Sunday, January 31, 2010

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog entry...

An assortment of lovely birthday gifts from my friends

I must apologize for my absence from my blog this past week.  Unfortunately, life interrupted my ability to write blog entries.  It was nothing major - just a little Strep throat followed by my birthday, but enough to keep me occupied elsewhere.  First, my eldest son started getting sick Monday evening, just about the time I would have been writing my blog entry, so I spent the evening taking care of him.  Tuesday was pretty well occupied by taking him to the doctor and getting his prescription for antibiotics filled.  By the time he was able to go back to school on Thursday, I'd started feeling sick.  Since Thursday was my birthday, I decided it was best to just take the rest of the week off and try to rest up.  I'd already made plans with friends to have dinner at the Zenith Cafe and then enjoy a little dancing to 80's alternative music at The Lava Lounge on Friday so I rested up the best I could and was able to enjoy a wonderful night celebrating with my friends.  Saturday morning we had to get up early to take my youngest son to the doctor's office to have his stitches removed thanks to an accident he'd had the week before and found out I my husband and I now have Strep as well.  When our eldest heard the news, he said, "Aren't I awesome?  See how I share."  He's always good at making us laugh, at least.  After running a few errands and picking up our prescriptions, I spent much of the afternoon sleeping.  Despite being sick himself, my husband watched the boys so I could nap and even made dinner for us.  Times like this, I most definitely appreciate him. 

 3 of my favorite birthday gifts from my husband.

My friends are wonderful as well and they are also appreciated.  Sadly, some of them couldn't make it to the celebration due to their lives getting in the way for various reasons.  I couldn't help but laugh that now that I'm 41 it's just not as easy to get everyone together as it was when I was in my 20's or 30's.  The friends that were able to make it braved a bitter, cold 6 degree night, shared a delicious dinner, and spoiled me with wonderful presents even though their presence was present enough.

On another note, I have decided to make a slight change to the new blog schedule I'd implemented at the beginning of this year.  I'm finding it difficult to write both a tip on Tuesday, and an eco post on Thursday without too much redundancy.  To avoid this, the new schedule is as follows:

Monday: Meals With Mincie
Tuesday: Tale Tuesday (this will consist of an ongoing story, told in segments each week).
Wednesday: Wordless Wednesday
Thursday: Thinking Green
Friday: Free Form Friday

Note the stuffed, giant Mad Cow microbe?  It's a bit of an inside joke between one of my friends and I and will make more sense to the rest of you as my Tale Tuesday entries develop.

Thanks for being patient as I took last week off.  Hopefully the upcoming entries will make up for my absence.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Free Form Friday: New Craft Projects on the Horizon

As if I needed more craft projects to occupy my time, lately I've been thinking of ways I could improve recycled projects I've started in the past and set aside because I wasn't completely happy with the results.  Plus, I've come up with a few new ways to utilize recycled materials.  So, over the next two weeks, in preparation for my next craft show, The I Made It! Market, I'll be working on numerous projects.  Hopefully, some of them will even turn out well enough that I can share pictures here next Friday and debut them at the market.

Do any of you have projects like these or new projects you'd like to share?  I love to hear about them.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thinking Green Thursday: Recycle Your Ink Cartridges

Since I frequently print images from my computer for use in my numerous craft projects, I use a fair amount of ink.  Up until fairly recently, all the ink cartridges I purchased included a postage free mailer for mailing empty cartridges back to the manufacturer.  Over the course of the last year, the company quit including these in their packages so I began researching other options for recycling my empty ink cartridges.

As luck would have it, the elementary school my boys attend recycles ink cartridges, so I can just send my empties into school with my boys who place them in the designated recycling receptacle.  However, if this is not an option, Staples stores offer their retail customers a $3.00 Staples Rewards credit for each recycled cartridge, up to 10 per month.

Another option, in addition to those listed above, is to collect empty ink cartridges and send them to a company that will pay for them.  Many organizations, such as the school my sons attend, utilize the recycling as a form of fundraising for school programs.  One such company I discovered online, empties4cash, appears to pay out fairly well per cartridge and has a very quick 5 day turn around time for payment.  With a little online research, those of you interested in recycling as a fundraiser can find a company that will work for you.

I'd love to hear comments of any experience anyone has had with any of these options or additional suggestions.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tuesday Tip: To Tweet or not to Tweet

To Tweet or not to Tweet, that is the question.  If your answer is yes, as mine is, I thought you might be interested in two Twitter tools I discovered this week to streamline some of your Twitter time and improve your experience on Twitter.

