Monday, November 28, 2011

The most amazing brownie recipe ever!!!

Brownies are one of those easy, always-accepted desserts to bring to a potluck or family dinner. They can be served warm or cold, with ice cream and chocolate sauce, or work great as a school lunch treat.

I've tried a handful of brownie recipes over the years, and while they have been pretty good, none of them "wowed" me like this one does. I honestly don't remember where this recipe came from... maybe I heard about it on a radio station?? It's SUPER easy if you have one of those fancy stand mixers, but it works just fine with regular beaters too. And the best part? You probably have every single one of these ingredients on hand already. And this recipe comes out PERFECT every time.

4 eggs
1 cup oil
1 1/2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup + 2 Tb baking cocoa

Mix all ingredients together, beat for 3 minutes. Pour into 9x13 pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees.

See? Super easy! 'Tis the season for lots of baking -- make your house smell like chocolate today!! :)

(this piece looks like a triangle, but it's really just the corner piece. I love that slightly crunchy/slightly chewy part. :)

Monday, November 21, 2011

I'm so busy, busy, dreadfully busy...

Have you seen that episode of Veggie Tales? The rendition of the Good Samaritan? Where they sing the song "Busy, Busy"? (I tried to find it on youtube, but apparently the only video of it had the audio disabled because of copyright...)

Well that song has been running through my head lately... This past weekend I volunteered at our church's high school youth group fall retreat. I feel like I should be catching up on my sleep right now while Abby's asleep... but I'm writing instead. :) And this week is Thanksgiving here in the U.S.! Our local schools only are in session today and tomorrow. Thursday my family will be double-dipping -- heading to Rocky's mom's side of the family for noon-ish turkey lunch, and to his dad's side of the family for evening-ish appetizers and finger food snacks. Lots of fun times with family!

I'm not a Black Friday shopper. I used to be a Black Friday worker. And I did enjoy it actually. Getting to the store at five in the morning, preparing to open the doors at six. The non-stop flow of customers, helping people find what they need, and hopefully not running out of our doorbusters too quickly...

But this year I will be thankful to be able to sleep in on Friday. Maybe I'll check out some online deals, from the comfort of my own home.

Sunday will feature yet another turkey dinner, at my mom's house this time.

And the next thing we know, it will be December.

They say time seems to go by faster the older you get. This year seems to be passing me by like a freight train.

In the midst of everything going on in your lives the next month, make sure you take the time for fun. Play in the snow with your kids. Go drive around and look at Christmas lights. Get in your pj's and read the Christmas story. Savor that last bite of pumpkin pie. You've gotta wait a whole nother 12 months until you get to do this again...

What types of things do you ENJOY doing this time of year?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Happy National Homemade Bread Day!!! {apple butter recipe included}

At the beginning of the month, a little birdie at school came into the office and printed a calendar with all of those fun little holidays -- you know, like Talk Like a Pirate Day. And I discovered that November 17th is National Homemade Bread Day!

Since I already wrote a post about my love for my breadmaker, I thought I would tell you about what I worked on in my kitchen the other day -- what I would even dare to call "bread's perfect companion" (although I'll probably say that about another recipe I have planned too... :)

**Spoiler alert!!** Mom, Dad, Grandmas, other family members -- this post is going to detail your Christmas gifts. If it serves to make you hungry in anticipation of the day you receive my gift, great. If you don't want to know what I'm making, stop reading. Although the title of this post pretty much gives it all away anyway.**

This year for Christmas things are a little tight. As I'm sure they are for a lot of you. And since I always wonder what to get for those parents and grandparents in our lives who already have "everything" -- other than updated pictures of Abby of course -- I started thinking about cheap, consumable things I could get/make/give them. After seeing this pin on Pinterest (which you may remember seeing mentioned in my Pin the halls with boughs of holly post), I had my idea!

Apples were buy one bag get one free last week. So on Tuesday morning I visited my favorite recipe website in search of the perfect apple butter recipe. I'd heard it can be made in the crockpot, and since I was going to be home all day I figured I'd give it a try!

I peeled and chopped my apples, and put them in the crockpot. I think I had about 14 apples total, a mix of one bag sweet and one bag tart. Then I mixed together the sugar and spices and dumped them on the apples, stirring to coat.

I covered it and turned the cooker on high for an hour, then low/warm for about 7 hours. Very similar to making applesauce. Once the apples were really really soft and brown, I mashed them with a potato masher, then decided to make things a little messy in the kitchen... :) I scooped the mixture into my blender and made it super smooth (it took 2+ batches in my blender). Then I dumped it all back in my crockpot and left the lid off for a couple of hours, stirring every 1/2 hour or so. I'm sure I've said it before, but my crockpot likes to cook HOT. So the entire process didn't take as long as most recipes say, and I needed to be extra careful I didn't burn the fruit.

