Saturday, December 24, 2011

Busy Creating: Cardboard Ornaments

Are you trying to get last minute stuff done and you need something to keep your kids busy?  Me too.

We're at my parent's and we don't have our car, so most of the time, we are at the house.  Looking for things besides video games and TV to keep the kids busy can be a challenge, especially when all of my craft stuff is not here.

Do you have lots of cardboard boxes from your online orders, scissors, glue, and hopefully pompoms (scraps of paper are a great substitute).
Ask your kids what shapes they want to decorate and cut them out (don't shoot yourself in the foot and offer to do a reindeer).  Let your kids color or paint them (however- use marker if you want to leave them unattended).

Put some glue in a recycled container and put the pompoms in a bowl.  They can dip the pompoms in the glue and attach them themselves with almost no mess.

Let the glue dry and hang them on the tree.
So now, if the baby crawls in and knocks down the tree, I won't have to be as worried about her breaking an ornament ;)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Busy Cooking: Homemade Hot Cocoa Powder

I have become a hot chocolate snob.  Living in Japan, we could get Swiss Miss, but that's just a watery excuse for hot chocolate I give to my kids because it's easy.  There were other chocolate mixes, but the milk and sugar content were different, so the tastes were different than what I wanted.

I discovered something bad, I loved Godiva hot chocolate.  In Japan, a small would run me over $5 a cup.  I started buy William Sonoma hot chocolate mix, which is quite delicious, but at $18 for a jar, it adds up.

This year, I've been searching online and on pinterest to find a perfect make ahead hot chocolate recipe.  There is a recipe on the side of Hersey's cocoa powder that is quite good, but I wanted something that I could make ahead and just have to measure into hot milk.  For the first time, Cook's Illustrated failed me.  I found their recipe for make ahead powder on Brown Eyed Baker, and was not impressed (granted I used subpar white chocolate).  Then, I found this awesome little gem of a recipe on Confection's of a Foodie Bride from Gourmet Magazine 2005 and it was the ONE!

This recipe makes about 70 servings!  I bought all the ingredients and then calculated out the cost per serving of the hot chocolate, since I was trying to save money and have great taste.  It ended up being about $0.30 per serving (and that was with a more expensive higher quality chocolate).  One batch of this would probably be enough to last all winter long, or, in my case, be sufficient to supply gifts to many of your family and friends.

Hot Chocolate Mix:

2 vanilla beans
4 cups sugar
24 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped (I used Ghiradelli chips)
9 oz. dark chocolate, chopped (I used Godiva, found it at the register at Michael's)
2 cups Dutch process cocoa powder (I used 1 cup Hersey's unsweetened cocoa, 1 cup Scharfen Berger)

1) Split vanilla beans and scrape seeds into the sugar.  Using your fingers, rub seeds into the sugar.  Place pods into the sugar, cover the bowl and let the sugar sit overnight or longer.
2) Using a food processor, with the metal blade, chop the dark and semisweet chocolates until finely ground- use 4-5 second pulses.
3) Remove pods from sugar, add in cocoa and ground chocolate, mix with a whisk until completely combined.
4) Warm 8 ounces (1 cup) milk, add in 2 -3 TBSP cocoa mix (depending on how sweet you want yours to be), mix, and enjoy!
5) Store for several months in an airtight container.

Something special my kids and I do is have hot chocolate parties.  We even have special kids sized mugs for those occasions.  I even let them add extra marshmallows and sometimes sprinkles to the top of their whipped cream.
I got the jars at Target.  You can even dress them up as gifts with scraps of fabric, what little boy wouldn't love to drink spider man hot cocoa?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Making Christmas Magical

Recently, I was asked if I could wish for anything (something concrete or something that was not short of a miracle), what would it be.  I thought and thought and really feel truly blessed to have everything I would wish for without feeling selfish.  So, I wished that every child would experience a magical Christmas.  And, I'm not talking magical in terms of getting every toy they asked for, I'm talking experiencing wondrous magical things that make their eyes sparkle and their mouths open wide with smiles.

This year, I took out the decorations, but I never put them up- I knew it would take me time, which is limited this year, and that time would be better spent with the kids, not decorating.  I decided to save my patience and free time for fun with the kids.  I don't want my holiday to be spent worrying that the kids are going to break something or move something out of place.  We may not have many decorations up, but we are still having lots of holiday fun. Over the next few days, I will go over some of the fun things we do to make the holidays special for our family.

One tradition our family has is the Elf on the Shelf.  Some nights I go to bed and wake up in a panic because I can't remember if I moved the elf or not.  One day, I found my son awake, staring at the elf because it hadn't moved.  I panicked and told him that the elf only moves after 6:30 AM, so he went back to his room and came out later, and the elf had moved- he was happy- phew.