I use Twitter to help market my Etsy shop, but also to connect with friends and others with similar interests.  In order to find people tweeting about things that interest me I chose to use the service called Social Oomph where you can set up a Keyword list that will be emailed to you in the form of an alert digest.  The service even lets you select how frequently you want to receive the emails.  Since I have diverse interests, but want to see who's tweeting about certain topics, some of the keywords I receive alerts about are "zombies", "neo victorian", and "steampunk".  By scanning the alert email, I can quickly find interesting new people to follow.

Also, I found myself overwhelmed with a high number of people I follow who don't follow me back.  Some of these are accounts like the Ace of Cakes fan site that I don't expect to follow me back, but I knew several were due to people I'd followed back because they'd followed me.  It seemed several of them were no longer returning the favor.  After a quick bit of research on Google, I discovered friend or follow, which allows you to enter your Twitter username and will give you a list of everyone who you follow that don't follow you back.  It certainly has helped me cut quite a bit of online clutter and clean up my followers.

Are there other Twitter tools you use that help you save time?  Please share them.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday Meals with Mincie: Strawberry Jello Cake aka the Dessert Debacle of 2010

Mincie was born on January 18, 1922, the youngest of 10 children.  Years later she would learn that the doctor that delivered her offered to take her and raise her as his own, but her mother declined his offer.  Her siblings were thrilled that "mama didn't let the doctor take our baby".  While she grew up in rural Alabama, after marrying William, known to most as Bill, she lived in several different places.  This was in part due to Bill serving in the Navy and in part due to his later work as a Southern Baptist Minister.  While living in New Orleans, LA, during the time Bill was in seminary, she aquired the recipe for Strawberry Jell-O cake and from then on, would bake it for every birthday in the family.

As I attempted to bake this today in honor of her birthday, I experienced my first dessert debacle.  I didn't have the recipe for Gram's Strawberry Jello Cake in my collection, so my father emailed me the recipe my mother had written down in her recipe box.  Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, my mother had made several changes over the years that she'd never written down because she just "knows" how to make it and apparently uses her recipes more as general guidelines than as actual recipes.  The recipe that follows is the revised recipe I've made adjustments to after talking to my mother to determine how I went so horribly wrong with my cake.

My mother always had paper grocery bags in her kitchen and would trace around the bottom of her layer cake pans (about an 8 inch round pan) then cut the circles out and place them inside the cake pans prior to pouring the batter in, inside of the bag up, so the cake wouldn't stick to the pan.  Since my grocery store long ago abandoned paper bags, I had none.  I thought (incorrectly) that spraying the pans with nonstick cooking spray would be sufficient.  As this is an overly moist cake, apparently the cooking spray didn't form enough of a barrier to prevent my cake from sticking to the pan. In the future, I'll try lining the bottom of my pans with parchment paper to prevent this problem.  When I attempted to remove my cake from the pan, 1/4 of the first layer remained in the pan, and the middle of the subsequent two layers remained in the pans as well.  I used one of the second two layers as my bottom layer and just tucked the middle back into it, operating under the theory that the frosting would disguise a multitude of mistakes.  I did the same with the next layer, then the top layer was the part that 1/4 of had stayed in the pan.  This gave me one side of the cake that at least looked arguably presentable.  Sadly, the other side of the cake is less than pretty.

As if I hadn't had enough of a "Julie and Julia" moment with my cake, the frosting gave me trouble as well.  I put the butter in the microwave to soften, but apparently put it in too long as it came out half melted.  I used 10 ounces of strawberries (the amount on the original recipe) and apparently should have used fewer and drained them better as well.  To get the frosting even approaching thick enough, I ended up using 8 cups of powdered sugar and even then it pooled on my cake plate.  Fortunately, it tasted right and was quite delicious even though I've definitely made much better looking Strawberry Jell-O cakes in the past.

STRAWBERRY JELL-O CAKE (from the Cajun country of Southern Louisiana)
1 white cake mix (18.25 oz. approx.)
1 3 oz. pkg strawberry Jell-O
1/2 C water
1/2 C vegetable or canola Oil
4 eggs
10 oz. pkg frozen strawberries (thawed) (about 2 1/2 cups when frozen)

1) Mix cake mix and Jell-O together, then add water and oil.

2) Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

3)  Add strawberries and juice.  Beat well.

4)  Pour 1/3 of the batter into a round cake pan (lined with parchment).  Repeat with two more cake pans.

4) Bake at 350 for 25 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Be careful not to over-bake.

Makes 3 layers

4 cups (1 1 lb. pkg.) powdered sugar + a little more
4 Tbsp. butter (softened) (1/2 stick)1 8 oz. pkg frozen strawberries (well-thawed) no juice (about 2 cups frozen)

1) Take a few of the berries out to garnish the top of the cake, if desired.

2) Mix 2 cups of the sugar with butter thoroughly.

3)  Add strawberries, mix well.

4) Add remaining 2 cups of sugar and mix well.

The frosting should be a fairly stiff consistency, so that it holds its shape and will adhere to the sides of cake.  Generally, the frosting dripping off the beaters should hold a stream of frosting off the beaters rather than dripping into the bowl.  If frosting is too thin, add more powdered sugar until it's the correct consistency. This is definitely a "do it until it looks right" part of the recipe, like so many family recipes are.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Free Form Friday: I Made It! Mine Craft Show on February 6th

On Saturday, February 6, 2010 from 12 pm – 5 pm the I Made It! Mine Market will take place at The Union Project, 801 N. Negley Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15206.

 This market will feature more than 50 local handmade artists, including Barker's Herbs & Heirlooms.

Note: Additional parking for shoppers is located in the Craig Academy Parking Lot across the street on Negley Avenue.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thursday Thinking Green: Some kitchen scraps are for the birds

Despite my best efforts to limit waste in the kitchen as much as possible, there are always a few leftovers and items in my cupboards that end up being less than fresh and not desirable for human consumption.  Several of these often end up on my compost pile, but with a yard full of feathered friends in search of food in a snow covered world, I thought I'd do some research to see which of these can be shared with them.  I found the information at Garden Guides to be especially helpful.

Today, I found oranges leftover from Christmas that were a bit dry, raisins that were no longer chewable, and 4 slices of overly dry cornbread.  I sliced the oranges and placed the two ends on my bird feeder along with the raisins and crumbled cornbread.  The orange slices were placed over the ends of branches on my wisteria vine that's near the feeder.  The birds seemed to especially enjoy the additions to their bird seed that I've been providing for them.

I'd love to hear comments about your favorite kitchen scraps that are healthy treats for wild birds as a supplement to bird seed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tuesday Tip: Increasing Online Efficiency

All too often I find I log onto my computer in the morning and before I know it, several hours have passed. I'm guessing several of you are currently nodding your heads in agreement.

As it's a New Year, I've been devoting quite a bit of thought to ways to improve the way I do things and cut down on wasted time. Since the time I spend on my computer is by far the biggest culprit, I decided to begin there. So far, I've discovered that by having designated times to do different online chores it has helped limit my online time somewhat.

For example, I started doing daily blog posts around set themes and then post a link on Facebook and Twitter. This helps me market my Etsy shop without feeling the constant need to post status updates and helped streamline my efforts. Now, I actually feel like I have time to create the items I'm trying to market rather than spending all my time marketing.

Another huge time saver I've discovered is setting up my email on my cell phone. I have both personal email and business email, plus a yahoo account for groups I'm a member of. Logging into each of the accounts multiple times a day can be incredibly time intensive, but by having access to them on my cell phone, I can quickly check to see if any new emails require my attention, then, at a convenient time, sit down and reply to them all at once.

I'm still working on improving this, but would love to hear any tips any of you have found helpful.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Monday Meals With Mincie: Gram's Chocolate Milk

When I was growing up, every possible weekend night was spent at my Gram's house. Most mornings, Gram would make chocolate milk from Hershey's Cocoa and sugar. It was always in a tumbler I've never really seen outside her kitchen, and measurements were made using a tablespoon (from the silverware drawer) and everything went in "until it looked right." While this worked well for her, it has made recreating several of her dishes quite difficult. I have managed to master her chocolate milk, but am still working on many of her dishes to get them to taste exactly as I remembered. While they'll always be missing the critical ingredient of Grandmotherly love, I hope that I can faithfully recreate them and honor her memory.
Gram's Chocolate Milk
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon cocoa powder
2 teaspoons hot water
1 1/4 cup milk
1) In a large beverage glass, combine sugar and cocoa powder and stir until thoroughly mixed.
2) Add hot water until cocoa & sugar mixture is dissolved.
3) Add milk, stir, drink, & enjoy.
This recipe is not as sweet as modern chocolate milk recipes, but it's exactly what I want when I crave chocolate milk and it has a delicious, nostalgic flavor.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Free Form Friday: Silentlotus on Etsy

Original brush painting "Song of Simplicity" by Silent Lotus

For today's Free Form Friday post, I've chosen to feature an Etsy seller who's not only an incredibly talented artist, but also one of the sweetest people I've ever met and someone who I'm proud to call a friend.

