Saturday, October 27, 2012

I got my fix!

It came! My first box from StitchFix.

I originally heard about this awesome new website from a post that Melissa over at Dear Baby did awhile back. You can read it here.

Basically it's a personal shopping service. You fill out this survey and someone pulls 5 items that seem like things you would like and they send them to you. There's a $20 fee for each fix but if you keep any of the items the $20 gets used as a credit toward your purchase. If you like all 5 items then you get the $20 plus 25% off the total. I signed up right after reading Melissa's post and like any good thing I had to wait. No instant gratification here. I signed up at the end of August after reading her post and just got my invite last week but I had forgotten all about it at that point so it was actually a pretty awesome surprise to get the email.

The reason I'm so excited about this is that I feel like I'm at a new stage in my life. I no longer have to actually leave the house to go to my "job" which means I can wear jeans or pajama pants every day if I want to. But sometimes I DO like to leave the house and when I do I try to at least look like I put myself together although more times than not I'm probably wearing a t-shirt. Hence the need for some style help.

Mostly I told them that I'm not looking for anything super daring or to change my style. I like things pretty classic and preppy. You get to select the price range your comfortable with and I chose the cheapest one. Since my weight is still fluctuating a lot and only a handful of my pre-Sam clothes still fit I try not to spend too much on any one item.

You can request a fix as often as you like or schedule it so a box comes once a month. I'm on the once a month plan right now but if you're looking for something special or just have a little extra money in the budget that month you could always get a couple of fixes.

So without further adieu, here's what came in my box.

The first two things I pulled out were the leggings and the jacket and I thought "whoa, this is not going to be good." But then I saw the two sweaters and got excited because they were much more my speed.

The first thing I tried on were the pants which were the Genoa Seamed Ponte Knit Pant by RD Style. Definitely a no-go. I didn't even take a picture. They were itchy and thick and ill-fitting. The waistline is wide bands of elastic which should have been comfy but just wasn't. I didn't think I'd like them and I wasn't wrong. Not to mention that part of the joy of quitting your day job is you can wear jeans every day so I don't really have a need for a non-denim pair of pants right now. Moving on.

Since the pants were so bad I put on my skinny jeans and boots since that is the likely combo I'll be using when wearing these next items. The next thing I tried on because I was on the fence about it was the cowl neck top seen in the upper left of the pic. It's by Natural Life and is the Chaimbers Knit Cowl neck Top and it can be mine for $48. That's more than I normally pay for a top but isn't the point of this whole venture that I'm tired of wearing Target shirts that never fit right after I wash them? I didn't want to like it but I surprisingly did. It's loose in the body, isn't too short and there's a nice drape to the fabric. I like the 3/4 sleeves but I'm worried it's not very practical for winter up here.

I tried on the jacket next because I wanted to save the striped sweater for last since I figured I would like it the most. The jacket was a bold pick. It's the Marquisa 3/4 sleeve Cupro Jacket from Line & Dot. It's silk which isn't super practical for every day but I thought maybe it could be cute for a night out. The gold zippers weren't really my style but I threw on a black turtleneck and tried on the jacket. There's no pics but mainly because it really didn't fit. I could barely zip it up and the sleeves were way too tight. Obviously it was too small and I'm not sure I would have liked it if it was a bigger size anyway. That's one of the things with StitchFix. If you really like something but it doesn't fit quite right then there's no sending it back to exchange for another size. It either fits or it doesn't. You give them a bunch of personal sizing information in your survey and they seem to be spot on so far with the exception of the jacket.

Ok so I think I also threw on the scarf somewhere in between here and wasn't really impressed. It's the Whisper Weight Modal Scarf from Orchid Enterprises. I like my scarves thick and chunky or pashmina-shawl-y if that makes sense. It seemed a little too precious for my day to day life. I could just picture snagging it on a shopping cart or Sam blowing his nose in it when he nuzzles my neck. So the sweater above is the last thing I tried on and I really like it. I wish it was a little longer in front but one of the things I like so much is that it's extra long in the back. That asymmetrical hemline really got me. It'll give me the extra coverage I need when I bend over and pick up my phone that Sam has dropped....again.

So all in all I would say it was pretty successful. I'm waiting for Reid to get home to see what he thinks about the two sweaters since I always value a second opinion. 

Here is the breakdown of prices for all the items:

Scarf: $35
Jacket: $90
Pants: $44
Striped Sweater: $55
Cowl neck Sweater: $48

So after I decide what to keep, I bag up the rest and send it back. Shipping is free both ways and the return shipping bag is included in the box so I don't have to do anything except put it outside for the mailman to pick up. I can go online to my profile and tell them what I liked or didn't like about their choices and then hopefully next time I'll get an even better fix. 

I was worried that everything was going to be a little too daring for me so I did some googling after I got my invite and found that a lot of people have done awesome reviews of the various boxes they've received. If you're interested in signing up yourself you can use this link and I'll get a credit when you get your first fix! 

So what do you think? Should I keep both sweaters? Do you think that jacket was awesome or a big fat stinker? Do tell.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Push it. Push it real good.

Lame, I know. Sorry. Time to get back on the blogging band wagon.

Most of you already know that I'm now a full time stay at home mom and Sam is now a full time stay at home kid. We used to be able to get away with having very few toys around the house because he did most of his playing during the day at school and when he was home with us we spent a lot of time out of the house (i.e. borrowing our neighbor's pool or traveling with Reid for work to various cow-related events). So now here we are, sorely lacking in the toy department and attempting to make up for it in the cheapest way possible.