Somehow, this year, I told my kids that all of the elves were coming over in the middle of the night for a dinner party.  They were soooo excited.  I had my husband help them set the table, with a paper table cloth and child tea set.
They drew some pictures for our elf, Stayler:
They left a sign in sheet:
We used the mortar and pestle to crush up candy canes because they use that instead of salt and pepper:
The elves TRASHED the house with toilet paper and moved around our decorations:
They flipped the chairs:
Tipped their cups:
Cut the kids' papers into snowflakes:
Drew faces on our Christmas cards:
Signed in on the sign in sheet:
Left a candy trail on their way out the door:
Our elf was so tired, look where we found him in the morning- it was such a rough night, he stayed there for two days (oops):

I only wish I had a picture of the kids' faces when they came downstairs.  The funniest thing is they were so fixated on the knocked over, misplaced chairs, they didn't really notice the toilet paper.

What have your elves been up to?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Busy Cooking: Gingerbread Donuts

All fall I intended to make donuts.  I had bookmarked apple cider and pumpkin spice donuts, just never got around to it.  This past weekend, as I was searching for a gingerbread muffin recipe, I happened upon a gingerbread donut recipe.  Not only did I bookmark it, but I made them the very next morning.

I have this cute little mini donut pan that I bought years ago from King Arthur Flour.  I've only used it two or three times.  It was feeling unloved and getting dusty.  I have to admit, I thought it was more of a pain than it was worth because getting the batter in the wells was messy and the donuts just didn't take the right shape.  Well, after reading a tip to use a pastry bag to pipe the batter in to fill the wells- I have a whole new love for this pan!  Be prepared to see a lot more donuts- baked, not fried!

Add a bit of glaze, some sprinkles, and this made one quick, yummy breakfast with a lot of smiling kids.

I found the recipe for the donuts on Handle the Heat blog and I used my own glaze.

Gingerbread Donuts:

Oven: 350

1 cup flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup applesauce
1 TBSP milk
2 TBSP butter, melted


1 TBSP butter
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp vanilla
4-6 tsp milk

1) Preheat oven.

2) In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, salt, and brown sugar.

3) Stir in egg, applesauce, milk, and melted butter until combined.  Scrape sides of bowl, give one more mix. Put batter into a pastry bag fitted with large circle tip or use a ziploc bag and cut a hole in the bottom corner.

4) Lightly grease the donut pan. Squeeze the dough into circle shape around each well in the pan.  Dough should not be more than halfway up pan.  -If you don't have a donut pan, I'm sure these would make great muffins.

5) Bake 8-10 minutes until toothpick comes out clean.

6) Make the glaze while the donuts are baking, cream butter with confectioner's sugar, add in the cinnamon and vanilla.  Slowly add milk, try to mix and avoid lumps.  You want to add milk until you reach a consistency of thin pudding.

7) Dip each donut in the glaze, place on a plate and put sprinkles on top if you want.

This would be a fun breakfast to have out for the kids on Christmas morning.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Busy Sewing: Crinkly Baby Play Mat

Do you have one of these (or do you know someone who does?):
Then, this post is for you. This idea has been brewing in my head for a while now.  My mom got a bunch of wacky baby toys when she visited us in Japan several years ago.  When Maeve was born, she gave me one, it looked just like a piece of cloth with the design of a Japanese newspaper.  I thought it was going to be just a soothing soft toy.  BUT, then we opened it...

This has got to be one of her favorite toys!  It is crinkly, lightweight, easy to hold, chewable, all the things a baby could ask for and more.  I have been wanting to have one of her other crinkly toys take one for the team, so I could see what was on the inside doing the crinkling.

Well, the other day, I was unpacking a box of clothes I ordered online, she was having a ball grabbing, shaking, and tossing the plastic bags of clothes.  The lightbulb went off- reuse plastic shopping bags and sew them in between fabric.  Yes, at that instant, I abandoned unpacking the box, went into my stash found two cute girly half yards of fabric, got a giant plastic shopping bag I was no longer using and...(yes it is conveniently a bag from my FAVORITE craft store from Japan):
I laid the two fabrics on top of each other, with the right sides together, then I placed the shopping bag on top.   I trimmed around the edges so the fabric was the same size as the bag.  Then I pinned them together.
I sewed around the edges (bag could be on top or bottom while sewing, will work fine either way, your preference):
I left a four inch gap to right side out the fabric:
Once fabric was inverted, I fold the fabric in at the gaps and pinned it, then I topstitched over it and around the whole mat to give it a finished look:
The whole thing took maybe 30 minutes.
How fun would this be for a homemade Christmas gift?  You can make it as large or small as you want, I think it would be fun to do one with bubble wrap on the inside, or long like a runway for the baby to crawl on. You can even put the bag between two old pieces of cut up clothes to be totally green!  Happy sewing!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Busy Cooking: Spiced Pecans

I had never had spiced nuts until about 6 years ago.  We had a Christmas party before we moved to Japan, and one of our friends brought them over.  They were so delicious and addicting, I couldn't stop eating them.  I got the recipe from her and tucked it away, never to attempt to make them on my own.