Today's featured seller is Kylie of Silent Lotus Creations. She creates beautiful Chinese brush paintings featuring scenes from nature and sells prints of them in her shop. Additionally, she's a talented jewelry artist and offers several lovely jewelry creations in her shop as well. Soon, prints of her original Chinese brush paintings may be offered on jewelry in her Etsy shop. Check back often to see what she'll create next.
Currently, Kylie is featuring a clearance sale to make way for some of her fabulous new creations. Save up to 70% on all jewelry, beads, and original art listed in the clearance sections of her shop! She's also running a few other specials so please read her shop announcement for details.
Throughout January, 10% of her shop sales will be donated to the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice of Pittsburgh, PA, which organizes, educates, and takes action around issues of peace and social justice.
As a member of the EtsyVeg team, she offers other opportunities to give in her shop as well: EtsyVeg Recipe Ebook to benefit Farm and Cooking With Compassion Vegan Cookzine to benefit

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thursday Thinking Green: Uses for Dryer Lint

As a result of all the laundry I've been doing lately, especially while getting outgrown and under used items ready to donate to the thrift store, I've been generating excessive amounts of dryer lint. Therefore, today's thinking green tip is for ways to use dryer lint rather than simply throwing it away. Truly green living dictates line drying rather than using a dryer, but it's the middle of winter so line drying is not practical at this time of year.

When planning on repurposing dryer lint, it's important to wash loads of laundry that consist only of items with natural fibers such as cotton or wool. While I don't normally dry wool items in the dryer, if you're repurposing 100% wool sweaters for other uses by felting them, the lint generated from this can be put to several uses.

Dryer lint is highly flammable which is why dryers must always be vented to the outside and the lint screen cleaned between each load. Take care to use either fireproof glass or metal containers for collecting and saving dryer lint.

Uses for dryer lint consisting only of natural fibers:

1) Use as a firestarter. Please do not use any lint with synthetic fibers for this purpose, however, as the synthetic fibers emit toxic fumes when burned. Balled up bits of lint work fine, but a more effective fire starter can be made by one of the following methods:

Save empty toilet paper tubes or paper towel rolls and when ready to start a fire, stuff with lint, then place under kindling in fireplace and light.

Save empty cardboard egg cartons, fill each section with lint, then pour melted wax over the top until covered. Set aside and let harden. (My parents, especially my mother, are notoriously thrifty and thanks to them I learned to make these years ago. We used bits of saved broken crayons for the wax and melted them inside an empty soup can placed inside a saucepan of boiling water.) Once hardened, separate into individual pieces. Store unused firestarters in a fireproof container such as glass or metal.

Make wood shaving campfire starters, substituting lint for the wood shavings. I think these would be quite lovely if domed up on top to look more like an actual cupcake and will soon be attempting this project myself.

If going camping, used prescription bottles make compact waterproof containers for transporting dryer lint to be used as firestarter.

2) Place it in your compost pile. Again, only natural fibers work for this purpose and dryer sheets should not be used in loads you plan on using for this purpose as the dryer sheets contain toxic materials best kept out of the soil.

3) Leave it outside for birds to use in building their nests. Never place lint with synthetic fibers outside for the birds as fibers like polyester do not dry properly when used in a nest. Also, dryer sheets should not be used in loads intended for this purpose as the chemicals can be harmful to birds or other wildlife. I also recommend using a chemical free detergent for these loads as well. Any chemicals used during washing or drying of laundry can be harbored in the lint and cause a break down in the integrity of bird eggs, causing birds to die before hatching. I use an open compost pile method and this allows the birds and other wildlife to help themselves to items they can use from my pile. I keep it at the back edge of my garden, close enough to be easy to add items to, but far enough away that I don't have to worry about having scavengers on my doorstep.

