped across the face daily on the bus for three weeks, and he never admitted it to her - and yes, he's a completely neurotypical child. He was ashamed of it. He didn't know what would happen. He didn't want further retaliation if he told, etc. If our children won't tell us, How can we tell if someone is being bullied? Leslie shares several red flags. If we see a sudden reluctance to attend school, if the behavior becomes more sensitive, we see cuts/bruises (my friend saw red marks on her son's face but he refused to talk about it), or there are suddenly lowered grades, etc. those are all red flags. Children who are being bullied "tend to have anger, depression, greater incidence of illness, suicidal thoughts and feelings, anxious avoidance of settings in which bullying may occur."

Leslie reminded us that it isn't just the immediate impacts of bullying that we need to be concerned with. "Some long term effects include reduced occupational opportunities, lingering feelings of anger and bitterness, desire for revenge, difficulty trusting people, interpersonal difficulties including fear and avoidance of new social situations, increased tendency to be a loner, perception of self as easy to victimize, overly sensitive and thin-skinned, and self esteem problems. Bullied children are twice as likely to have psychotic symptoms in adolescence, regardless of other risk factors such as mental illness, family circumstance, or the chld’s IQ. The risk of psychotic symptoms was stronger when the childhood bullying was chronic or severe. The serotonin transporter genetic variant appears to increase the risk for developing anxiety problems, as well." Yikes. For this and more, I'm determined to do what I can to ensure Mister Man is never bullied.

What can do we? According to Leslie, "Some of the literature talks about social emotional learning, which assists children in developing fundamental skills to effectively handle school relationships and personal development. This is not meant to be a one off program that you pull off the shelf. It’s something that needs to be pervasive throughout the school and really create a change in the culture overall. It isn’t enough to talk about character traits in the morning announcement." As an aside, social emotional learning is something that our public school system requires, and Illinois is in the process of doing so, as well. That said, it isn't nearly as expansive as Leslie is sharing it needs to be, and her logic makes sense.

She does explain that "Illinois is putting together a requirement and classes that are more of a class on social emotional learning that is like an moral judgement type class. There are things where you create goals like predicting people’s attitudes and behaviors in various situations, etc." Illinois - and my school district - isn't there right now though. "These are things that used to happen more in the home, but today we need to teach them across domains, and it needs to be more than a one off, quick lesson." And this is a reminder that I - and others - need to focus on reinforcing it and teaching it at home, too.

What doesn’t work? “What Works, What Doesn’t Work in Bullying Prevention Strategies” by Michael B Greene is great paper to read, according to Leslie. She also brought up other strategies that have not proven successful from individual counseling to accepting bullying as normal. You can't focus only on physical aggression, zero tolerance policies, isolated efforts (such as special auditorium events, lectures), stigmatizing victims, or situations where adults model intimidation, anger or power.

Interestingly, "counseling of the bully really doesn’t seem to do it. Many of the bullies don’t see what they have done as wrong. In addition, they’re getting a lot of positive reinforcement from their peers on the playground who cheer them on, etc. That is a better reinforce than the other methods," Leslie explain, much to my dismay. "Schools also need to be able to use some judgement with regards to zero tolerance – there are extenuating circumstances and stories behind the events, especially for children who have limited understanding or an inability to control their reactions. Stigmatizing victims doesn’t work – you act like a victim, so this is just going to happen to you, and it will continue to do so."

On a more positive note, Leslie shared what does work. The key is really in school climate change. "The good news is that it works really well. The tough news is that it is tough to achieve, and it’s a long term goal. Children need safe ways to report bulling, both that they witness and are recipients of – use safety net programs where they can anonymously report bullying problems so they don’t have to say it in front of their friends and peers and be singled out as the peer who ratted."

Schools also need to "focus on all types of bullying, especially focusing on the role of bystanders and figuring out how we can get other children who are generally god kids and know that it’s wrong and encourage them to get involved and stand up for kids who are getting victimized," Leslie explained.
Peer support networks, active parent involvement, and positive adult modeling are also keys to stopping bullying.

