RECIPE: "Barbecue Sauce" Marinade

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This marinade I concocted myself.  It is great with chicken, beef or pork. It is not Barbecue sauce, but has that flavor profile in a marinade. What you can do is make the marinade the night before and put it in a ziploc bag with your meat, and let it sit overnight and throughout the next day. When you get home that day, put the meat on the grill and baste with the marinade in the bag. Then serve the meat with your favorite barbecue sauce as a side. The flavor profiles compliment one another.

"Barbecue Sauce" Marinade
Marinates 1 lb. meat

1 Tbsp. dried onion
2 tsp. dried ground garlic
1/2 cup ketchup
3/4 cup cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp. dried mustard
1 Tbsp. chili powder
2 Tbsp paprika
salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsp canola oil

In a bowl, mix the ketchup and the vinegar Add all the dry seasonings. Add the oil slowly while whisking so the mixture is emulsified. 
Pour in a ziploc bag with the meat and let sit at least overnight. Grill meat to your liking.

GARDENING: Twist-ties from toy packaging might actually be useful

Pin It It is baffling to me why toy companies package their toys in industrial strength clam shells locked in with plastic washers and wire twist-ties. I don't think even Houdini would be able to open some of these packages, let alone a small child. Not to mention the incredible waste that goes into these boxes. Thank goodness we recycle!

It dawned on me after undoing my 5th twist-tie after my daughter's birthday party (and rubbing my finger tips to numb the pain they cause) that these twist-ties would be excellent for my garden. Some of my plants have gotten so full and heavy that the normal plant twist-ties for staking plants are just too weak. So I have been saving the toy twist-ties in a ziploc bag and they have been great for my tomato plants and cucumber vines that need a little more strength. And you can feel good that they will not be going into a landfill. Come this Christmas, remember to have a ziploc bag handy to collect all the twist-ties from all the toys Santa brings!

RECIPE: Southwest Summer Corn Salad

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My sister-n-law gave me this recipe and it is great with burgers. If you have leftover ears of corn, cut it off the husk and toss it with a chopped green chili to substitute the can of Mexicana corn. It has better flavor and it is a good use of corn leftovers.

Southwest Summer Corn Salad

1 can Mexicana corn
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed well
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 stalks of celery, diced
1 small onion, diced
1-2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped fine

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
Juice of half a lime
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup julienned jicama (optional)

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl. Let marinate for 10 minutes at least before serving.

MOMMYHOOD: Getting your child to do chores and feel good doing it

Pin It After much deliberation at our house, we decided to get our daughter on an allowance schedule for doing chores. I never got an allowance when I was younger. My parents always told me "Why would we give you money for something that is expected of you?" And now that I am a parent, I kind of agree.

But that being said, there is a lot to teach a child regarding the value of money, reward for work and saving for a purchase that an allowance helps with. I kind of wish we started it sooner at our house, but better late than never!

So to start us on this project, I found a wonderful tool that is quite affordable and age appropriate. It is the "Responsibility Chart" by Melissa & Doug. Not only are the chores very appropriate for young children (lets face it, 7 year olds and cleaning chemicals don't mix), but there are great magnets with accolades that your child can feel good putting on the chart as they finish a task. They also include a couple blank magnets for you to fill in a chore or social behavior you want your child to work on that they did not include. To start out small, I have set the rule that three magnets must be achieved per day, and any extra is an extra ten cents. We are giving our daughter a dollar for a completed week. 

As she gets used to it, I plan on increasing the amount of mandatory magnets per day. It has been really helpful! She is remembering to clear her plates after a meal, get ready for bed on her own and get dressed on her own. I don't need to repeat myself ten times or always be there to help. It really has motivated her to step up and be more independent. 

MOMMYHOOD: Helping very young children express their emotions

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As my friends embark on their mommy journeys, I find myself sharing ideas and tricks that worked for me not too long ago. One of the struggles we had with our daughter was helping her find words to communicate her feelings. Children have many emotions, but they are very limited with their vocabulary so it is difficult to talk about what they are feeling. They might not even know what word goes with what emotion. This is one of the challenges of raising preschoolers and kindergartners. If you are finding that you have a very emotional child who gets easily upset and frustrated over things without much communication, here are two activities that really were helpful at our house. Now that my daughter is a little older, I feel that we really laid a strong communication foundation with these techniques. She really finds bedtime a perfect time to talk to me about things that bother her, and this was usually the time we would do the second activity I am going to share with you. So we pretty much got into the habit of "talking" at that time. I hope this will continue as she gets older (especially the teenage years!)

