Friday, June 26, 2009

Movies on a budget

Matt and I love to go to the movies.

Unfortunately for us, we also love to eat. And pay rent. And have lights and stuff. For us, going to the movies is a $40-plus experience. Add it up:

Tickets: $16
Popcorn: $6
Two giant sodas: $10
Candy from Safeway: $10

And that's if we don't get any other treats at the theatre! My stepson is left out of that total as well.

The "Transformers" sequel comes out this weekend, and so hitting the theatres is unavoidable. Popcorn and sodas purchased at the theatre is non-negotiable to my husband and stepson (I prefer to carry in my own Jolly Time 99% Fat Free Kettle Corn because it tastes better for fewer calories), so that expense stays.

But I can do something about the sweet treats. I mulled this thought over as I was enjoying a miniature Kit Kat bar and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

What's the perfect movie candy? Something chocolaty, with peanut butter and a little bit of cookie flavor. My eyes widened and I turned to Google after the perfect thought hit me:

Muddy Buddies!

Those delicious, chocolate-peanut butter Chex creations would be the perfect accompaniment to greasy, salty movie popcorn. As a bonus, I've got all ingredients on hand (most people do, if they're like me and buy chocolate chips and peanut butter in bulk from Costco) except the Chex cereal. So for $5, I can whip up a great movie snack that will (hopefully) please my whole family!

Here's the recipe:

Muddy Buddies

9 cups Chex cereal
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

Measure cereal into large bowl. Let aside.
In 1-quart microwavable bowl, microwave* chocolate chips, peanut butter and butter uncovered on High for 1 minute. Stir. Microwave about 30 seconds longer or until mixture can be stirred smooth. Stir in vanilla. Pour mixture over cereal, stirring until evenly coated. Pour into 2-gallon resealable food-storage plastic bag.

Add powdered sugar. Seal bag. Shake until well coated. Spread on waxed paper to cool. Store in airtight container in refrigerator.

*I've always done this on the stove top. But it's hard to argue with the ease of microwaving!
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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Winner, winner: Chicken dinner

You vote, I obey.

An overwhelming number of readers wish to see me take on a whole chicken for my "cooking with meat" challenge.

Since I started this challenge as a meat-cooking chicken, it's only appropriate (ha-ha).

The chicken dinner (with stuffing and brussels sprouts) is on my menu for this next week. Assuming I don't get a major veto from my husband (i.e. find a loophole that allows me to chicken out once again!), I'll post my experience within seven days!

In the meantime, I'll take recommendations, tips, tricks and favorite recipies! Please comment below and save my family from potential doom!
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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Weekly check-in

Just a round-up of my life over the week to keep me honest, and satisfy that need for voyeurism that forces you to read my blog. :)

One-word description of the workweek: Laborious
Books I've finished: "Look Me in the Eye," John Elder Robinson; "The Pact," Jodi Picoult
News story that stuck with me: Jon & Kate Plus 8 divorcing; Farrah Fawcett--dead!; Michael Jackson--dead! Wow, what a week!

Workouts this week: 4
Nutritional cheats: White-chocolate truffles, lemon bread, Muddy Buddies (although since technically I didn't have lunch those days ...)

What I did for myself: With a house full of noise and boys, I took myself to the movies on Sunday to see the weeper "My Sisters Keeper." Did not disappoint! I'm glad I brought a bag of tissues, because I started crying about five minutes in, and didn't stop until 10 minutes before the credits rolled. Judging by all the sniffles around me, the handful of other women in the theatre felt the same way! Ladies, isn't it great to have an outlet for those unnecessary tears every now and again?
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Friday, June 19, 2009

Doh! A deer!

When we moved into our new house, the owner casually mentioned that deer graze in the backyard.

I didn't think anything of it until I was there by myself one afternoon. Sure enough, a darling little deer ambled out of the woods and ever so delicately ate my lawn. Enthralled, I called my husband.

"There's a deer in our yard!," I whispered, running around to various windows to take a look.

A Northern California boy, he wasn't exactly impressed. Finally, the deer left and I went back to work, aglow with my brush with nature.

The next day, it was back.

Three days later, it brought friends.

One day, I came home and opened my bedroom window to see a spotted fawn grazing not two feet away. Across the yard was another fawn, watched by their mother from the underbrush.

I felt like Snow White ... minus those messy dwarves. Beautiful, graceful, wild creatures were choosing my lawn for their morning snack! I thought about how our landlord had suggested Liquid Fence to keep them from eating plants.

"No way," I told my husband that night. "Why would we want to keep them out?"

Not five minutes later, I saw it. One of the adolescent bucks looked casually around the yard, heaved himself up on two legs, and started nibbling at my apple tree.