At this point, the longer it cooks, the better! The difference between applesauce and apple butter is that apple butter has cooked longer and therefore more water has evaporated (plus there's more sugar and spices in the butter). I read about a trick to know if your butter is done: Take a spoonful and put it on a plate, let it cool and see if 1) it holds it's shape and 2) there is no liquid (water) around the outside of the puddle.

You can still see some liquid in this photo. I think I let my butter go another hour or two after this.

And that's all there is to it! At this point you can process your containers of butter however you choose -- it both freezes well and cans well. I'd gotten some cute, small jelly jars (4 oz) and decided to can them.

Then I realized I don't have proper canning equipment. Oops.

It was nearly 8:00 at night, and I didn't have a car (the hubby was at his master's class), so I wasn't about to walk down to the store. So I searched my cupboards and here's what I came up with:

Not ideal, but it worked. Each jar only had to boil for 5 minutes. Yes I had to do them one at a time, so it took me an hour. But it got done. :)

This batch ended up making a dozen 4 oz jars, plus one 8 oz freezer container (which I brought to school yesterday with some homemade bread... :)

So my plan for Christmas? A basket with a jar of apple butter, a jar of cinnamon honey butter, and a small loaf of homemade bread. Yum!

How will you celebrate National Homemade Bread Day today?? :)

Slow Cooker Apple Butter
5 1/2 pounds apples - peeled, cored, and chopped
4 cups white sugar (you REALLY do need a lot of sugar -- don't cut it down too much or the butter won't solidify)
1 Tb ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp salt

Place the apples in a slow cooker. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and spices. Pour the mixture over the apples in the slow cooker and mix well. Cover and cook on high 1 hour. Reduce heat to low and cook 7 to 11 hours, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thickened and dark brown. [After this point I took the time to put the butter through my blender for a smoother consistency] Uncover and continue cooking on low 1-3 hours. Stir occasionally. Spoon the mixture into sterile containers, cover and refrigerate, freeze, or process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Crafts: making use of what you've got

It all started with a bulletin board.

Actually, no. It all started with that bag of items you see sitting on the bulletin board.

I'm Club Coordinator for the GEMS Girls Club program at our church.  Our club is for 1st--8th grade girls, who come twice a month for games, music, Bible study, crafts, service projects, and earning merit badges.

Over the last decade, the GEMS "badge book" has undergone some changes, with the activities being updated and the badges themselves being replaced with newer-looking badges. When I became Club Coordinator almost 4 years ago, I inherited a large container of old badges. They sat on a shelf in the church office for years. A couple weeks ago I took them home, trying desperately to think of what we could do with them. I hated to just throw them away (read: pack rat!!), but I had no ideas...

Enter the bulletin board. Two weeks ago the Cadet Boys' Club leader and I asked the property committee at church for a couple of bulletin boards and some wall space near the youth group bulletin board.  And we got it. So now we each had a bulletin board to decorate!

While Mike searched for camouflage fabric to cover his board, I stole a glance at my big bag of old badges... And one Saturday afternoon, I got to work at the kitchen table! The backs of the badges have a bit of paper to peel away and reveal a sticky back. About two hours later, here's what I had:

Tada! A beautiful bulletin board!! The push pins are able to fit between the badges, but they can also go through the badges if need be.

Here's a little secret though: I ran out of badges before I covered the whole thing...

Oops. Any clubs out there willing to send me another 70 or so old badges?? :)

So there you have it! A beautiful bulletin board that didn't cost me a thing! Now we can post our upcoming events and pictures and info about our club for people to see as they walk into the church!

What are some of your favorite projects have you done, using only what you had on hand?

P.S. If anyone is interested in hearing more about the GEMS program, let me know! I love talking about our club and the international GEMS ministry!!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

{attempt} = success!!!

Yesterday's post found me trying something I haven't done in a super-long time: roasting chicken in the slow cooker. The hubby got home, sniffed the air, found the crockpot and said "looks like chicken!" I honestly couldn't tell if he was pleased or not. :-P

Fortunately, this chicken I'd bought came with one of those pop-up things already stuck in it. So I just had to watch until it told me the bird was done. And my slow cooker definitely cooks hot. The juices in the bottom were simmering, and the timer thingy popped up after being on low for only 4 hours (all the recipes I found said it would take 4-6 hours on high, 6-10 hours on low). But that was ok! I'd planned on that and made sure I didn't start it until after lunch. So we had an early (for us) dinner at 5.