Activity #1, Plate faces: This was a very easy activity I came up with using paper plates. This is a great way to start teaching very young children basic emotion words and what feelings they are tied to. I used different plates and made simple graphic faces on each of them. Each "face" demonstrated a certain emotion, such as "sad", "surprised", "angry", "tired", "nervous", etc. On the back of each plate I would write the word out as well, just to get some reading practice in. A couple times a week, I would run through them with my daughter. I would put the face on top of my face like a mask and make some sound effects, and she would guess the emotion. It was also fun for her to put the faces on her face as I called out an emotion word.

Activity #2, "The Way I Feel" by Janan Cain: This was a wonderful book given as an end of year gift from my daughter's preschool teacher. The book goes through each emotion in more detail, including some emotions I never even thought about. The illustrations are just lovely. We would read this once a week at bedtime all the way through. Then we would start at the beginning again and go through each emotion, while taking turns talking about a certain incident that happened that week that made each of us feel that certain way. It is amazing what your child will share with you that you may not even know was going on in that little head of theirs. This exercise not only helps you bond with your child, but helps them get comfortable talking about their feelings, and more importantly, talking about them with you. This is so important to establish as your child gets older. 

Please share other ideas with us! The more the merrier!

RECIPE: Sausage, Sun-dried Tomato and Cheese Strata

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This is an old stand-by recipe that I often pull out for special "brunch" occasions (Father's Day, Mother's Day, Christmas morning) . The beauty of strata is that you pull the ingredients together the night before, and let the fridge do the rest of the job while you get your beauty sleep. The next morning; pop it in the oven, make a pot of coffee, butter a handful of toast, toss together a cut-up fruit salad with yogurt side, slap on some make up and you, my dear, look like a diva in front of all your morning guests!

Sausage, Sun-dried Tomato and Cheese Strata

1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes, chopped
12 oz. turkey breakfast sausage patties
3 1/2 cups whole milk
8 large eggs
2 tsp. fresh thyme, minced
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. fresh ground pepper
1 lb. white sandwich bread, crusts trimmed, bread cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup chopped onion
8 oz. sliced mushrooms (optional, but I highly recommend them)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese (packed)
1/4 cup crumbled soft, fresh goat cheese
chopped, fresh parsley

Place sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl covered with boiling water to just cover. Let stand to soften for 15 minutes. Remove tomatoes and set aside. Conserve half of the liquid.

In a large saute pan, cook sausage until brown, breaking up the sausage with the back of your spoon. Transfer to paper towels to drain. In the drippings, saute the onion until starting to soften, then add the mushrooms. Cook until mushrooms begin releasing their juices. Add the tomato liquid to deglaze the pan and toss around. Take off the heat.

Butter a 13 x 9 x 2 glass baking pan. In a large bowl, whisk the milk, eggs, thyme, salt and pepper, and the parm. In another bowl, mix the bread, tomatoes, mushrooms, half the mozzarella and onions and spread evenly in the bottom of the pan. Pour egg mixture over the bread mixture evenly. Using the back of the spoon, gently push down in areas so the bread absorbs the eggs. While doing this, redistribute any ingredients so things are even. Cover with plastic and let sit overnight (at least 4 hours).

Preheat oven to 350 the next morning. Sprinkle the remainder mozzarella on top as well as nestling the goat cheese evenly in the egg mixture throughout the strata. Sprinkle fresh parsley on top. Bake for 30-40 minutes until puffy and evenly golden brown. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

MOMMYHOOD: How to be more "present'

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Coming off of the "great unplugged family experiment", I realized how very distracted with multitasking all this technology has made us. Ironically enough, there was a great article in Real Simple this month (September issue) that was written by a man who was struggling with just that. He decided to create an experiment of his own to be more  in the "present". It meant he had to force himself to turn off his blackberry at times and not answer the phone, or turn off the TV for a period of time. The article documents his journey and struggles doing this day to day, like a journal. It is really well written, often funny and at times poignant. 