My jaw dropped. I was horrified. Those are my pie apples! I called Matt over to witness.

"Not so cute anymore, huh?" he chuckled.

I was speechless. I didn't even know deer could DO that! They still come into my yard, but now I'm a little more wary. Are they going to eat ALL the low-hanging fruit? Should I keep them out? Is my rosemary bush safe in the sun?

Will their Bambi-esque sweetness make up for their thievery? We'll see.
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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Pudding pie

When it comes to food, some things you make.

Bagels. Granola. Spaghetti sauce.

And some things you buy.

I mused on this theory last weekend, as I spent a couple hours chopping, hulling and then drying my own strawberries for Strawberry-Ricotta Muffins (so uninspiring I have to make them again before I discuss them). As I placed tiny strawberry quarters delicately on my cooling sheets for 45-minutes in the oven, I remembered that Safeway sells tins of strawberries that someone ELSE dried.

You buy dried strawberries.

I moodily cursed this theory out this weekend as I attempted Martha Stewart's "Black-Bottom Pie." Last week, my husband was chomping on one of my Strawberry-Ricotta Muffins when he turned to me.

"You know what I really love to eat?" he asked, finishing the last muffin. "Black-bottom pie."

I had to search my mental records to make sure that was really a food, and not something racist or kinky.

Turns out it is a food. It's pie, with a chocolate layer, a vanilla layer, and a meringue/whipped cream layer. Or, as Martha puts it, "This classic meringue-and-custard dessert originated in the American South around the turn of the twentieth century. The bottom layer of chocolate pastry cream was thought to signify the dark, swampy lowlands lying along the Mississippi River."

So I figured I'd whip one up and serve it for my mother-in-law, stepson and husband when the former two came for a visit this weekend.

Yeah, right.

Too late, I learned that anything that calls for an "ice-water bath" can't be "whipped up." When he saw me pouring ice cubes and water into a pan, my husband remembered the past and thought the worst.

"Is that for when you burn your hand taking something out of the oven?" he asked.

I glanced at the red stripe still showing on my elbow before haughtily answering.
"No," I said. "It's for the custard."

As I scrambled across the kitchen, melting chocolate, whisking egg yolks, boiling milk and thickening gelatin, it dawned on me.

I was spending two-plus hours making pudding. Chocolate and vanilla pudding.

Sure, I was also whipping egg whites and sugar to make a meringue ... that I was just going to fold into the vanilla pudding.

I just dirtied every dish in my kitchen and spent what amounted to a feature-length film making pudding pie. I could have bought two boxes and a pie crust and had everything done in 15 minutes.

At this point, I was desperately annoyed by Martha. So I grabbed the meringue (still about 10 minutes away from "stiff, glossy peaks"), half-heartedly swirled it into the vanilla custard, and topped the pie crust and chocolate custard with it. Then I shoved the whole mixture into the fridge.

"I can't believe I just spent two hours making pudding!" I moaned to my mother-in-law, who looked suspiciously (but kindly) like she knew better. Then I froze and opened the fridge.

A container of heavy cream stood lonely on the top shelf. I pulled it out.
"I hope this wasn't supposed to go into the pie," I said quietly, feeling guilty for leaving out a simple ingredient that would have proved I did not just spend two hours making my own pudding.

I picked up the recipe and nearly threw it in the garbage disposal. I had indeed forgotten that heavy cream was part of the recipe.

For making my own whipped cream with which to top off the pudding pie.

My husband came into the kitchen and inspected the finished product.

"Love it or hate it," I told him. "I'm never making my own pudding again."

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Wii Mii

When we came back from our honeymoon, there were a few wedding gift surprises waiting for us in our mailbox. Namely, checks. Some big ones.

After collecting them, tallying the amount and writing the proper thank-you notes, I sat Matt down.

"The way I see it, we could do three things with this money," I said. "First, we could use it to pay off some credit cards. Second, we could buy something sensible, like the new set of knives we need."

"Or," he said, gently urging me to get to the point.

"Or we could get a Wii."

Two days and $500 later, we were hooking up our new video game system. I'd not only sprung for the Wii, but also the Wii Fit, the latest exercise craze for the generation that doesn't believe in real exercise.

When you get a Wii, you make a Mii, a fun little avatar that represents you in all the games. You can adjust hair, eye color, face shape, accessorize, you name it. You can also choose your own body type.

Having just looked at my own, curvaceous figure with a sigh, I moved the dial on my Mii down in the Kate Moss direction, directly opposite reality. Happy, I put in the disc for Wii Fit to set that game up.

The first thing that Wii Fit does is import your avatar. I brought Matt's over too, and our little video selves were running and skipping blithely across the screen. They moved effortlessly, like I hoped I'd be able to move after a few weeks of Wii Fit.