The meat was so tender -- I was able to get the two drumsticks off then the rest just fell apart. I was really glad I'd skinned it before cooking -- the salt & pepper were then on/in the meat itself instead of on the skin. Even my 17-month-old daughter had some, and said "mmmmmmm!" :)

I could definitely see myself cooking this again. Maybe trying other spices too.

After we'd eaten our fill, I cut off the rest of the breast meat and put it in the fridge. Then I left all of the bones and leftover dark meat in the crockpot, along with the onion and garlic that had stuffed the cavity, and the juices that were in the bottom. And I added about 4-5 cups of hot water, enough to cover everything. Then I set it on "warm" (which still seems to cook pretty hot in my cooker...) and let it go overnight!

This morning I had one giant, nasty-looking soup. I took the dish out of the heating unit and set it on the stove to cool for an hour or so. Then I started picking out the bones with my bare hands. For about 2 minutes. 'Cause that's what a recipe I'd found told me to do. But I gave up quickly. It was too yucky for me.

Instead, I took a large bowl, placed my pasta strainer over it, and dumped the whole stuff in. Then I sorted through the "big pieces" for chunks of meat, which I added back into the broth. Then I took the white meat that I'd saved from the fridge and cubed it up and put it in the broth too. And voila! The beginnings of soup that I'll make for Thursday night. Not sure yet if that will be some type of chicken noodle, or a white chili/chicken tortilla...

I love it when a $7 chicken can last many meals. :)

Monday, November 7, 2011

{attempting} Slow cooker roast chicken

Happy Monday!

Yesterday I picked up a few things from the grocery store, and noticed whole chickens were on sale. It's been a long time since I last tried to roast a whole chicken, so I thought sure! Let's give it a try. I got just a 6-lb roaster, which I discovered fits perfectly in my crockpot.

I scoured the web for how to do this! After looking at multiple recipes, here's what I did:

  1. Balled up 4 pieces of aluminum foil, placed in slow cooker.

  2. Cleaned out the disposal side of my sink, unwrapped the chicken in it.

  3. Removed and disposed of the bag of giblets.

  4. Rinsed the chicken under cold running water.

  5. Removed the skin. This was a pain, but I think it will be well worth it in the end.

  6. Rinsed under cold running water.

  7. Patted dry with paper towels.

  8. Stuffed inside cavity with 1 chopped onion and a spoonful of minced garlic (I love those jars!)

  9. Sprayed entire chicken with butter-flavored cooking spray.

  10. Seasoned with seasoning-salt and pepper.

  11. Sprayed one more time with cooking spray.

  12. Placed chicken breast-side-up in slow cooker, on top of aluminum foil balls.

  13. Turned on low.

We'll see what happens! The aluminum foil balls are supposed to help keep the chicken off the bottom of the pot, so it will roast better. Removing the skin before seasoning will allow the spices to soak into the chicken itself, rather than just the skin.

I'll be making soup for a fundraiser dinner later this week, so I'll be able to put whatever we don't eat tonight to good use!

Cross your fingers that this recipe works out... This is the only night this week we'll be able to eat dinner together as a family!

Do you have any secrets for roasting/baking a whole chicken?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Pin the halls with boughs of holly...

I finally took the plunge and joined Pinterest a couple of months ago. And let me tell you -- it's ADDICTIVE. In a good way I suppose. :) If you've never heard of Pinterest, it is basically a place where you can take any ideas you see online and "pin" them to "boards" on your profile -- sort of like a visual bookmark. The neat thing is you can see what your friends (from Facebook and other places) have pinned too, and you can re-pin their ideas onto your boards too!

Since my hubby won't let me put up any Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving (he would even prefer I wait until December 1...), I thought I would do a little searching on Pinterest... just to get some ideas. ;) Here are some of my favorite things I've found so far:

Thumbprint tree -- make with salt dough and a cookie cutter

 Scrabble ornaments -- great gift idea for Rocky's family (they LOVE to play!)

Wreath for the front door made from popsicle sticks. Decorate with paint or glitter.

Fudge in cookie cutters -- great gift idea!

Cinnamon honey butter -- another great gift idea!

Advent idea -- Wrap 24 Christmas books you already own. Kids get to pick which one is read that day. Stack under kids tree in bedroom. Half the fun of presents is unwrapping them!

See how fun this is?! If you'd like to join the Pinterest craze, leave me your email address in the comments below (use "at" and "dot" to help prevent spam) -- you have to be invited to join, and I will gladly send you an invite. :)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Soup's perfect companion: part two

Since so many of you told me you love homemade bread on my post the other day, I thought I would share another of my favorite "soup's companion" recipes with you!