For those who have special needs children, Leslie suggests that we "prepare the team – set up email list of all the teachers that will deal with your child (music, art, gym, etc). You want it to be a collaborative effort where they are paying attention to what’s happening to the child in school, whether it is an IEP issue or bullying. Make sure you address bullying issues on the IEP. You also want to prepare your child for it, especially as you are moving into middle school, but bulling comes earlier than that, too. Be sure you are monitoring the situation so that when things are going wrong, you know how to use the complaint process."

How do we prepare the team? "Talk to administrators and school board about features of autism and the problem of bullying. What is our district’s Social Emotional Learning (SEL)? If we don’t have one, why not? What strategies are we using to halt bullying, and what’s the data part to support it? Communicate with teachers about your child’s strengths and challenges by making a student introductory portfolio. Texas Project First (website) has a good section on how to write this."

Leslie further explains the concept of a student portfolio. "It introduces your child to the team and is like a resume for your child. Include your long term vision for your child, what your child is like, what your child loves, what the things that are hard for your child - all the things that are important to know about your child. So many teachers see nothing but a white stack of papers with IEP goals and the like about our students, but you can make it colorful and with pictures. They should be able to read a good portfolio in no more than 10-15 minutes. Make it personal and get them invested in your child’s success."

It's important to remember that the bullying is frequently happening outside the classroom, and that we need to keep the whole team involved. "You need to include ancillary personnel like the lunchroom monitors and paraprofessionals. The bullying is most likely to occur during those unstructured times where they’ve got less supervision and focus on a specific task," Leslie reminded.

Another great strategy was to "talk to peers with friends in your child’s grade level, and be a bit of a detective to see if their child might be someone who might support your child who would be able to come back with what’s going on with your child. If they see them sitting alone at lunch or got bothered by X, they can be a support. Ask how they would react in the various situations and see if they can support your child in those situations and not stand by." I love that strategy, as it just takes one really good friend to make a huge difference in the lives of children.

When you're communicating, Leslie warns that we need to "be respectful, but make it clear to teachers, counselors, and administrators that you will be involved in helping the team avoid issues. Bullying is always wrong and needs to be reported."

She also suggests that we involve the IEP significantly in this by creating social skills goals. You want to include "self advocacy skills and social skills goals in the IEP. Focus on writing a familiarization plan (visit the school, introduce him to teachers, walk through the schedule) into the IEP to ensure it happens. When there are so many changes for a student (like moving to middle school), write in the IEP the year before that this needs to happen. Ask for a locker that is on the top, that is near the end of a row, or that is near a paraprofessional’s station. You want the least invasive solution possible."

As a win/win/win solution, "identify a friend who will walk with a peer from class to class – this is much better than walking with a paraprofessional in terms of stigmatization. Make sure there is a friend who walks the child from lunch to PE to recess, as it makes a huge difference in whether the child is victimized. If your child doesn’t have a friend (request that this friend be in the classes with your child), write a peer support request into the IEP – have the school find a willing child, as there are so many “nice” kids who are more than willing to do this. Schools tend to be reluctant to involve other children, but this is a natural support and it is far less costly than paying for a para – and this is a great argument in your IEP meeting. Schools can’t just let it be a failure because they can’t pay for it."

One area I hadn't though about but that is definitely critical is in PE. "If there is no adult supervision in the locker rooms, especially, have them dress outside the setting or ask for an alternate PE like during the summer. This is a huge area of concern," Leslie explains.

Another key is simply preparing your child. "Even if your child doesn’t seem to understand, explain to them what real friendship is. Friends aren’t kind to you one day and not the next, they don’t borrow your lunch money one day and then never pays you back, they don’t call you names and then laugh and say just kidding. That way they can give you feedback on whether they are seeing things that are like bullying. You can do this without overly scaring them."

Leslie also suggests that parents "color code notebooks and folders by subject to allay anxiety, which will help them feel more comfortable. When they are more comfortable, they will stand out less. Anything you can do to reduce anxiety – meet the teachers, security guards, front office personnel, counselors, etc. You want to visit the school and get organized for school. Ask your child if there are any specific fears, and make sure they understand that it is the bully who has the problem and that there isn’t anything wrong with them."