The second thing Wii Fit does is a body test. It checks your balance, reflexes and takes your height and weight to determine your BMI.

And when it does that, even the most optimistic Mii planning goes right out the window. There's no fooling Wii Fit.

As the slider on my BMI tab rolled upward, my Mii looked down in despair at her expanding waistline. That's right--she got fatter as the BMI crept to the top of the "overweight" section. Then, adding insult to injury, a little voice piped up through my home's surround-sound speakers.

"That's overweight!" it squeeked.

I was getting ready to chuck the whole system out the window--my avatar's feelings were hurt, I was being shouted at, and I hadn't had the game on for more than 15 minutes! Then something happened that delighted me.

My Mii started running and skipping again! But with her newly chubby form, she couldn't be as graceful and light as she once was.

Truth be told, she waddled and hopped across the screen. Her arms, now plump, couldn't swing weightlessly anymore, so the pumped furiously. You could almost hear her gasping for air.

It was the cutest Fat Mii I've ever seen.

Now, a few weeks later, I don't mind as much when the Wii Fit insults me. "Oof," it says when I step on the board. "That's overweight!" it squeeks when I weigh-in.

I don't mind because I know that when I start up, my Mii will waddle adorably across the screen, begging me to play with her.
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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chewy White-Chocolate Cranberry Cookies

I make these bad boys just a couple times a year, and always include them in my Christmas cookie gift bags. I consider them my signature cookie: They are delicious and too hearty to ignore. You won't walk away from one of these feeling unfulfilled! Recipie from Cook's Illustrated.

2/18 cups (2 cups plus 2 tablespoons) unsifted, bleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks or 3/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled until warm
1 cup light or dark brown sugar, tightly packed
1/2 cup grandulated sugar
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-2 cups chocolate chips or chunks
1 cup dried cranberries

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Adjust oven racks to upper- and lower-middle positions.

2. Mix flour, salt and baking soda together in medium bowl, set aside.

3. Either by hand or with electric mixer, mix butter and sugars until thoroughly blended. Mix in egg, yolk and vanilla. Add dry ingredients; mix until just combined. Stir in chips and cranberries, to taste.

4. Form scant 1/4-cup dough into ball. holding dough ball using fingertips of both hands, pull into two equal halves. Rotate halves 90 degrees, being careful not to smooth dough's uneven surface. Place formed dough onto one of two parchement paper-lined 20-by-14 inch lipless cookie sheets, about nine dough balls per sheet. Smaller cookie sheets can be used, but fewer cookies can be baked at one time, and baking time may need to be adjusted. Dough can be refrigerated up to two days, or frozen up to one month, shaped or not.

5. Bake, reversing cookie sheets' positions halfway through, until cookies are light golden brown and outer edges start to harden, yet centers are still soft and puffy (15 to 18 minutes, but start checking at 13 minutes). Frozen dough rquires an extra 1 to 2 minutes baking time. Cool cookies on cookie sheets. Serve or store in airtight containers.

My notes:
  • The secret to these cookies is the melted butter, which creates the chewy factor; and the extra egg yolk, which acts as a tenderizer.
  • The recipie suggests "1-2 cups of chocolate chips." I only use one cup, as I find that two cups (shockingly!) is too many. Upsets the balance of the cookie. But it's a matter of personal preference.
  • Obviously, if you don't dig white chocolate and cranberry, you can switch 'em out. Butterscotch chips, regular chocolate, coconut ... go nuts. Oooh, nuts!
  • I don't know what kind of oven Cook's Illustrated uses, but the 15 to 18 minutes thing has never worked out for me. Last night I made the cookies on a new, gas stove, and the cookies took about 20 minutes. So after the first 15 minutes, keep an eye on them. Make sure both layers start to brown before taking them out, or you'll end up with half-cooked centers. Good for cookie dough-lovers, bad for salmonella-fearers.
  • If you're as unsure what "rotating cookie dough 90 degrees" refers to as I was, here's a picture. You're making little cookie mountains.

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Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Sorting Room

You know how Harry Potter's Hogwarts has the Sorting Hat?

You remember. Every year, the day before term started, the incoming class of First Years would sit on a stool, don the Sorting Hat, and be shuffled off into their respective houses.

Well, after our big move, I created a Sorting Room. Every box that didn't have a home, and every slip of paper that didn't have a purpose was tossed into that room for Sorting At A Later Date.
Here's what it looked like after I cleared the furniture out of the way:

As you can see, the general theme was "Junk Overflowing."