I find myself, as an "urban domestic diva" trying to keep all things in balance, constantly distracted. My mind is constantly wandering to what is the next thing I have to do or remember. Add in a "creative soul" to that balance, and my husband sometimes wonders if I am even on the same planet with him! What I mean is that the creative process never turns off. If I have a project I am working on, it is often when I am most relaxed at home, doing chores or hanging with my family that my mind percolates in the background on possible ideas for work. This may sound like a good thing, but most of the time, it isn't. I say this because I am really missing out on living in the moment–really enjoying my time with my family and with my child. Time is so fleeting and we have so little of it to have with our loved ones, when we are with them, we should REALLY be WITH THEM. E-mail, the "siren" called the Internet (that's what this author called it, pretty apropos), voicemail, video, DVD, cable - they all enhance the ability to multitask but distract from the moment. Beyond starting to turn things off around him, this author started to do one simple thing, and it seemed to help him live more in the present. I started to do it, too, and it really helped me.

The magic bullet is to simply tell yourself what you are doing, right at that moment. Reaffirm with yourself in your mind what it is you should be focused on and enjoying. It was amazing how it helped my mind quiet down and I could move into the "present" again. The minute I caught myself wandering to thoughts of the laundry, the email I needed to send, the print ad ideas I needed to think about, I would reaffirm what I was supposed to be doing at that time, and I focused again. For instance, we were swimming and splashing as a family, and my mind would wander to tasks needing to get done, and I was missing out on my daughter's laughter and the funny retorts she was giving my husband. I told myself "You are enjoying splashing in the water with your daughter. You are with your family", and it brought my mind right there. I know it sounds weird, but try it. It really is helping me stay in the moment and get more out of my very precious time with my family.

MOMMYHOOD: The great "unplugged" family experiment

Pin It On our recent vacation to Michigan, we rented a different cottage than we typically do. Because we were new to this cottage, we were not sure what amenities there were. The write up said "cable" TV and a DVD player. We also figured we would be able to get WIFI somewhere if we needed it. Well, we were in for some surprises.

My daughter had the culture shock first. "What do you mean no cartoons whenever I want?" Basic cable meant BASIC. Like, 2 home shopping networks, CSPAN, a VERY local news channel, the travel channel, WGN, FOX, NBC, CBS & ABC. So no Cartoon Network, no SCIFI, no Nickelodeon, no Turner Classic Movies, no weather radar, no MSNBC or Bloomberg. So it took her a bit to adjust. She just had to play outside more, and get creative with her time. This turned out to be a good thing for her. I noticed her less moody, cranky and aggressive without the television or computer. It was a nice change. The funniest thing was to watch her get all excited once Saturday morning rolled around and she found cartoons on TV, like we used to do! Yup kid, we had to wait all week for Saturday cartoons and WE LIKED IT!

But make no mistake-my husband and I found being unplugged challenging as well. The first night there was an ugly storm that came through, and I was going through "weather radar withdrawal". There is a nice sense of security you get when you are able to check the radar during bad weather any time you want. So this was tough for me. I also am a political junkie-and I was having trouble getting used to not having MSNBC and the BBC playing all evening and knowing what was going on in the world. My cell only worked if I walked up the road and held out my phone to the sky-no kidding. And I was anxious to hear about a friend of mine in labor with her first baby. So having no cell or e-mail was very hard. My husband's phone was not working at all, and come Thursday he could not take it anymore. He broke down and went into town and got the paper (yes, paper– made out of trees, kind of grey and makes your hands dirty...) to see how the stock market was doing. This turned out to make matters worse because all he wanted to do after that was be online and sell off stocks! And we were a couple of towns away from any Internet access.

Now through all the withdrawal symptoms our little family had during this vacation, I can honestly tell you it was one of the most relaxing vacations we have ever had. My husband and I marveled at how we felt that the length of the stay seemed very long and drawn out-a rarity with any vacation. We noticed how we lost our tempers less with our daughter, and that she was more patient with herself and others. We did lots of other things together-because we had to. We were made to slow down and take time, to live in the moment and not be distracted. Maybe these things happen naturally when on vacation, but I do think the lack of electronic distractions around our family made us come together closer and enjoy one another in a quieter capacity. Overall, a rocky yet successful experiment.