As parents, there are things we can do more directly that we may not think of as helping to stop bullying. Leslie recommends that we "be at the school for other reasons – volunteer for things that bring you into contact with your student (and most classes needs this). Ask questions like: Do your friends have special names for you, who do you sit with at lunch which friends do you talk to during the day, what’s your least favorite class and why. This will help give you clues because often the kids don’t know what’s wrong or that there is a problem If there is a student who might be aware of how things are going for your child, ask them questions - whether your child is verbal or non-verbal. Talk to the parent of that child or ask permission to talk to the child to see if they see anything about your child being victimized – especially if you are seeing any of those signs mentioned above."

The key with your child is to "keep the lines of communication open. Let the school know if there are any issues that you are seeing. As a side note, anything you say to school personnel needs to be in writing; document everything. If you say something verbally, follow up with an email and confirm so that you have the paper trail. Emphasize that they cannot make educational progress on IEP goals due to bullying when they are constantly in fear. Children with disabilities are a protected class – bullying children with disabilities is defined as harassment and can carry harsher penalties. At the same time, don’t become overly emotional, which will backfire, but be persistent. File a complaint if necessary, and know your procedural requirements, which you should get every year. As a last resort, if it becomes necessary to file suit against your district, be aware that you will need to prove deliberate indifference on their part."

It isn't all our children who are bullied - whether autistic or not. "Sometimes it is the autistic child (or previous victim) who becomes the bully. It’s the kick the dog syndrome – they look for someone who is weaker than them to feel some sort of sense of power or control. When they reach 10 years old, they are starting to enter the juvenile system when there are problems. Particularly for kids who are vulnerable to outbursts, know that you have to act quickly and get involved. You need to get disciplinary reports that are going into your child’s file and contest them if you think they are inaccurate."

If there is a problem, Leslie suggests steps to help your child. "There should be a behavior intervention plan in place that follows a logical sequence of events that begins with avoiding the situation – eliminating triggers where possible. As for a functional behavior analysis if you are starting to see problems. If your school calls for a Manifestation Determination – when a child is in fairly serious trouble and they are looking to see if the problem is related to the disability or not – this is the time to hire an advocate, most likely. When you get to this point, things are usually fairly serious. It may be an attempt to move your child to an alternative placement, and they are generally dropped into a population of students who have a label of emotional disturbance which is not a good mix, as they have very different needs."

"If they are the bully, make sure you talk to them about what bullying looks like and that your child understands what assault means. It may be so little as saying you’re going to punch their lights out and the other person feels a real threat, elbowing someone in the lunch line, throwing an object, any act perceived as a threat can result in juvenile detention. Go over the student conduct code with them," Leslie suggests.

And then we get to the scarier part, one that I hope no parent ever reaches. Once there is an incident that brings broader intervention. Leslie states, "Instruct your child that if they are ever questioned by police, ensure that the parent is present. Make sure they know to ask this. They are frequently intimidated and think that they have to say everything or say things that are misleading that they don’t fully understand. This is for both campus police and local law enforcement. Unless they are placed in police custody, they should be free to leave but most don’t understand this and may be intimidated into saying something wrong. They don’t have to Miranda-ize children, especially if they aren’t arrested. If the children refuse to speak, they may be arrested, but this may be better than saying something incriminating that they may not fully understand."

The biggest fear if bullying isn't contained is suicide. Leslie warns that you really need to be on the lookout for symptoms. These include "threatening to hurt of kill themselves or talking about wanting to, looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to means, talking or writing about death, feeling trapped or like there is no way out, feeling hopeless, withdrawing from friends family and society, feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep OR sleeping all the time, experiencing dramatic mood changing, seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose in life. Many also express this through talking about or writing about death, dying or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for that person."

The biggest challenge is that "bullying is something that so many teachers and adults see as what it was when they were children – the bully on the playground who stole the lunch money. It is so much more than that now, and you need to work patiently with your school and district to help them understand and ensure that they’re putting your child in the best possible situation," Leslie concludes.