Craigslist is my new best friend. I downloaded an awesome app (this one to be more specific) and it lets me browse any cities and all the various categories in a newspaper style setting. The awesome thing about it is that if there are pictures in the ad then you can see them and read a quick blurb about the item without even having to click on it. Love it.

So far I've found a bee costume for $3. Halloween is coming and the Bee Movie is his favorite so I thought we might be able to make it work. Jury is still out on that one. I hate Halloween and he won't let me get it over his head. Luckily it looks pretty big so maybe next year....

I also scored a pretty awesome Brio train table, brand new and still in the box. It's the Network Play Table and it has all these little magnet men that look like robots. Everything about it is computer related so it's a little nerdy but he seems to get a kick out of it. We haven't assembled the base and probably won't any time soon. My plan right now is to attach some casters and slide it under a bed for storage. It was $50.

My latest find is a Kidcraft Deluxe Fire Rescue Set in like new condition for $50 which regularly retails for around $150. It's like a dollhouse for boys. We are actually going to save this for Sam's birthday in December. Hopefully we'll be into a new house by then and we'll have somewhere to put it.

Alright so here's my question. Every time we went to visit a friend's house and there was a baby stroller around Sam immediately gravitated to it. So when we were up here for the fair back in August and staying in a hotel for a week I bought him a baby doll and stroller set from Target as a "good job on that ridiculously long car ride and week in a hotel" gift. He adores it. The baby eats with him and goes "night night" and he likes to take her on walks and bring her to the zoo. He loves her and so do I. There are plenty of times that I've used the baby to convince him to do something by saying "Look Sam, the baby has pants on." Since we've started taking her out of the house more my question is this, do I spray paint the stroller a masculine color and put boy clothes on the baby or just leave it as is? This is what she looks like now.

So yay or nay on the masculinization (not a word, I know) of the baby stroller? And, yes, I realize I could have bought a non-pink one to start with but they don't sell those in stores and I'm too impatient to wait for stuff I order online.

Monday, July 2, 2012

"Did you tell me when I wasn't listening?" and other gems from home remodeling

So I know I promised you all a post on blackberry goodies, but it has been too dang hot to bake. I'm sorry. Between being on the top floor and facing the sun during the day, our little condo has issues cooling down on the best of summer days, and this heat wave was just too much. The air's been running constantly for the past few days (dear Georgia Power, could you hold off on that bill for a bit??), and it still heats up during the day. I actually didn't turn the stove on all weekend for fear it would never be cool again.

Also, I ate all the blackberries.

So, there's that.

However! I did do something productive, in between bouts of maths homework. I had been collecting bits to redecorate our bedroom for nearly a year now, and Alex was out of town so I figured it was the best time to go for it. (He does not like living in the chaos that is in-process home repair. I am fine sleeping without any type of window coverings, and possibly on the couch because you can't get to the bed, and having to eat sitting on the floor because you can't get to any of the furniture. Alex, not so much. He gets cranky.)

I will get into details in a minute, but first, here was the discussion Alex and I had when he got home. I think he wouldn't have even noticed the changes except for the fact that I painted his mini-fridge-as-bedside-table:

Alex: It's just that I've had this fridge forever-
Alex: - and it was nice and classy when it was black.
Me: ....
Alex: *heaving sigh* I guess it's fine. I just wish you'd asked me.
Me: I TOLD YOU I was going to paint the fridge. More than once.
Alex: Did you tell me when I wasn't listening?
Me: ....(apparently?)
Me: Your fridge is still the same fridge. It's just a different color. It still does fridge-y-type stuff. Anyway, I also painted four walls, three canvases, a chest of drawers, my desk, two lamps and the curtain rods. Your fridge was just a casualty of war.
Alex: *sad face*

I want you to read that line in bold again. That, my friends, that is marriage, summed up in one sentence.

ANYway. Our bedroom has been making me crazy for awhile. I love, love color normally to decorate with, but this bedroom is super small and always so dark from Alex's must-be-blackout-like-a-basement-without-windows approach to sleeping, and it was feeling very cave-like. Not so much restful as morbidly oppressive. In my head, the fix for this was to go really light on everything, so even when it was dimly lit it would not feel "dark." I settled on a wall color that was a gray so light it was almost white, and white accents.

Please note here that I spent nearly an hour standing in Lowe's and holding swatches of indistinguishable gray tones up to a white. It actually was very hard for me to pick -- I was terrified I'd get something too dark once it was on the wall and we'd go right back to the cave. Also, I wanted a blue-gray and not a tan-gray, and that proved to be much harder than I thought. ANYway, I finally just picked one and relied on the Valspar "Love Your Color" approach, where they will refund you if you end up wanting a different shade. Fortunately, it turned out to be the right color (I did spend a few minutes hyperventilating after I painted the first wall, because it just looked white. The same color as the trim. I thought I'd gone TOO light. However, it dried darker and I de-stressed.)

As you all know, I prefer the Lazy Approach to all things DIY, so I moved a lot of things to the living room and basically just shifted furniture out from each wall as I painted it. This is obviously not the recommended approach, as then you have to cover all the important furniture with dropcloths and work around them, but again, I'm lazy.

So! Here are the results:

Before (the brown wall came with the condo and at the time, I went with it) and After (note the white min-fridge).

Before (I should have taken befores with the windows shut because that is always how they are, thanks to Alex's light phobia,and it was SO DARK. You can't really tell here), After, and After+Night (and Alex's gym bag since he got back from the trip in between the two pictures). Also, that chest of drawers came from Alex's parents are all nicely refinished, so I can't paint them. They don't match, but oh well.