Here's what it looks like now, after about 90 minutes of sorting and putting away:

It's not perfect, but it's a start. This is what I call "Step 1 Organizing."
Step 1 Organizing is a preliminary process to getting a project done. It's where you figure out what can be put away, what can be thrown away, and what needs a new home.
Here's how to tackle Step 1 Organizing: Constant motion. Set aside a couple hours when you know you won't be distracted. Then tackle the project methodically. For me, I start at one side of the room and make my way to the other. I opened one box at a time, and every single item in that box had three options:
  • Put away in an existing container.
  • Put in the "throw away" box. This box helps avoid the distractions that can happen when you're running back and forth to the trash.
  • Put in the "keepsake" box. Typically I avoid sorting items into new boxes, but in this particular instance I knew that I'd end up needing this keepsake box to hold wedding/honeymoon stuff until my sister could help me scrapbook it. I know that on a future trip to Ikea, I'll be purchasing a nicer-looking keepsake box, so it's OK.

The time-frame is really important. By 90 minutes, I was starting to feel lazy. When that happens, it's time to stop. When you lose momentum, it's too easy to skip a box, set items aside "for later" or overfill the (in my case) keepsake box.

So that's it! That's Step 1. All those boxes and bags were unpacked, and the items inside were put in their proper place. But since proper doesn't necessarily mean organized, I'll need to prepare for Step 2.

Step 2 requires shopping, so it's important to check the budget before attempting it. And that's why I'm stopping at Step 1 today.

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Friday, June 5, 2009

Coming up ... (6/7-6/13)

Keep your eyes out for these juicy updates:
  • White-chocolate cranberry cookies
  • Assessing the damage: Home office project
  • Deer are cute, until they're hungry
  • Loving Wii Fit ... but wanting more
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Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I am an organization addict.

There's an episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond" where Frank mocks Marie for over-organizing.

"You've got a box of string marked 'Pieces of String Too Small to Use'!" he bellows in frusteration.

But I get it. There's not much more satisfying than sorting items into their correct boxes, bins, bags and files. My dear husband, Matt, once asked me to spend a Saturday organizing his desk at work. It was like being proposed to all over again.

I emptied every drawer out, wiped them down, and started inventory. Papers in one pile, office supplies in another, pens and pencils tested and kept or tossed, files sorted in order of use and necessity.

Then I got to go to Office Depot and use the Big Cart. I picked up notebooks, dividers, drawer-organizing baskets, stand-up filing units and flat ones. I bought cups for desktop pens and pencils, and an extra filing setup for an empty drawer.

When he saw my haul, one eyebrow went up.

"I think we're going to have to add a line-item in our budget for your Office Depot supplies," he said as I excitedly explained my new system to him.

But now he raves about his organized desk. He lets me tackle his closet and dresser drawers when they get too crammed. My own closet is sorted by sleeve length (long, 1/2, 3/4, short, shoulder-covering tank-tops, and tanks). My pantry is divided into supplies (further categorized into baking, breakfast, lunch, dinner and spices) and meals.

Since we moved last weekend, the house is ready for a whole new makeover. Harry Potter has a Sorting Hat. I've got a Sorting Room: The guest bedroom is where all the boxes with miscellania are collecting. They're waiting for me to clear an entire Saturday, hook up a TV and DVD player, pop in Season 1 of "Gilmore Girls" for background noise, and start sorting.

After that, my car will practically drive itself to Office Depot.
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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Getting started

I have never been able to relax.

I used to think I could just sit on the couch and watch TV endlessly, without a care in the world. Then I realized that the last time I did that, I was working 60-plus hours a week as a newspaper reporter ... and hanging out in the newsroom when I wasn't on the clock.

These days, I need a project. A hobby. First, I blogged about my trials and tribulations during a 40-pound weight loss. Once the weight was off, I learned to knit. I started giving out cookies for Christmas. I got engaged. I bought a sewing machine. After the wedding, we moved.

As you can see, my interests are varied. I may not be a pastry chef, a clothing designer, a quilter, a fitness coach or an organization guru, but I know a little bit about a little bit.

So when I decided it was time to close down my weight-loss blog, I wanted to start something new. But what to write about? My thought process went a little something like this:

Oooh, I can test recipies! Bake cakes and cook something from Paula Deen every day!

I can start a garden! Learn photography! Sew a quilt!

What about organization? I'm a great organizer! Let's do it!

Since I couldn't decide ... and generally project-hop a the mood suits me, I thought, "Why not do it all?"

So check out the to-do list to the right. Those are my goals for the year. That's what I'll be talking about. You'll be hearing about my successes, my failures and my non-starters. I'll post pictures and updates, and comments about the fallout of said successes and failures from my life.

If I steal a recipe or an idea, I'll cop to it. If I discover something on my own, I'll brag about it.

Mostly, I hope I learn from it all, and add a few more talents to my collection!
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