Wow. While I hope that this is something that I never have to deal with, I have to admit that I feel a lot better knowing what to look for and what I can do to help minimize or prevent it. And if we get to the point where there is bullying, I know what I'll be doing to help my child. Here's hoping this helps you, too.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011


Soccer season is in full swing around here for us. Little Miss is signed up for her first session, and she's been enjoying it.

When my husband came home from her first practice, he proudly talked about how most of the kids had played soccer before, but that she was still the best player. She was so fast that no one could keep up with her. She could steal the ball from the other players, but they couldn't steal it from her - except one boy whose strategy of tripping her to get the ball isn't so legal. She had a great kick and a power shot.

As I prepared for the first game, I was excited to see my little soccer dynamo play. I couldn't wait to see her skills in action. As the game began, I watched her skip around the field, following the ball. She wasn't at the back of the pack. In fact, she wasn't really a part of the pack at all. Her killer instincts? Uhhh, not in existence. Her power shot? I don't think she touched the ball. Fastest player on the field? Not exactly.

Huh. Apparently she doesn't translate well from practice to game. Yet. I still have hope. As the season wore on, it was more of the same. She played a little better, but she still was nowhere near even average on the field. So long as she's having fun though, that's all I care about.

Midway through the season, she finally got a shot (pun intended). She stole the ball from the other team and began racing with it up the field. There was no one in front of her, and she wasn't stopping. I'm sure she couldn't hear her teammates behind her. She shot... she scored!

She was so proud of her very first goal. Or at least, she was until her first teammate reached her, grabbed her by the shoulders and gently shook her while explaining, Little Miss. That was our goal. You just scored a point for the other team!


Then we got to a double header on the Saturday - the only Saturday so far - where it was August hot and humid. Mid-90s in both temperature and humidity. Her first game was at noon with the second game at 1:30. The first game went much as most have gone so far this season. By midway through the second game, no one was much interested in playing soccer anymore because it was simply too hot. The kids were wiped out. They laid in the grass to recover. Well, except Little Miss who was still bopping around the soccer field. She scored three goals that game.

Apparently if you can't outplay them, just outlast them!

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Getting To Happy - Or So It Claims

Some books I don't read unless someone recommends them to me, and Getting to Happy by Terry McMillan is probably one I would have skipped were it not for a book review I was to write on BlogHer. Although this wasn't my favorite book of the summer, I enjoyed reading it. Wanna know why? See my full review here.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tasty Tuesday - Surprise Brownies

So. I'm headed to a pot luck, and I need to bring a side and a dessert. That's easy, right? Fortunately I can once again cook inside because it's only 50 degrees outside in the middle of June, thank you very much Chicago. Inspiration, however, is not striking. I can't decide what I want to make.

I don't feel like doing truffles again - since I made four batches to get through all my needed teacher gifts this week already. I'm not up for batches of cookies. I want to do something new, but because it's going to a potluck, it can't be something that is delicate or has to be reheated, and preferably it should be a finger food. Oh, and use eggs since I have a lot of eggs in the house.


A ha! Brownies. But not just any brownies. I made brownies with a surprise inside, and oh were they good. I'm now sharing the recipe not just with my two friends who were at the potluck (and requested the recipe) but with all of you. Sadly, they're gone on my end.

Surprise Brownies

1 c butter (2 sticks)
4 oz good quality chocolate, chopped
2 c sugar
4 eggs
1/2 t vanilla
1 t strong coffee or coffee extract
1 1/2 c flour
1/2 t salt
20 chocolate candies like Rollos or filled Hershey's Kisses, etc OR make a ganache like from last week's truffle and use little balls of those

Melt together over low heat in a heavy saucepan, or in a double boiler, the chocolate and butter. You want it to look like this:

Remove the chocolate from the heat, and stir in the sugar. I use a whisk for this and most of the rest of the steps to ensure I'm getting lots of air incorporated into the batter so that they are light and fluffy and rise well, as there is no leavening agent in here.