Before, After, and After+Night.

I realized I took a Before here but not an After. I'll take one tonight, sorry about that. I painted the desk white and it looks nice and clean.

I feel like things are a lot cleaner. I need to paint the ceiling fan still, but considering I painted all that other stuff, I feel like I did a lot on one weekend in between math homework. I reused the existing curtain rods and lamps and just spray-painted them. I have another step to the window treatment that I will hopefully finish Wednesday and will feature at a later point.

Also, I painted the dresser that at one time I started to paint red, and then stopped, and I put on new knobs. I also bought new lamp shades because mine was broken and I wanted them to match. Also, the curtains are actually cut-rate fabric shower curtains and rings from Tuesday Morning, and the two white fuzzy rugs next to the bed are bath mats that felt really nice. And also were cheap. I did have to buy a new duvet cover, but we needed one anyway, and also a dust ruffle. I have some details here and there that I'll run in a later post as well.

I also have decided it's TOO MUCH light, and now I want an accent color. Probably I will paint the lamps an aquamarine and put some in the canvases above the bed (eventually, I will do a headboard, but not now). Maybe Wednesday.  I'll post if I do.

Also. Alex's favorite thing in the whole room?

This thing, which I put on the back of our bedroom door where the ironing board is:

I kid you not. The joys of married life. :)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Pork and Potato Curry

Now that I'm home most days I try to have dinner ready so that when Reid and Sam get home we can either sit down and eat or go for a swim and then eat. (FYI, the best kind of neighbor is the kind with a pool! Hi, Gina!) Since we've been doing the swim thing a lot I've cooked a couple of stew-like things that you get going in a pot and then leave to simmer. I made something the other night called Ground Beef Stew, which I realize does not at all sound appetizing but honestly it's my favorite type of food, hearty, warm, and super easy. I didn't have any V8 so I subbed in a can of tomato soup and all was well. Also no green beans because frozen green beans are yuck so I used frozen peas instead. All in all it was super tasty with some cornbread and Sam gobbled it up.

So I had also taken some pork chops out of the freezer and was trying to figure out what to do with them last night. I had a bunch of small red potatoes so I googled "pork potato recipe" to see what might come up that would let me use up some of the potatoes before they got soft and started growing things down in the cabinet. Mostly I got a lot of curry recipes which works out well because I had most of the ingredients on-hand. I used this one as a base and then tweaked it myself. There are no pictures but here's the best description I can give of what I remember doing differently.

Pork and Potato Curry - version 2.0
1 lb. pork, cubed (I trimmed the fat off 4 boneless pork chops and cubed that)
1 can diced tomatoes, don't drain
1 small onion, diced (I used Vidalia but it doesn't matter)
6 or 7 red potatoes, diced
3 tbsp of mild curry paste
dash of coriander, cumin, dried mustard, curry powder, garlic powder
1 can coconut milk
3 or 4 tbsp honey
salt and pepper

1. Saute onion in olive oil until translucent. At this point I sprinkled the dashes of dried spices over the onion. I used a 1/8 tsp to scoop the spices out but they were by no means level.

2. Add curry paste to onion and stir, heating paste through.

3. Add pork and sauté until edges are browned. You aren't trying to cook it all the way through, just getting a crust on the outside.

4. Dump in tomatoes, juice and all. Add potatoes. Stir until everything is coated with spices.

5. It's at this point that I added the coconut milk. I had it in the cabinet and thought it would make a nice addition but you can just use water or chicken broth if that's what you have on hand. I added the entire can but mostly you just want to cover the potatoes so they can have enough liquid to cook.

6. Simmer for awhile and then give it a taste so you can adjust the seasoning. It's at this point that I gave a generous salting and then some pepper. It still needed something else so I gave a good drizzle of honey. I also had only originally used one tablespoon of curry paste but added two more at this stage so I would say go ahead and use three in the initial sauté.

7. Turn the heat down to low and let it simmer for an hour to an hour and a half. Serve with rice and naan if you have it.

So Sam wasn't a huge fan but that could have been the crackers he filled up on at the pool. Reid enjoyed it which is saying a good bit since he's not a big fan of Indian food. I served it with jasmine rice that I cooked with some peas in it for color and I warmed up a few pieces of naan bread in the oven. The potatoes got really creamy and the pork became really tender the longer it cooked. All in all it was pretty tasty.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Blackberries, A Preview

This is not a real post. BUT it is foreshadowing what I will be posting on in the next week or so. I went home to Mississippi this past weekend and guess what, it was blackberry season! My dad and I picked a big basketful on Sunday, and now I have to do something with them in the next few days (other than just sit around stuffing my face with them, that is). So the baking will commence shortly. In the meantime, tell me this doesn't make your mouth water:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Chenille Baby Blanket

So awhile back I saw a link somewhere, maybe Pinterest, maybe blogland, and it was a link to Aesthetic Nest's Heirloom Cut Chenille Baby Blanket. It's pretty spectacular looking and seemed relatively easy to do. So I waited for a reason to make one and I finally did it!

I'm not going to go step by step or anything because she does an awesome job at that. I will, however, post a few notes just to help folks along since I felt a little less than eager a few times during the process.