This Thanksgiving, my brother, who likes nuts, was coming to visit.  I wanted to make these nuts because I knew that he would really like them.  I couldn't find my friend's recipe, so I resorted to my trusty America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook for a spiced pecan recipe.  Their recipe called for Bourbon, I didn't have any and even if I did, I don't really like rum, so I left it out.  These nuts were soooo delicious and easy to make, and with the 2 tsp vanilla in the glaze, they smelled great too.  I made them four days before Thanksgiving, I had to hide them so Hazel and I wouldn't eat them all.  They stayed fresh and crisp right up until the day after Thanksgiving, when I polished them off.

If you're going to a party this month or anytime really and need something simple, quick, and sure to be a hit, try these!  In total, they took ten minutes to make.  We liked them so much, I have 2.5 lbs in the freezer waiting to be glazed!

Spiced Pecans:

Oven:  350'

2 cups pecan halves

Spice mix:
2 TBSP sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp allspice (I omitted because I didn't have any)

1 TBSP unsalted butter
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp brown sugar

1) Preheat oven to 350', place pecans on baking sheet that is lined with parchment paper (for easier clean up) in an even layer.  Bake in oven for 8 minutes.

2) While pecans are in the oven, prepare the spice mix by mixing all the ingredients together in a large bowl, set aside.

3) Make the glaze- add all the ingredients to a medium pan and whisk constantly over medium-high heat until is reaches a boil.  Stir in the pecans and continue cooking until almost all the liquid has evaporated, about 1-2 minutes.

4) Toss the glazed pecans into the bowl with the spice mix.  Place spiced pecans back on baking sheet to cool before eating.  Store in an airtight container- 5-7 days.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Busy Cooking: Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

I can't believe it's already less than a week before Thanksgiving.  I'm scrambling to get two more rooms cleaned and organized for some guests that are coming to visit for the holiday.  I am laughing that before we moved in, I was thinking I'd be unpacked by mid- September (ha ha ha).  Amidst everything that's going on, I want to have an amazing Thanksgiving dinner to celebrate our first one in our new house. In order to make the day less chaotic and more enjoyable, I made my menu last week and set up a timeline of little things to prepare everyday so that Thursday solely involves cooking turkey, rolls, and a few veggies.

I thought I'd share my menu and timeline in case someone out there needed some ideas.  I also find it helpful to read what other people prepare in advance- you'd be surprised how well some things keep.

Cinnamon rolls

Pumpkin bread
Zucchini bread
Pumpkin apple soup
Spiced pecans

Mashed potatoes
Butternut squash
Glazed Carrots
Green bean casserole

Main Course:
Stuffing with thyme and onions
Homemade Cranberry Sauce (my something new that I'm making)
Parker house rolls

Apple Cider
Cranberry Margaritas

Apple Pie
Apple Cider Pie with fresh whipped cinnamon cream
Salted Caramel Brownies
Homemade Oreo Ice Cream Pie
Chocolate Mousse Pie with Graham Cracker Crust

Some things I already have in the freezer - I made them a few weeks ago, ate half, froze half (pumpkin bread and pumpkin soup).
For the oreo pie, last week I made homemade oreos, I put the leftovers in the food processor and pressed the crumbs into a pie plate, covered with plastic wrap and put in freezer.

Sunday:  Bake Zucchini bread, freeze

Monday:  Make spiced pecans, store in air tight container
Make pie crusts, put in freezer
Make cranberry sauce, can refrigerate for several days
Prepare green bean casserole and freeze
Make cinnamon rolls, freeze once cut into individual rolls

Make cheesecake
Make oreo ice cream, assemble pie, freeze
Put pumpkin soup in refrigerator to thaw
Make mousse pie and refrigerate

Bake apple pie, apple cider pie, and brownies.
Make dough for rolls, let rise in refrigerator overnight (you can make them several days in advance and freeze the rolls after the first rise).
Prepare stuffing
Place turkey in brine overnight
Take pumpkin and zucchini bread out of freezer, leave on counter overnight
Put green bean casserole in fridge overnight
Put cinnamon rolls in fridge from freezer