Add the eggs one at a time, and whisk well to incorporate. If you've removed the chocolate from the heat and added the sugar, this should have lowered the temperature of the mixture enough that you won't have scrambled eggs now. The eggs are going to provide lots of your lift, so whisk well.

Add the vanilla and coffee / coffee extract, and mix until fully combined.

Add the salt and mix to stir. The add the flour. Now is when you put away the whisk and gently fold the flour in with your spatula. (Video showing the art of folding on this post for cheese souffle.) You want to fold it until the flour is just combined so that as little gluten as possible forms and your brownies don't get tough or filled with little air bubbles. Trust me.

Fill muffin cups with batter about two-thirds of the way full. I use my mid size cookie scoop for this one, and it's perfect - plus it makes them the same size so they bake evenly. I love my kitchen gadgets!

Add your candies to the center of each brownie. I don't have to tell you to unwrap them first, do I? Nah, I've got faith in you! I placed mine upside down, and that worked perfectly.

Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 20 minutes, until your cake tester comes out clean. Every oven is different, and mine tends to take longer to bake - for me it was closer to 24 minutes, but I have to bake longer for every recipe. Just keep an eye on them, as you don't want them to overbake and get dry.

I simply sprinkled a little powdered sugar on them after letting them cool fully on a cookie rack, and they were good to go. And go they did! Yum. Enjoy this and more with Tempt My Tummy Tuesday and Blessed With Grace!

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Monday, June 13, 2011

So Young, So Wise

The other night, Mister Man and I were eating dinner together. Little Miss and my husband were somewhere else, so it was just the two of us. Me being me (umm duh? Who else would I be?), I decided to use the opportunity to talk about manners.

Mister Man and I discussed some good manners and some bad manners, and we had fun practicing examples of both. It was a fun way of teaching him, and I'm hoping some of it sunk in a little. As we continued our conversation about why we have manners and why certain things are considered good or bad manners, I asked him who he thought invented manners. He looked at me somewhat confused, and I clarified.

Well, Sweetie, who do you think made manners? Was it men or women? Maybe a mommy? A daddy? What do you think?

Oh, his face cleared, and he spoke confidently. It was definitely a man who invented manners.

Really? I choked on my words, knowing who in my family is the one with the better manners.

Yes. The President is the one who makes the manners and the rules for them, he declared.

Oh, I see. So before America was founded, manners didn't exist? I probed.

Welllllll, he dithered, but only momentarily. There were some manners before our country was founded, but it wasn't until ohhhh the sixteenth president that we really had real manners.

No? I asked, my curiosity piqued. We didn't have manners until the sixteenth president? What about before then?

Well, I suppose that there were some manners before then. George Washington definitely started it. But it wasn't until Abraham Lincoln that we really had real manners. He's the one who really made us all have manners, you know.

I see, I said, nodding slowly. The light was slowly beginning to dawn. Just to be sure ... So Mister Man, what is it that Abraham Lincoln did to make manners?

Mommy, he's the one who freed the slaves and made all people equal. We didn't really have manners until then. You should know that, he looked crossly at me.

Of course. Sometimes, however, it takes the innocence of a child to point out such wisdom to me. And to think... he's only seven.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Part One - Reviewing A Discovery of Witches

I love book series. I love the chance to really get to know the characters and follow them over multiple story arcs. I don't just read any series though - they still have to be books I enjoy reading. A Discovery of Witches is the first in a new trilogy, and I am counting down the days until the next book is released. In 2012. Want to know more about it? Read my review at BlogHer here.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tasty Tuesday - Summer Truffles

It's the end of the year around here, which means teacher gifts. Lots and lots of teacher gifts. The wee one are in two different schools. And there are all the specials teachers (music, art, gym, Spanish), in addition to the teachers and aides and office staff and oh yeah, bus drivers. Needless to say, that adds up quickly when contributing to the class gifts and finding cute little gifties or gift cards for everyone. I just don't have that kind of money to spend, but I want them all to know how much we appreciate them.