RECIPE: Michigan Blueberry & Lemon Muffins with Pecan Streusel Topping

Pin It This was adapted by a Williams Sonoma recipe and is a great way to use up the fresh blueberries from the farm stand. The other thing I have learned over the years about baking with blueberries is to couple it with lemon juice or lemon zest. Blueberries become quite bitter during baking, and lemon helps to lift and brighten their flavor. It is an important ingredient in my blueberry pie as well. In this recipe, lemon is just enough to brighten but not overpower the blueberries. You can make these easily for a Saturday morning. You don't even use a mixer-but a fork. My daughter and her cousins eat them up. Well, almost all. I use my big muffin tin and the muffins are a little big for them-but they try! I rinse out the blueberries and them let them lie flat on paper towels to dry completely. This helps the blueberries retain their shape while baking. I also have been told that tossing them with a little flour helps do that as well, but I just make sure they are very dry before going in the batter. That seems to work great.

Michigan Blueberry & Lemon Muffins with Pecan Streusel Topping:

1/3 cup sugar
3 Tbsp. flour
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
2 Tbsp. butter, melted
1/3 cup pecan chips

2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon grated
zest of half a lemon
1 large egg, beaten
5 Tbsp. butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed, destemmed and thoroughly dried

Preheat oven to 375˚. Spray large muffin tins with baking spray like PAM®. Set aside.

Now make the topping by mixing the sugar, flour and zest in a small bowl. Stir in the melted butter until mixture is crumbly. Add the pecan chips and stir to combine. Set aside.

For the muffins, stir in a large bowl the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, lemon zest with a fork. Make a hole in the middle of the mixture and pour in the beaten egg, melted butter and buttermilk. Stir only until everything is moist-do not over mix. Gently fold in the blueberries with a large spatula until just combined. Spoon the batter into each cup until 3/4 full. Top each with a generous handful of topping evenly over all cups. If you have batter left, reserve topping for a second batch. For the second batch, fill 1/2 of any empty cups in the tin with water to prevent warping. Bake until golden and springy to the touch, 30-35 minutes for large tins. Transfer to wire rack to cool, then after ten minutes pop them out. I get 8 big muffins with my large muffin tin.

RECIPE: When in Michigan, make a peach pie

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I have various processes for pie-some complex following The Pie Bible directions, and some more laid bake like my mother's simple crisco-crust apple pie. When we vacation in Michigan, the fruit just calls my inner baking goddess to bake pies, muffins, breads and cobblers. The fruit here is outstanding. The peaches at the local stands are delicious just by themselves, but add them to a buttery pie and you have heaven. The piebelow includes a basic crust for the most part, but follows a few of The Pie Bible's tips with the crust. The key to flaky crusts is to keep everything cold. That means to use ice in your water and chilled butter (The Pie Bible even suggests freezing half of the butter and the flour mixture), and to not handle thedough with your hands that much. In fact, try not to handle the dough extensively at all. I like The Pie Bible's instructions. From it, I make very delicious pies, albeit tedious to make. But hey-when on vacation (in Michigan) I take a more laid back approach to the pies I make. After all, I'm here to relax!Oh, by the way, if your area is like Illinois, you have crappy fruit. This frustrates me a great deal (see yesterday's post). Peach pie is best with fresh, farm-stand peaches. If your peaches are under ripe and you REALLY want to make a peach pie, put the peaches in a brown paper bag on the counter for a day or two. That should help ripen them. Also, when it comes to macerating them for the filling, let them sit in the sugar a little longer to soften up. Enjoy the recipe 

Fresh Michigan Peach Lattice Pie Crust:  

Pie Crust:
2 cups all purpose flour  
1 tsp. salt
2 sticks butter, chilled and cut into 1/2" cubes
2 Tbsp. ice water
1 large egg, beaten to blend
1 tsp. distilled white vinegar
6 cups peeled, pitted and sliced peaches (About 7 large peaches) 
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar 
1/4 tsp salt
pinch ground nutmeg pinch ground
2 Tbsp unsalted butter

Whisk flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut in shortening using the back of a fork. Keep cutting theshortening into the four until coarse meal forms. (This is one of the keys to flaky crust. The idea is toget tiny balls of butter layered within your dough so that when they melt during cooking, it leaves a "pocket" in between the layers of gluten thus creating if your flour looks coarse with bits of butter, this is good)

In a small bowl, mix 2 T
bsp. ice water, 2 Tbsp. beaten egg (reserve the rest in the fridge for brushing the crust) and vinegar. Add this to your dry mixture gradually, using the back of a fork to combine and push around until moist clumps form. (Vinegar makes the gluten relax and ice water is key here. Also, do not overwork.) When the moist clumps form, quickly use your hand to roughly form two balls, one slightly larger than the other. 

them with saran wrap and while in saran, quickly flatten andshape them into round discs. Place in the refrigerator for at-least 1 hour or up to 1 day.

