Monday, February 25, 2013

Staying Toasty

On any given morning when I ask Bert what he wants for breakfast, I get the enthusiastic answer, "Toast! Banas!" Maybe "bana" is what you call a banana when you only ever get half of one at a time? I probably don't need to spell out that the kid eats a lot of toast because, well, he likes it and it is easy to get ready for him and he generally can't make much of a mess with it. Since I usually have toast right along with him (and sometimes the other half of the banana, or should I say the "ana"?), we go through a fair amount of bread. One of my goals for the year was to make more homemade bread, and I've landed on an English muffin bread that is great for making toast. And it requires no kneading, so I really like that.

English Muffin Bread
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, 2005

3 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons active dry yeast (or 2 packages)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups milk (skim or low-fat works fine)
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt

Grease two 8x4x2-inch loaf pans. Lightly sprinkle pans with enough cornmeal to coat bottom and sides.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the 3 cups all-purpose flour, the yeast, and baking soda; set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat and stir milk, water, sugar, and salt just until warm (120˚-130˚F). Stir milk mixture into flour mixture. Stir in whole wheat flour.

Divide dough in half. Place dough in prepared pans and sprinkle tops with cornmeal. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size (about 45 minutes). Sometimes I put the pans in the oven with the light on to get them to rise if I don't have a sunny spot to set them.

Bake in a 400˚ oven about 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove bread from pans immediately and let cool on wire racks.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Office Space

Back in the fall, my friend Claudia and I ventured to Ikea. She had never been, and it had been several years since Keith and I had gone. The Ikea experience can be quite inspiring, and a bit overwhelming. We both made a number of small purchases that day, but neither of us were ready to commit to anything large. I did, though, see a shelf and desk setup that I really liked but I wasn't sure that it would fit in my small office space. I considered calling Keith to measure for me, but decided that I probably shouldn't make a $200 impulse purchase. 

Fast forward a couple months, and I was still thinking about the desk. I had measured and it would fit perfectly. I figured sometime when we were game for another little adventure, Claudia and I would go get it. Then we made the decision to buy the new computer and while I was waiting for it to arrive, I had plenty of time to mull over how it was going to fit in my current office setup, which could be described only as cramped, cluttered, and chaotic. It had two desks: a small wooden one with cubbies that the laptop sat on, and a drawing table that Keith bought me in college. It also had a set of shelves I have been dragging around since college, crammed with a hodge podge of craft supplies, household bills and documents, and other random things.

First off, let me say that I consider myself pretty lucky to have an area for a workspace, pretty much all to myself (Keith does intrude occasionally). It's a small room off our dining room, with an adjoining closet, where I can hoard all my things. But this little room needs to function in a lot of ways: it is where I pay bills, write blog posts, do crafty things, do freelance design projects, and wrap gifts, to name a few. It needed to be a little easier to organize and have a better workspace. (Believe it or not, I had already started de-cluttering in the photo above.)

Looking around at the chaos, I figured there was no time like the present to get the desk and be ready for the arrival of the new computer. I texted Claudia, and she and her husband happened to be coming down this way to visit his parents for the weekend, so we squeezed in a run to Ikea. I got the desk and shelves (they are the Expedit series in birch) and Keith and I put them together the next day. Which Keith enjoyed endlessly. Ha, right.

Long story short, the setup looks like this now. (It's tough to get a good shot in such a small space.)

I also grabbed some organizers, bins and the wall-mounted file rack while we were at Ikea. I still need to do some pairing down, but overall this arrangement is working out so much better. The desk is large enough that I still have workspace in front of the computer. Since I'm not moving between two desks, I was able to ditch the large, rolling office chair (which Keith had pulled out of someone's trash) and use the director's chair I've had for years but hadn't found a place for in this house. Having shelves with dividers really helps to keep things from toppling into each other when I need to remove something, so things have stayed much neater.

My only regret is that I am such a slow decision maker and didn't want to jump in with both feet and paint the office first. Now I'm not sure how we could move the desk and shelves to paint, and I doubt they would come apart easily. Maybe I'll just make some curtains for the windows to spice things up a little.

And just because you haven't seen any photos of the Bert man in awhile, here he is, hanging on the gate that keeps him out of the office. We have had to really keep on him about not climbing on it as he did a back flip over it the other day. Sometimes even my own space is not my own space...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Still Here

We've been pretty absent for a week now. I don't have a good excuse, except that we haven't been doing anything I would consider very blog-worthy. And the things we have done, like playdates and visiting with family, we've done without the camera so there isn't much to show there. Mostly we've been hanging out, staying warm and dry, and waiting on spring.

Speaking of which, spring is right around the corner. (Or so I'm told.) I looked at a planting chart for our area and it says I can start planting peas and onions and things on March 6. Eek! The garden is so far from being ready to plant anything, and the weather hasn't really been nice enough to do anything out there. I should at least be making my lists of what we will grow this year and buying some seeds.

My mom and I ventured out to a fabric store while she was here visiting and I finally got the fabric for the border of Bert's quilt, so I need to hop to it on that one. My aunt generously offered to do the hand-quilting, so I'd like to get it done to hand off to her next time we are up there. Ready for another project, Aunt Cathy?

I am telling myself to enjoy this lull before spring is really upon us and the garden needs lots of attention, before Bert wants to be outside all the time. Winter is feeling long, but we are nearing the end of our hibernation. Hang in there; we're bound to do something interesting and post about it soon.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Potato Perfection

Growing up, I was never a fan of potato soup. I'm not even really sure why I didn't like it, I just know I didn't. Back in the fall, I was in a pinch for a quick supper and stumbled across a basic potato soup in my Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. I put it together and, low and behold, really liked it. I didn't give it another thought until I was flipping through some Cooking Light magazines and pulled out two more potato soup recipes. We have only tried one so far, but it was so good I don't know if I need to ever bother with the other.