That's where getting "fancy" (but oh so easy) comes in handy. Introducing my "summer truffles" - which means I don't have to sit over my stove heating chocolate for it even. I love all the different types of flavors that you can make. For this batch, I did hazelnut (with umm hazelnut liqueur), but next time I'll do espresso or maybe my truffle salt or possibly cinnamon for a Mexican twist. How can you not like it?

Plus, few ingredients and easy techniques means I have some very grateful school staff over the next few days. I hope anyway - I just realized I didn't do a taste test. Hm.

Summer Truffles

14 oz good quality dark chocolate, divided
1/3 c heavy whipping cream
4 T butter, divided
1 T liquid flavoring like vanilla or hazelnut or coffee
OR 1 t dry flavoring like sea or truffle salt or cinnamon

Place 9 oz of the chopped chocolate in to bowl, along with 3 T of the butter and the cream.

If it's Chicago and super hot and sunny and icky outside - or another locale with a similar climate, simply place your bowl outside in the sun for ten to fifteen minutes. If it isn't so hot and sunny, melt it gently in a double boiler (explained below).

Once it's melted for a bit, stir it. If it looks like this, it isn't ready yet. Place it outside a little longer (or leave it on the double boiler - where you'll want to be stirring it every minute or so anyway).

When your chocolate looks like this (picture below), it's ready. You don't want it to get too hot or it will lose the good tempering it had from the factory (the pretty glossy finish that you want for your truffles), and you definitely want it to be completely smooth like this.

At this point, you want to add your flavoring. Hazelnut liqueur. Yum. Stir until it's completely absorbed in the ganache.

At this point, place your chocolate in the fridge (if it's hot out) to harden up a little bit. You don't want it completely solid, but you want it stiff enough that it will hold its shape as you begin to turn it into actual truffles! Note the finger prints that can be pushed in but that hold their shape.

Using a melon baller or spoons or other method of your choice, create little balls of chocolate. These can be placed very close together on a sil pat or parchment paper, as they aren't going to change shape like cookies will. Notice that they're a little rough around the edges. That's fine; we'll fix it later. Once you're finished, put the cookie sheet in the fridge again to ensure the truffles are nice and hard.

While the truffles are chilling again, you want to make the coating for the outside of the truffles. Alternatively, you could roll these in cocoa powder or (gag) powdered sugar instead of dipping them in chocolate again. Personally, I like the look of the dipped truffles like this, and they taste great. Place the remaining 5 oz of chocolate and 1 T of butter into your double boiler.

Double boiler? Yeah... a metal bowl on top of a pot. That works just fine. Place an inch or two of water in the bottom, and turn on the heat, no higher than medium. This will gently melt the chocolate without burning it. Stir every minute or two until this chocolate looks like the beautiful smooth and glossy chocolate you had above.

Once the chocolate is melted, remove it from the heat (I always have a towel on hand to wipe the bottom of the bowl to get all the condensation to ensure no steam curls around the bowl and gets into my chocolate which will give it a really nasty and grainy texture). While it's coming to room temperature, we're going to revisit those truffles in the fridge. The one on the left looks a whole lot better, doesn't it?

All you're going to do is pick up the rough truffle and roll it in your hands a few seconds to get the ridges off. Since it's summer and my hands are hot, within a truffle or two, they'll simply be melting all over my hands, which is not what I want. I need to keep my hands cool to avoid that melting, so I have a system. I get out two ice packs and put them on the counter with a towel next to them. I put my hands on the ice packs and get them nice and cool, then pat them dry on the towel. Nifty, huh?

Last up, we're going to use that bit of melted chocolate to coat our truffles. Drop in truffles one at a time. Using a fork, roll the truffle in chocolate until it's coated. Pick it up gently with a fork, then shake it gently to get rid of as much excess chocolate as you can. Place it back on the sil pat if you don't want more dirty dishes - or on a cookie rack so the chocolate can drip down and leave a perfect truffle.

Yum! I can't wait to hear how everyone likes these. Keep them in the fridge in a covered container for a week or so. Enjoy this and more with Tempt My Tummy Tuesday and Blessed With Grace!

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