  1. You don't HAVE to purchase the slash cutter, but I would recommend it. I cut a couple of rows with scissors after I realized the cutter wasn't going directly down the center of my rows and my hand was cramping within minutes. The slash cutter just makes the whole cutting part of the process go faster and let me tell you, there's a lot of cutting to do! I bought this cutter from Joann's and used one of their many 50% off coupons on it.
  2. I didn't make my own quilt binding. Call it laziness, I don't care. Making bias tape is not easy despite what some people lead you to believe and you need a lot of it for this project so save the homemade stuff for something else. That did mean that my quilt had wider binding but it didn't bother me. The thin stuff does look good though so maybe next time. I bought two packs of this quilt binding in Oyster.
  3. DO NOT TRIM UNTIL YOU'VE FINISHED SLASHING! This is a mistake I made on the first half of the blanket. I'm impatient (ask my husband) so I stitched all the lines on the first half and then cut them open because I wanted to see what it looked like. I made the mistake of trimming the edge so the fabric all lined up because I thought it would be easier to get the slash cutter in there. Big mistake. Stitching comes undone. So wait until you slash the whole thing to make all the edges neat and tidy. Which leads me to my next suggestion.....
  4. Start each row of slashing by cutting a few inches with your scissors. I did this after the first few rows of cutting and it seemed to help the slash cutter get going to not have to break through selvage edges and such. It only takes a few minutes for this extra step and it's not completely necessary but I thought it made a difference.
  5. Don't give up. About half way through I could see all the mistakes I was making and how not straight my lines were and I thought "there's no way this is going to turn out good." But it does. 
  6. Buy lots of thread. And I mean lots! I bought some of that tonal orange-yellow thread because I couldn't decide which color looks best and I had to go back and buy more because one spool was most certainly not enough. So overestimate and save yourself a trip.
  7. Remember, all of your stitching and cutting and basically the entire project is done on the bias. If you hate working on the bias then don't bother. The fabric shifts and shimmies and is basically a big old heavy pain in the booty. So if bias=no bueno for you then this is not a project for you!
  8. Do your stitching with your pretty fabric side up. The ruffles will hide any imperfections on the flannel side so you want to make sure the pretty side looks nice.
  9. Experiment with layering the flannel in different orders. I chose to sandwich the bright color (yellow) between the two more muted colors and I like how it turned out. I saw a few from Aesthetic Nest's flickr group that I wasn't crazy about but might have liked if they would have changed the order of the flannel. 

And without further ado, here are some pictures! No peeking, Amie!

I had to add this pic so the first pic wasn't of the blanket. Isn't he a cutie?

Half way through with all the cutting. I stitched and cut one half and then stitched and cut the second half to break it up a little.

You can see where I used the scissors to get my slash lines started. 

The slash cutter I bought at Joann's. Definitely worth it.

Slash cutter in action. The small blue piece in the background is for slashing curves.

Stiched, slashed, bound and ready for the washing machine!

The finished product!

Look at those pretty ruffles!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Summer Vacation!

Per Alyda's suggestion, I'm writing a blog post.

No need to explain where I've been, right? Let's just get on with the fun stuff.

There are so many crafty things I've been putting off doing the last couple of months. I'm working on a sewing project I started a few weeks ago and I'm about 1/3 of the way finished but I can't reveal it since it's a gift so you'll just have to wait on that one. Now that I've finished the first Hunger Games book (did either of you read those? Sooo good.) I can probably get it finished in a few hours. It's not difficult, just tedious.

One of the other big things that's been neglected lately, besides the blog :), is cleaning. My floors are begging for a good clean so I'm starting with the living room rug. It's just a basic rug we got on sale at Home Depot a few years ago but with no padding under it and two 150 lb. dogs sleeping on it it has definitely seen better days.

I've pushed everything off of it and I'm about to go sprinkle baking soda all over to help remove some of the doggy smell but I'm wondering if I shouldn't invest in a carpet pad while I've got it exposed. Do you use that carpet powder that smells nice or just baking soda? Or nothing? Sheila, you've got big dogs. How do you keep your house from smelling like a kennel?

One of the things we love about this house is there was no carpet anywhere. But it has also turned into one of the things I hate. Part of me desperately wishes we had installed carpet somewhere, even just the bedrooms, but knowing how bad Reid's allergies are and seeing as Sam is probably in the same boat it just doesn't seem like an option.

So my question for you ladies is this: Do you have anything under your area rugs to make it a little more cushy or do you just avoid the area rug thing altogether? I've tried the cheap rubber mat things and they don't seem to make any difference at all so I'm thinking buying a piece of carpet foam and trimming it to fit is my best choice.

Off to sprinkle and sew!