Bake cinnamon rolls
Put turkey in oven
Peel squash, potatoes, carrots, set in pots.
Bake casserole and rolls
Make Maragaritas

Yum, I am getting excited to eat all this food and I am most looking forward to the leftover pie for breakfast over the weekend!  What are you having for Thanksgiving dinner?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Busy Cooking: Pumpkin Spice Muffins with Hidden Cream Cheese Filling

I had these muffins bookmarked for quite some time.  I love any type of cake or muffin that involves a filling.  I finally got around to making them a few weeks ago.  My kids DEVOURED them!  I thought they were delicious, but wasn't going to post about them because they involve three steps.  Then, I made them to take to a mom's group one morning.  Several people commented how good they were and then my friend's husband even came up to me at bootcamp and said he really liked them.  With all those comments, how could I not share the recipe because these truly are delicious muffins.  I'm thinking about making a batch for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning.  They would be a great little appetizer on any Thanksgiving table, if you're looking for one more treat to share with your guests.

This recipe was found on Brown Eyed Baker.

Note:  To get the filling to survive baking, it is frozen ahead of time.  It is recommended to freeze it at least 2 hours before baking- I found making it the night before is easy and cuts down on prep time.

Pumpkin Muffins with Cream Cheese Filling:

Oven: 350

Cream Cheese Filling:
4 oz cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar

1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup + 2 TBSP oil
1/2 tsp vanilla

Streusel Topping:
1/4 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 TBSP unsalted butter, melted

1) In a small bowl, mix together cream cheese, confectioner's sugar, and vanilla until smooth.  Lay out a sheet of plastic wrap, about 18 inches long.  Pour the cream cheese mixture in a straight line on the plastic wrap, leave room on the ends.  Form into a long skinny log, about 12 inches long, wrap up tightly in the plastic wrap and place in the freezer for at least two hours.

2) Toast pecans in oven for 10 minutes.  Let cool, lightly chop.  In a small bowl, lightly mix together pecans, flour, sugar, cinnamon, and butter to make the streusel.  Set aside.

3) In a large bowl, mix together flour, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt.  Set aside.

4) In a medium bowl, mix together pumpkin, oil, sugar, vanilla, and eggs.

5) Pour the wet ingredients on top of the dry ingredients.  Gently mix together until combined.

6) Preheat oven to 350.  Prepare muffin tins with liners (makes 12 large muffins or 24 mini, plus 5 large).  If you make minis, which I always do, you will get a small sinkhole on the top of the muffin from the cream cheese spreading out because they are so small.

7) Remove the cream cheese log from the freezer, remove it from the plastic wrap and place it on a cutting board.  If making full size muffins, cut it into 12 1 inch pieces, if making minis, cut into 1/2" pieces.

8) Scoop a small amount of batter into the bottoms of the muffin cups.  Press one piece of cream cheese into each muffin cup on top of the batter.  Scoop more batter on top of the cream cheese to cover it.

9) Sprinkle tops of batter with streusel and press it down lightly.

10) Bake 18-22 minutes for large muffins and 14 -17 minutes for the minis. Cool and enjoy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Busy Partying: Princess Birthday Party

How time flies, it seems like just yesterday I was excited that after three boys, I was FINALLY having a girl.  Now, here it is, her fourth birthday.  She is very much a girly girl and loves to wear dresses and princess things.  However, she loves batman, superheroes, power rangers, toy guns, and getting dirty too.

For her birthday outfit, she wanted the batman dress I had been planning to make for her.  Add ruffles and ties and any fabric can be fit for the daintiest princess.  Here she is sporting the dress, complete with coordinating ruffle bottom pants. The pattern I used for the dress is my favorite one, Claire by Portabellopixie.

I think she thinks she is batman because she is getting ready to run really fast!  

I didn't do much in the way of decorations, for several reasons- but the main one is that time is just so limited in my days right now, I put mine into making that outfit and the cake.  I went ahead and made a little "bunting" of princess dresses cut out of construction paper and wrote the letters of her name on them:
Then, I wrapped garland around the columns in our main floor, killing two birds with one stone:  birthday, and some Christmas.
For the cake, she kept insisting she wanted a pony cake (weird- she never plays with ponies, but ok).  Then she'd say princess.  So, I found this Cinderella set at Target, with princess and ponies (doubling as a bday gift/cake topper- I thought it was a score).  Of course, I was rushing to finish decorating the cake an hour before we were supposed to eat it, but here's how it turned out:

It's a rectangle topped with a 6 inch circle cake, with four mini cupcakes, one in each corner of the rectangle, posing as pedestals for the princesses to stand on.  The cake was a total hit with all the kids.
Happy Birthday Princess Hazel!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Busy Sewing: Homemade Pillow Pets

Let me just start off by saying, "I LOVE THESE!!!"  I am turning our homemade Angry Super Bird costumes into pillows.  Are you looking for ideas for Christmas?  I am planning on making some Star Wars themed one for my kids for Christmas.