Loaded Potato Soup
from Cooking Light, November 2012

4 (6-ounce) red potatoes (I didn't have red ones so I just used what I had on hand)
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 1/4 cups fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth (I used our homemade chicken stock)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups 1% low-fat milk, divided (I used skim milk)
1/4 cup reduced fat sour cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 bacon slices, halved
about 1/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese
4 teaspoons thinly sliced green onions (didn't have these on hand so I skipped them; I bet you could use chives too)

1. Pierce potatoes with a fork. Microwave at high 13 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Cut potatoes in half; cool slightly. (I just realized as I typed this that I never cut my potatoes in half to cool. No wonder they were so stinkin' hot to handle when I tried to get the skins off. Read the directions, Tara...)

2. While the potatoes cook, heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add olive oil to pan, swirling to coat. Add onion to pan; sauté 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add broth to pan. Combine flour and 1/2 cup milk in a small bowl, stirring until smooth; add flour mixture to pan with remaining 1 1/2 cups milk. Bring soup to boil, stirring frequently. Cook 1 minute. Remove soup from heat; stir in sour cream, salt, and pepper.

3. Arrange bacon on a paper towel on a microwave-safe plate. Cover with another paper towel; microwave at high 4 minutes. Crumble bacon.

4. Discard potato skins. Coarsely mash potatoes into soup. Top with shredded cheese, green onions, and crumbled bacon.

You'll notice that the recipes from Cooking Light call for low-, reduced-, and fat-free ingredients much of the time. It is Cooking Light, after all. I tend to buy fat free sour cream and keep skim milk on hand, and I think the recipes have plenty of flavor with the healthier ingredients. I wouldn't hesitate to use full fat, full flavor ingredients though if that's what I had around.

Bert put up a little fuss over this initially, maybe because he had no idea what was in his bowl for supper. Once I got him to try a bite, he devoured it. Bonus: it was nice and thick so it actually stayed on his spoon instead of just sliding off.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Big Project for Bert

I am sure you have all been sitting on the edge of your desk chairs, couches, and recliners since I told you just after New Year's that I was working on a big project for Bert. Maybe you even had some guesses about it. I hope you are not disappointed by this big reveal which is, by the way, a bit premature because the project isn't finished yet.

Without further ado, the BIG PROJECT is a quilt. You have to understand, I like little projects. Ones that only take a couple hours and not a whole lot of advance planning. So a quilt is a pretty major undertaking for me. And considering I bought the pattern and most of the fabric back in September, it's already become a drawn-out endeavor by my standards.

The pattern is called "Hopscotch" and uses 15 fat quarters for the quilt top. Using a rotary cutter and mat, cutting out all the pieces went pretty quickly. The whole quilt is made of just four different sized squares and rectangles, so much to my surprise, it went together quite easily.

The first step was taking all the assorted 3 1/2" squares and pairing them with the largest rectangle.

Once they are all paired and sewn together, you take the 5" long rectangles and pair them together. Then each block is made up of three strips: two of the 3 1/2" and 6 1/2" rectangle strips, and one made of the 5" rectangles. The toughest part was making all those combinations, and then putting them all together for the quilt top without the same fabrics touching. It was one of those times were I really had to stop myself from over-thinking the project because I would have made myself insane. (And there is one spot where the same fabrics touch each other but do me a favor and don't tell me if you see it, ok? I didn't see it until the whole thing was sewn together.)

Once all the blocks were together, Bert and I took a little trip to the fabric store and picked out the border and backing fabrics. Then I cut the border strips solo, without my mom checking on me to be sure I didn't screw it up (she was nearby for cutting all the other pieces).

Cut off the rough edge...

Line it all up, nice and straight...

Chop, chop!


Then all the 4 1/2" pieces become an outer border and it all goes together and ends up looking like this:

Wait, let me get a better shot...

Well, this is as good as it gets. Should have done that while he was napping. Which was all of forty minutes on this particular afternoon.

So that's where I'm at. When I laid it on what will eventually be Bert's "big boy" bed, it seemed a little small. I was already to say "I don't care, that's just the size it is," but upon further review (i.e., over-thinking) I decided I would add another border to it, probably about 5" all the way around, to make it just a bit bigger. I figured I might as well do it and be happy with the whole project rather than wish I had made it bigger down the road. I need to go pick out some fabric for that second border and see if I have enough of the green inner border fabric to do the binding since I will need a bit more than the pattern originally called for. Also, I already bought the backing fabric so I have to do a little figuring there too to see how big the border can be and still use that fabric. And this is why I don't like to go off the map with projects: now I have to do the figuring instead of it all being done for me.

I am leaning towards paying someone to do the actual quilting for me because, let's face it, Bert would still be waiting for this quilt when he headed off to college if I were to try hand-quilting it. And honestly, I like the sewing but the quilting part doesn't interest me that much. 

There it is: the big project. I hope to have a finished big project post for you sooner rather than later.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Just Playing

I recently got a new desk and shelves for my small office, providing a much-needed answer to the clutter and cramped workspace. One of these days I'll get around to sharing photos of all that, but what I really want you to see is the fun Bert is having with the cardboard the furniture was packed in. Because of the way it was packaged, we were left with large, flat pieces of cardboard rather than big, fort-worthy boxes. We made the most of it though, breaking out the crayons and creating some play scenes for the little man to do some farming and roll his trains down the tracks. Take a look.

Since taking these photos, Bert has ripped the train track apart and it is in the pile for recycling. The farm scene is a little worse for wear, but still intact so we'll hold on to it for a bit longer. He's amused by them, and Keith and I had fun drawing, so it seems worth it to walk around large pieces of cardboard in the living room for a couple of weeks.
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