Monday, April 30, 2012

City Fresh Eggs

Alyda, I don’t know how you stay so thin.  The past few months while you’ve been literally holding this blog together on your own (nice job…btw), I think I’ve gained 10 lbs just reading your posts.  I have to say I am sooo jealous of your baking talent and wish that I even had the motivation to hop to it in the kitchen.
Now…what to write about now that I have been MIA for what feels like FOREVER!  There are so many things that have happened, oh where to start. 
Well…we shall start with the chickens.  If you remember this post back in February where if I didn’t get chickens I was going to die…I mean literally….just take my last breath.  Well it happened.  I loaded this family of 4 up just before Easter and toted them down to Tractor Supply and stood at the check out with 4 (hopefully female) (two Barred Rock and two Rhode Island Red) chicks and all the goodies that come along with raising these cute littler fur balls.
And we took them home.  The other animals were not impressed but poor Riley has lived through two children and many many MANY animals walking through this house.  You could say she was one of the founders of the Baker family…=).  Thanks Riley for putting up with us.
Here is Pan checking them out.  I have to say he is still just as infatuated with them now as he was then.  Here they are approximately 1 week old.  Aren’t they too cute?  Their names are: Little Fluffy, Fluffy, Nugget, Penny (bet you can’t tell which ones the kids named…lol).
Next step is the coop.  I searched and scoured the internet for what would be best for my girls and I decided a chicken tractor would suit us best.  Basically a chicken tractor is just a mobile chicken coop.  This way I don’t have to worry about them ruining the grass or the smell getting too bad, we can just move it around.
Here’s a pic of the coop.  I have to say I may have a slight obsession with power tools now…MAYBE…just MAYBE.
And here they are now.   At about 9 weeks old, they have been permanently living outside now for about 3 weeks and it is wonderful.  Between you and me….the garage was starting to smell like a barnyard…YIKES!  (I can’t imagine why….lol)  And now that we have a good routine down, they are almost no up keep.  I make sure they have food and water once a day and move the coop about every week or two and that’s all they require.  Now for the eggs.  I have read that they won’t lay for another 16 weeks, so around September, we will have farm fresh, or in this case, city fresh eggs.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Chocolate Chocolate-Chip Cookie Dough Cupcakes (no, that is not a typo)

(Yes, "chocolate" is supposed to appear in there twice)

As I mentioned in my post about heating cores, I have had a lot of baking going on lately, and this Chocolate Chocolate-Chip Cookie Dough Cupcake was one of the test-runs for cupcakes I wanted to make for Alex's coworkers. Versions of this particular recipe had shown up on several blogs I read, and it sounded amazing, but it was also one of those recipes where it sounded like a lot could go wrong. This meant I couldn't just bring it in to work (my normal go-to for extra desserts... and by "extra," I mean "must-get-out-of-the-house-so-I-don't-eat-800-pounds-of-chocolate-by-myself"), because my co-workers, they are like locusts.

And not very discerning locusts.

They eat EVERYthing.

And they are always very, very nice and complimentary, which makes me FEEL great, but that's bad when you are trying out a new recipe. I need real, unadorned feedback (like "Too much allspice in the carrot cake" -- thanks, Rick, a friend from my 20s-and-30s church group), and I just don't get that with my coworkers.

So I borrowed my aforementioned church group, as we were having a conveniently timed potluck dinner Saturday night. (Also, "20s and 30s" are really very loosely defined parameters for this group. It really should be something more like "we like playing drunk croquet, all ages welcome if you bring wine" group.) They are always honest with me, while also being very nice (for the most part....hi, Bert.... :)

They LOVED these cupcakes. And I loved these cupcakes. And I'm planning them for all things going forward, though they are a little more time-consuming than just plain bake-and-frost cupcakes.

My version for these consisted of three parts: the inner cookie dough filling, the outer chocolate cupcake, and the cookie dough icing. For the two cookie dough bits, I borrowed the recipe from this post at Recipe Girl. I've seen a lot of versions of these and for several reasons (which included being low on flour at the time), I decided hers sounded like the best. (If you're still concerned about my flour situation, don't be -- I overreacted as per usual and stockpiled from Sam's Club with a hefty 10-pound bag. I hate running out of things. Alex says he hates my stockpiling, but he appreciates it when he runs out of Saran wrap and I reveal the bulk pack I've been hoarding.)

I did, however, decide to do a dark chocolate cupcake because I felt like a regular milk chocolate would be too sweet with all the cookie dough going on. [Side note: What I have found about dark chocolate cake is that nobody realizes it's dark chocolate (even those who HATE dark chocolate). They just know it isn't that overwhelming sweet taste that regular chocolate cake can be.] I would link to the recipe here, but it's one I printed out forever ago and I can't find it online and my print-out is at home. So, experiment amongst  yourselves, I would imagine there are all sorts of good dark chocolate recipes out there. Yes, it is a pain to melt the chocolate down instead of just dumping cocoa powder into a bowl, but it is worth it, I promise!

Please also note, both cookie dough parts to this recipe are egg-free, which means you don't have to worry about people dying of raw eggs. This has never been a concern of mine while eating raw steps in baked goods, but I understand others worry about food poisoning and salmonella far more than I do, so egg-free it is. 

So here we go with the cupcakes. First, the filling:

You make up the filling as per the recipe below and then scoop it out into little balls of dough, and then (this is IMPORTANT, do not skip this step!) you must freeze them for 30 minutes. If you don't do this, they will not stay dough-y during the baking, and will get all hard inside. Bleh.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup miniature chocolate chips

Cookie dough filling : In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to stir together the butter, sugars, milk and vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients and the chocolate chips. Scoop out dough and place it on a cookie sheet.

Stick them on a cookie sheet and freeze at least 30 minutes. During this time, I have found you can start preheating your oven and begin mixing the cupcake batter. Do NOT think (like me) that you are going to be all efficient and go ahead and make the icing ahead of time as well. I will explain in a minute, but just trust me and hold off on the icing for now.

So! You can go ahead and fill your cupcake liners with batter (I found halfway up worked best), and 30 minutes later, the dough balls come out of the freezer.

 Take each somewhat-frozen cookie dough ball and push it down into the middle of the cupcakes, like so:

This will puff up the batter around the dough balls. Now, if you are using a cupcake recipe that normally bakes up with a flat top (like the one we used for Marie's cupcakes), then you want to cover your little dough thingies with a little bit of batter. My dark chocolate recipe bakes up with a domed top, however, so I didn't worry about it and it will bake up and cover the dough, so it looks just like a regular cupcake.