4) Use as plant mulch. If the fibers in your lint are all natural, the mulch can serve to protect sensitive plants through the winter. As with all mulch, keep it back away from the plant itself as it can cause mold where it makes contact with the plant. It will, however, nicely supress weeds, help retain moisture, and in the winter, prevent the ground from heaving due to excessive freezing and thawing cycles. Since the fibers are natural, they will eventually decompose and add nutrients to the soil.

5) Use for craft projects. Depending on the project, you may be able to use dryer lint with synthetic fibers in it. Personally, I have pets and always have quite a bit of pet hair in my dryer lint, so this isn't a usage I'm likely to attempt. I'm not certain how the flammability of the dryer lint is modified by utilizing it in craft projects. For this reason, I recommend extreme caution if you decide to undertake any of these and keep the finished projects away from open flames.

Faux Papier Mache

Lint Clay

Lint Paper

A few years ago, a Pittsburgh artist, from Studio Capezzuti, created
The National Lint Project and created sculptures from dryer lint. At first glance, I'd never have guessed the angels and other creatures created for this project were made out of dryer lint.

Please feel free to post comments about other uses for dryer lint or any questions you may have.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tuesday Tip: Clear the Clutter

One of my New Year's resolutions is to clear out, clean up, and cut the clutter. I find the larger and more daunting the task, the easier it is to procrastinate. To combat this, I've decided to tackle one room at a time and to break that room down into sections to create smaller, more manageable tasks.

Clutter drains our energy and can make us feel exhausted. Many regard it as stuck energy, so offer yourself a fresh start to the New Year and reinvigorate your energy by clearing clutter.

Piles of laundry? Set aside time to get it all washed, folded, and put away. Clean out dressers and closets to make room for it if necessary and donate items that haven't been worn for over a year to charity.

Piles of unread newspapers or mail? Sort it, put bills in a designated space, then recycle the rest. If your municipality doesn't pick up paper recycling, check to see if there is a local school or boy scout group in your area that does.

Piles of supplies? Regardless of the type of supply, if you find yourself with piles of them, its time to tackle them. Inexpensive bookshelves work well for containing and organizing supplies. Once clear plastic containers, like deli containers, peanut butter jars, etc. are emptied, wash them and use them as storage containers. Any surplus supplies can be donated to thrift stores, school art programs, or even assisted living facilities.

Have tips of your own for clearing clutter? Please leave them as comments.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Monday Meals with Mincie: New Year's Traditions

Her name was Minnie Lee, but everyone called her Mincie. Minnie, as she'd be quick to tell you, was the mule and she certainly wanted no one to associate her with such a stubborn animal.

Outside Opp, Alabama, where she grew up, New Year's Day was one of celebration, reflection, and resolution. Most importantly, it was a day to be shared with family enjoying the traditional New Year's meal of black eyed peas and cornbread to ensure good luck for the coming year.

She always cooked her peas with a bit of bacon to accompany her cornbread. Some years the meal included greens, such as mustard greens, as well but not a New Year's Day passed without black eyed peas and cornbread being consumed. This tradition is one that I, as her Granddaughter, proudly continue.

According to Wikipedia, "the peas, since they swell when cooked, symbolize prosperity; the greens symbolize money; the pork, because pigs root forward when foraging, represents positive motion."

These "good luck" traditions supposedly date back to the Civil War, when Union troops, especially in areas targeted by General William Tecumseh Sherman, typically stripped the countryside of all stored food, crops, and livestock, and destroyed whatever they couldn't carry away. At that time, Northerners considered "field peas" and field corn suitable only for animal fodder, and didn't steal or destroy these humble foods. "

Mincie's Cornbread
2 cups white self-rising cornmeal *
3 Tbsp. bacon drippings (more info on rendered bacon drippings)
1/3 cup flour
1 3/4 cup milk
1 egg, beaten

1) Heat oven to 425 degrees F.
2) Heat bacon drippings in cast iron skillet in oven for about 3 minutes (or until cold, stored bacon fat is fully melted). Coat pan evenly with the oil.
3) While heating bacon drippings, combine dry ingredients. Add milk and egg. Mix together until blended. Add oil and mix well.
4) Pour into hot cast iron skillet. Bake 20-25 minutes until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

*you can make your own self-rising cornmeal as follows: for 1 cup self-rising cornmeal, mix together 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 3/4 cup cornmeal, PLUS 3 tablespoons cornmeal.


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