You can follow the tutorial here to make normal Angry Birds costumes.  If you are going to make the pillows, you do not need to use the muslin.  You can just do the felt.

You can make any character you want.  I found this link to a page with characters cartoonified in circles- which would make it easier for you to make a round pillow looking like your child's favorite character.

Start off with felt- approximately .5 to .75 yards, depending how big you want to make it. You need to cut two circles of your main felt.  To make a circle, fold the felt in half, then in half again.  On the corner between the two sides with folds, place a piece of yarn, then stretch it out along the edge of the felt.  While holding the yarn stretched out, draw an arch across the felt to the other side by moving the yarn like a pendulum and keeping the marker at the far end of the yarn.  Cut along this line, open it up and you will have a circle.  Cut out one more.  For this Super Mario pillow, I used a 13 inch piece of yarn, so the circle ends up being 26 inches wide.
Attach your felt pieces to the front of the face circle.  I opted to sew mine on with a wide stitch.  You can hot glue them too.

Sew the front to the back of the pillow- the design should be on the inside.  Leave a six to eight inch wide opening so you can invert the pillow and then stuff it.
Invert the pillow, so the right side is facing out:
Stuff the pillow- I used about 1.25 bags of fill for the pillow.  I could have used more, but I didn't want to make it too firm.  I got the fill for 2.99 a bag at Hobby Lobby.  After it's filled, carefully pin together the opening, rolling some of the felt into the opening, so you don't have a rough edge.  Sew this closed using a topstitch, you can do it by hand too.

Finished product:
Someone is taking after her mama and likes to take pics of things we make:
Perfect for little bodies to lay on:
I wonder if he's going to be freaked out if he wakes up in the middle of the night and sees this staring at him.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Busy Creating: Halloween Costumes

I wanted to get these up before Halloween, in case anyone needed a last minute idea, but with my wrist and all, the costumes didn't even all get finished until 5 AM on Halloween morning.  I usually like to do a theme for our whole family's costumes - makes for an interesting Christmas card.  This year, however, with the unpacking, my wrist, the baby, etc., I was't even sure I'd be able to make one costume.  I knew I wanted to do something with Angry Birds this year because my kids played it a LOT on my dad's ipad and think it's really fun.  I searched online for Angry Bird costume ideas and I found a tutorial on twin dragonfly designs blog that I really liked and seemed easy enough to do with my limited time.

My oldest son was so indecisive about a costume this year, at one point, he mentioned not even dressing up (unheard of!).  In my search for Angry Bird costumes, I found this page with some cool cartoon spoofs of Angry Bird Superheroes.  I knew instantly that I wanted to make us Angry Bird-like costumes, but of our favorite characters.  As soon as I mentioned to my son that I would make him Angry Mario, he was all for it.  I wasn't sure how my design would come out, but he was absolutely thrilled!
The Angry Spiderbird was supposed to be for my second oldest son, but he insisted on being Darth Vader.  As soon as he saw the completed outfit, complete with the hat and gloves I found at Kohl's, he decided he would be that next year.  And Owen insisted I could not color the spider in black, but had to leave it as an outline.  All the webs were done with a sharpie.
As a rule, I don't download games onto my phone for the kids to play, but since I was busy making the costumes, I downloaded Angry Bird Seasons to keep Hazel occupied.  The new character Balloon Bird is soooo awesome, I had to make it for Maeve!
I liked the look of Batbird, so I made them for the adults.  I wasn't going for cheesy cute, honestly.
Two of my kids insisted on being something different and I just didn't have time to make their costumes, you'll know who, when you see the pictures.    Actually, Rapunzel tried to get me to make hers, but my rotary cutter was nowhere to be found (and my confidence to make a beautiful princess dress has yet to be found too).
The tutorial was easy to follow, I opted to sew on all the features, so they would stand the test of time.  If you ever make these, you can hot glue them (I still haven't even unpacked mine actually).  I only sewed the front and back together at the shoulders, so it was kind of like a smock- but it was easy to get in and out of- it will make what I have to show you tomorrow all the more easy- so stay tuned for how to repurpose these costumes into something useful for your kids (homemade Christmas idea).

This was my kids' first real Halloween in the US and it was a total blast!

Dragonfly Designs