Also, I don't know if it can be attributed to the frozen dough or to the aluminum liners I used, but the cupcakes took a bit longer than that recipe normally does. So be forewarned. You want to be able to stick your toothpick into the very edge of the cupcake (not the dough center) to check for done-ness. (Not a word. I don't care.)

So, no in-between picture here (I was in a rush and I forgot again), but after I took the cupcakes out of the oven and they were cooled, I then made the icing and put it into a frosting bag with a pretty icing tip.

DO NOT MAKE THE ICING EARLY. The first time I made this recipe, I worried it would get all soft and squishy while waiting for the cupcakes to first bake and then to cool, so I made it and then put it in the fridge. It was rock-hard and I had to let it sit at room temp for FOREVER to get soft enough to smush out (this is the technical term) of the icing tip.

The second time, I made it and left it sitting out, thinking it would stay soft. But even though it was in an icing bag plus a cover on the icing tip, it STILL set up and began to harden, like buttercream left to air-dry. I had to put that version in the microwave a couple of times to get it workable. (Which was a pain because then I had to take the metal icing tip off to put it in there so nothing would light on fire. Safer, but super-annoying.)

ANYWAY. Learn from my mistakes and make the icing right before you need it. It doesn't take very long, I swear, and you will actually make things take longer as you try to figure out how to get it soft enough to smush out (still the technical term) of the icing bag without crippling your hands.

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cookie dough frosting: In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to combine the butter and sugars until smooth and creamy. Mix in the flour, milk and vanilla and continue to mix until all is well combined.

Then, ice your now-cooled cupcakes and garnish with a few more mini chocolate chips.

The center filling will bake slightly around the edges but remain dough-y on the inside, and it is a WONDERFUL taste surprise when you bite in and get the filling.

My friends from the church group were really taken with this recipe.

(Quotes from various group members --
Eric: "It has ruined all future cupcakes for me." 
Charles: "If ever there were proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, it's these cupcakes!" 
And no, that was not all the drunk-croquet talking.)

I recommend you try your hand at these. They are truly amazing. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Miracle of Heating Cores (done the lazy way)

First, the food porn:

(I'll get back to this in a minute.) 

So, I've been on a baking swing lately, and if you live near me you've been getting the benefit of this. If you're far away, I can only give you delicious recipes and horrible pictures of the results (the pictures, not the baked goods. The baked goods have been great). Sorry about that. On the bright side, you've never been forced to lie to me about how tasty (or not) something is. So there's that.

Today I want to talk about heating cores. I have the world's trickiest oven, and my cakes were forever coming out lopsided. Since my oven has (a) no interior light, (b) no window on the door, (c) two different thermometers on the backs of an upper and lower rack which I use to triangulate the ACTUAL temperature the oven is, regardless of the dial setting, and (d) a tendency to crisp things in weird places, I have been blaming this on the oven and just moving on with life. This usually means I have to get out the cake leveler and get rid of the lopsided bit before stacking layers or frosting anything.

Getting rid of ANY perfectly good food item pains me. Also, cutting cake tops means you get crumbs in your icing more than normal when you have to spread the icing. Both of these things bother me A LOT. So when I was at Joann's the other day, I spent a little while staring at the heating core.

This is a heating core (from Wilton):

What you do is, you stick it in the center of your cake pan, then pour in the batter, and put a little batter in the heating core, and bake. This redistributes the heat and helps your cake bake more evenly. However, I've used a heating core before, and I HATE it. Because what you end up with is a little circular plug that you drop back into the cake.

Fine, but when you go to slice the cake, you lose the end off your nice little triangular piece. It BOTHERS me, y'all! It does not help me a bit. And it's another step. Plus, the things are $9 apiece and if you're baking multiple layers, you have to clean the core in between and wait on one layer to finish to use it. If you know anything about me, you know that I AM NOT PATIENT. I am not sitting around waiting on any stupid heating core.

So instead, I googled for a better way. And what did I find? Flower nails!

They work just like the metal thingies you can put a baked potato on that allow them to cook twice as fast. They distribute the heat, AND they do not require any of this giant-hole-in-the-cake business. Also, I'm lazy. Also, they cost $1.50. YES. So I bought four. (I actually need to buy 4 more, I realized I will still be waiting on layers to cool and I am not OK with that.)


I tested out my new flower nails on a wedding shower cake I was doing for my friend Eli (you remember her and her adorable child and dog from Marie's wedding cupcakes, right?). So first I put down parchment paper cut to size on the bottom, and then stuck the flower nail through it. I sprayed it with Bake Easy all over as well (which also helps keep the parchment paper from curling up).

I had also recently invested in some Wilton Bake Even Strips, and between those and the flower nails, I got entirely flat cakes. No more wasted cake! (The strips say to just soak in water; the blog advice I read said 30 minutes of soaking. I would agree with that since these worked so well).

After they came out of the oven, I let them cool for a little while and then flipped them out of the pans and peeled off the parchment paper and flower nails. Then I wrapped them all in Saran wrap and stacked them in the fridge to sit overnight. This makes the layers less delicate and easier to work with. 

I should have taken a picture of the cakes when they came out all even, but it was late by then and I forgot.

However, I didn't trim these two layers at all, so you can judge for yourself in the picture below as I started crumb-icing:

Again, let me extoll the virtues of a cake turntable, shown above. It makes icing things super easy. (Also, I don't mean to be sitting around shilling Wilton items, but they are so often what's available that there aren't other brand options. Honestly, I don't know that there are brand differences, but if I find one, I will tell you.)