I had never thought of any other type of bread going as well with soup as just plain ol' normal white/wheat bread. But then a couple of years ago at our small group (Bible study group we meet with once a month), we were planning the following meeting's meal and decided to have chili. Someone mentioned bread -- which I jumped on :) -- and someone else mentioned cornbread. Cornbread? With soup/chili? I have a great cornmeal muffin recipe that I got years ago from my mom, so sure! I'll make cornmeal muffins too.

I grew up with cornmeal muffins as a treat. We would take them fresh from the oven, tear them up into smaller pieces in a bowl, and drizzle them with maple syrup. That's my memory of cornmeal muffins!

But now I've come to really enjoy them with soup -- usually chilis or spicy tortilla-type soups -- smothered in butter. Or plain. But then I can also have one with maple syrup for dessert. :)

Without further ado, here is my mom's recipe! The best part? These should all be basic ingredients you have on hand already. Except maybe the cornmeal -- but I keep a small container on hand specially for these muffins and for homemade pizza...

Cornmeal Muffins
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk
2 eggs
4 Tb melted butterStir dry ingredients together. Add the rest. Stir quickly until just moistened. Bake in greased muffin tin (or use paper cups) at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until tops have turned golden brown. Makes 12 muffins.

And I love how this recipe only makes a dozen muffins. Just enough to fill one tin. Of course, it can easily be doubled or more to feed a larger crowd.

Do you like cornmeal muffins/cornbread/johnnycake/whatever you might call it?? :)

Linking up to:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Talk Wednesday: Just in Case You Ever Wonder

When I worked at Family Christian Stores, I never had reason to spend much time in the Children's section. Yes I stocked books, and sorted and organized toys, but never had a personal attachment to the products. Even for the last few months I was there, while I was pregnant with Abby, I didn't see it as a section for me to shop in.

(Now I would love to go back and spend all of my time there... :)

Some of the most popular children's books we carried were the ones by Max Lucado. From the Hermie series to the Wemmicks collection, to many stand-alone books, he always had something in the top ten. When Booksneeze offered Lucado's book Just in Case You Ever Wonder, I jumped at the chance to review this one.

Just in Case You Ever Wonder is a book I think my daughter will appreciate more in the years to come. It's not the best book for a 17-month-old to sit still through, but the message is very powerful. It tells your child that no matter what happens as they grow, you will always be there for them and will always love them. "I'll always love you. I'll always hug you. I'll always be on your side. And I want you to know that... just in case you ever wonder." The images are in soft colors, which again I think will appeal to my daughter more when she's older.

Overall, it's a book that I personally appreciate very much, but will need to wait a couple of years for my daughter to appreciate it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

I review for BookSneeze®

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Soup's perfect companion

Now that it's November, I'm feeling the transition from fall to winter starting already. It's time to move past the pumpkins and harvest-y things toward frost and (dare I say it?!) snow, and pine wreaths and white lights...

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. I love Christmas. I should do a post about that sometime, similar to this one.  But not today. Maybe a
week or twoday or two from now. :)

Today it's about transition. That sort-of-chilly, no-snow-on-the-ground-but-frosty, no-more-leaves-on-the-trees time of year. Bring on the soups!!

I love making soup in the crockpot. Unfortunately you will probably never see a soup recipe posted here. That's because I tend to start with a written recipe, then as the day goes on and I continue to taste the soup, I end up adding things. A dash of this, a sprinkle of that. Until finally when dinnertime rolls around I've created the perfect soup recipe that I will never be able to duplicate.

Now bread, on the other hand... I love bread. And I think every soup should be served with some type of bread. One of the things I put on our wedding registry 7 years ago -- one of those if-I-get-it-great-but-if-I-don't-I'm-not-buying-it-for-myself -- was a $100 breadmaker. Guess what? I got it. And IT'S PROBABLY MY MOST FAVORITE WEDDING GIFT.

My favorite breadmaker recipe (from the book that came with the maker) is simply called "White Wheat Bread". It goes great with any dish, as it's not seasoned or flavored in any way, and turns out perfect each time. Except when the yeast is getting old, but that's more my fault...

White Wheat Bread
For 2 lb. loaf:
1 1/4 cups + 2 Tb warm water
2 Tb oil
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp salt
2 Tb dry milk
3 1/2 cups bread (white) flour
1/2 cup wheat flour
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast

Add ingredients in order to breadmaker. Select Basic White Bread Cycle.

If I tried a little harder, I could probably get away with never buying bread from the grocery store. But I just have not gotten into the habit of making this bread consistently, and I always manage to find store-bought bread on sale. So this bread has become more of a special treat.

I have honestly never made bread truly from scratch. I've tried some roll recipes, but have never been able to get the rising stage correct. I love how the breadmaker does it all for me! It's definitely an appliance worth investing in, or asking for for Christmas... :)

Do you like to bake homemade bread?

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