Anyway, so on to the stacking. Now, if I'm just buttercreaming a layer cake and not doing fondant, I prefer to stack my layers after the crumb-coating stage. This is just me, you can do it however you like. I find it easier to sort of shellack the layers together with a final icing coat so they don't slide, however.

This was a two-layer cake, so I had to insert the supports for the second layer: three wooden dowels, cut to the height of the cake and sharpened in a pencil sharpener.

I like to hold mine up to the side of the bottom layer and then cut them with a set of wire cutters. (Note: This will often cause the other end of the dowel to go flying across the room and smack your husband in the head. Be careful where you aim.)

Then I stacked up the second layer onto a 6" cardboard cake circle.

And then crumb-coated and stuck together with the bottom layer:

(I know you love my awesome phone photos, DON'T YOU?? Hahaha sorry, again. My camera died.)

I didn't take any of the in-between steps here when I did the second icing coat, but be assured it was just lots of buttercream. 

Anyway, so the cake was supposed to match the shower invitation, shown below, so I tried to mix a color as close as I could get to the invite border.

And then I piped on the little cross-hatch border with a tiny little #1 icing tip, as well as the monogram on the card. I think it came out pretty good, no? A little greener than I wanted, but still a close-ish match.

It isn't perfect, but I think it's pretty good for a two-night after-work-and-school project. Also, I'm told it was yummy, which is even better!

Yay cake!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Long-Awaited Wedding Cupcakes! (Also, a discussion between me and my husband)

I know, I fell off the face of the planet again. I apologize; school and work and wedding desserts ate up my time. (Also, I went to Savannah for St. Patrick's Day and it went about like it sounds such a trip would, only possibly with more green beer. However, that is a topic for another post.) So onwards to a new post, and the food porn (don't lie, I know that's why you're really here).

But first, a conversation between me and Alex, via e-mail, which I feel admirably demonstrates our relationship:

Me: FYI, you smacked the hell out of my hip last night in your sleep. This is the third or fourth time lately, and it's only a matter of time until you get my face, and I am TOTALLY gonna tell people you beat me when that happens, because it WILL BE TRUE. It's your subconscious, isn't it?

Alex:  When I decide to beat you, you won't have to explain it to people. They'll understand.

Me:  I'm saving this for my future legal filings.

And now, the wedding dessert post I know you have all been waiting for!

So as I mentioned in my last post, my friend Marie had courageously asked me to make her wedding cupcakes. We had gone through some variations to work up to what she wanted, but of course I only documented the end result, and not even in a well-lit photo. So when I went to make the real thing, I actually remembered and took (only slightly better-lit) photos of the whole process. I know, everyone is very proud.

First, I needed to make the sugar cookie toppers during the week ahead, because they were to be flood-iced and would have to dry properly between stages. In the first go-round I had issues with the little cookie cutter that was meant to look like an orchid -- the extra petal looked funny on the cookie, I thought, so I skipped it. This time, it came out closer to right, so I went with it.

As always, I used Sweet Sugar Belle's sugar cookie recipe, because it has been fail-safe and the one batch made enough for all the toppers plus extras.

This is a time-consuming step, because you have to roll out the dough like 80 bazillion times to cut out all these tiny (in the case of the petals) cookies. If you will notice, the petal sheets are rolled much thinner than the flowers; this addressed part of the "looking weird" problem from my previous try at this, that the petals were too thick and it made them out of proportion to the flower. HOWEVER, please note that this means they cooked in like 1/3 the time of the cookies. I put two on a cookie sheet as a tester first, and then baked the rest of them, out of paranoia over burning an entire sheet of tiny petals, cut out in a very painstaking manner over the course of several hours. (BTW, I use a very thin spatula-thingy to slide under the cookies and get them out of the cut dough. I have tried using the icing palette-knife type things, but I find them too narrow.)

So then you end up with, basically, rows and rows of tiny sugar cookies. I was attempting to get a bit more shape out of the petals by smushing them slightly, as shown above, but they still baked up a bit too fat to see it. (Also, in the top picture you can see my previously mentioned hoarding disability in the form of bulk paper towels. Ignore that.)

After they baked (which took up one evening), I let them dry overnight, and the next evening I started flood-icing them. This... took forever. There is no other way to say it. I filled, and refilled, and refilled, a small squeezy bottle with white royal icing and a #1 tip, and iced for about three days while Alex watched sports on TV. For three days, I had a grippy "claw" for a hand when I went to bed. BUT. They iced up so beautifully! I mean, look how nice! Also, they were all white, so I didn't have to fool with colored icing that had separated, which is always a pain.

Next, on Friday morning (I took the day off work for this) I laid them all out in rows on paper towels backed with newspaper on Alex's giant coffee table.

(Side note: I hate this table. It is heavy, and HUGE, and ugly -- this mid-brown lacquered-wood style that I deeply despise -- and it takes up SO much space in our tiny condo. It is, however, Alex's #1 favoritest piece of furniture in the entire world, because it has wheels and lifts up to TV-tray height to enable him to eat at the couch, whilst watching TV. Making 150+ cookies for Marie's wedding has been the absolute only time in our entire marriage that I have found it to be useful. But I digress.) Anyway, here are the cookies laid out:

I had one pearlized light blue lustre spray from PME Sugarcraft (I had to get it online) and one Wilton purple food spray (available at most craft or baking stores).

Remember, I was trying to match to this orchid:

  So first I did a layer of light blue over all of them. Then, I went back in with the purple, trying to hit the edges only (this is very tricky with a canned spray and not an actual spray gun).

Lots of those little suckers, aren't there? yeah. And for some reason, the pictures I took didn't really show how purple-y they were, but here's the best shot I've got:

So that part was done, but then I had to turn to the actual cupcakes. I had split this part out with three other wonderful women (thanks Shannon, Lauren and Eli!!), who baked 24 cupcakes apiece, and since I had the day off and the boxes to transport, I made up the difference. Marie wanted 125 chocolate cupcakes but the way the recipe broke down, I ended up with extras (which is always a good thing anyway). Then, Eli graciously offered up her house for us to meet at and do the decorating in an assembly-line fashion (first we were going to be at Lauren's, but she had to take pictures with her fiance for their engagement shots -- congrats Lauren!! -- so we rescheduled).

A note here on the transportation of mass amounts of cupcakes. I have carriers, but I could only easily move probably 84 in all my carriers, and I can't leave them with the caterer. I have no idea how professionals do it. I asked a bunch of people (some professional, some real and some online), and every last one said, "Oh, we just cram them into a box really close together so they don't move." This (understandably, I think) sounded terrifically unstable and unreliable to me. And I was not, by God, spending a week making cupcakes that would arrive at the venue tipped-over or with smushed icing. So I sat down and thought about it, and I decided that what I needed was a matrix. Kind of like what wine bottles come in when you get them by the case (not, of course, that I EVER do that... Completely unrelated: Hi, Trader Joe's! I do love your 3-buck-chuck!), but smaller to fit the cupcakes. I'd need long, narrow boxes for this, and I ended up getting them at The Container Store (if you read my blog, you already know about my addiction to this place), because they sell tons of sizes of boxes, all nice white ones with shiny outsides, for like $2. Not really knowing how many would fit until I baked the cupcakes, I bought 8 that were 4" high and something like 24"x48" (I don't remember exactly, sorry). Then I spent the time while my cupcakes baked and cooled putting together a matrix by sacrificing two of the boxes to use as cardboard strips with notches cut out. This sounds difficult, but here are some pictures that should help:

They aren't perfect or particularly pretty, but they just had to hold the cupcakes securely, yet not too close. This ended up being 2"x2"-ish. So I filled mine up to take all the boxes over to Eli's place on Saturday morning.

In between all of this, I also made Charlie's groom's cake. He wanted a big chocolate chip cookie cake. Not one of those flat things you get from the mall, but thicker, and not a cake, but actual cookie. I'd made blonde brownies last fall that were exactly what he wanted, so I just used that recipe in a round pan.

Looks yum, no? I might have eaten some of the dough during this process, but only to make sure it was fit for human consumption. I swear!

Anyway, once it was cooled, I flipped it out onto a plate, then back over, and then I had to decorate it. Charlie's request was, "Just enough icing that it looks like a wedding cake." I have no idea what this means. What I ended up doing, though, was taking inspiration from Marie's cupcake liners (shown below on top of the cake) and matching chocolate icing swirls to the design:

I think it turned out nicely, not too feminine, and it looks sooo good (which it was)!

(Warning here: The first giant cookie I made, when I went to flip it out of the pan, the very center was not cooked through and it fell apart. There is no fixing a fallen-apart cookie cake. So I made another one at the last second, which I had BARELY the right amount of brown sugar to do. It is a good thing I'm a hoarder. So anyways, moral: Cook your cookie cake until you actually think it's TOO done. Also, hoard brown sugar. You never know.)

Anyway! Back to the cupcakes.

Lauren dropped her baked cupcakes off with me that Saturday morning, and then I went over to Eli's, where Shannon met us and Eli's sweet husband took their new baby and went shopping to escape from the chatty girls and baked goods.

Oh, and I should have taken a picture of the buttercream I made Friday as well. I ended up with something like FOURTEEN POUNDS of buttercream icing (that is seven double rounds of icing. Thank God for stand mixers). It was huge, in a giant Tupperware container that was really heavy and awkward to carry, and which I almost dropped on our condo stairs. I just did not want to run out in the middle of decorating the day of the wedding. (We actually ended up with some left over, but I had to make a cake for a work retirement party on Sunday so that worked out fine.)

So I loaded and swapped out icing bags with 1M Wilton tips, while Shannon iced and Eli stuck the sugar cookie toppers on and loaded the boxes. It actually only took us about an hour to do all the cupcakes, and that included time for us to save various cupcake boxes from Eli's (determined) dog.

(This is Eli's baby and her dog. They are both adorable. I would worry about her son finding himself on the Internets later in life, but let's be honest, I'm pretty sure all babies look just like that. Only, of course, your son is cuter, Eli!)

Also, I will have you know that the cupcake matrix worked BEAUTIFULLY:

(Can you tell I had my phone again? yeah, sorry.) Then I drove them over to the venue and gave them to the caterer. I have NEVER IN MY LIFE driven so carefully. I imagine it's what my OCD will turn into when I have kids.

Anyway! The final product.... well, my photos do NOT do them justice. For that, I turn to the professionals. All of the following photos were taken by the amazing Anne Almasy. Her lighting skills are incredible, because the reception hall was dark and dimly lit by lanterns and candles and whatnot. Which makes for great atmosphere but TERRIBLE photos (I'm not even going to show you the ones I tried to take).

The tiers of cupcakes:

And the beautiful bride, eating the cupcakes:

Hoorah for cupcakes being successfully transported! And congratulations, Marie and Charlie, you guys are such a great couple and I am so happy for you!