When ready to roll, take your larger disc out and place on top of more saran wrap o

n a work surface. (I use saran versus flour. Flour toughens the dough) Use another sheet of saran wrap on top, and wait a couple of minutes until the dough softens slightly, and begin rolling on top of the saran. Roll into a large circle, checking to make sure the circle is 1/2 inch bigger than your pan. When ready, peel the top saran off, and using the bottom saran, lift your dough and gently flop it into your pan. (The saran helps do this better than a rolling pin.) Peel your saran off, and gently press and shape your dough into the pan. Have the dough hang 1/2" off the edge. Prick the dough using fork tines and wrap in the saran wrap you used for rolling and place in the fridge again for 30 minutes. (This lets the dough relax again so there will be no shrinking while baking.)

Now roll out your top piece in the same fashion. When rolled out to the size needed, cut strips of dough for your lattice. I like a thicker lattice for peach pie, so I cut about 1" pieces so I get 8 strips. You can cut them thinner so that you get 12 strips. This will make a more intricate top. After strips are cut, wrap in saran again and place in the fridge until ready to assemble.  

Now, prepare the filling. First preheat the oven to 425˚. Then, peel, pit and slice the peaches and put in a large bowl. Sprinkle with lemon juice and toss, then set aside. Take out your lattice dough and let it sit to soften slightly while you finish the filling. In a smaller bowl stir together flour, sugar, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon. Add to the peaches and toss to combine. Take your bottom crust in the pan out of the fridge and pile the fruit in the middle. Dot the filling with the remaining butter.

Now make the top. Starting with your longer dough strips, make a cross in the middle of your pie. Because I used 8 strips (4 and 4) I start a little off center to make things look even. I place the next strip next to one, lifting the one over it to slide the strip I am placing under. I continue this way, over/under, gently lifting the strip before it and eye-balling even placement until all strips are placed. With the overhanging dough, crimp under with the bottom overhang. Then go around the entire pie edge with your fingers for a pretty, even scallop. Brush the top with the remaining beaten egg and sprinkle liberally with sugar.
At this point, if you have time, I would refrigerate it one more time for 30 minutes to let the dough relax again. Or you could just get it baking. The pie in the photos I went right to baking and as you can see it did not do any shrinking. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 425˚. 

Then "tent" the pie with tinfoil while lowering the temp to 350˚. Continue baking until juices are bubbling and the top is brown, about 25-35 minutes longer. ("tenting" the pie slows down the browning of the crust, which you do quickly at the beginning at the high temp. This prevents soggy crusts. Make sure to include a steam hole in the foil, or you WILL get a soggy crust.) Let sit for 30 minutes to cool before serving. Serve with vanilla whipped cream.

Vanilla whipped cream

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 Tblsp. sugar

Mix ingredients and beat on high until stiff peaks form.

COOKING: When will this "buy local" thing catch on to the big food chains?

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We vacation in Michigan, and it is one thing I am amazed at is the quality of produce in this wonderful state. Now, what I don't understand is that where we go, it is only 2 hours away from Chicago proper. SO if it is only two hours away, why are the big food chains getting corn from Chile? Cherries and tomatoes from California? Peaches from Georgia? Onions and peppers from Mexico? Why, when I can stop at a farmer stand 2 hours away and get all this for half the price and the quality is outstanding? How much more money is it to drive a peach from Georgia that tastes like a potato versus a peach from Michigan that tastes like heaven? Is it because the food stores would have to charge less the closer the produce comes from? I really don't get it. It is an absolute crying shame. Michigan is in Illinois' backyard and the first time I have tasted a peach this summer the way a peach ought to taste is when I crossed the border into Michigan. What adds insult to injury is that these stores are starting to talk green with their recycling plastic bag programs and their green tote bags. But until they start really following a buying local business model, it really is all "green washing" to me. They need to walk the walk-not just talk the talk.

It was also very surprising that even some of these local growers are running into problems with other farm stands. We stopped at one stand that had peaches in half bushels that had a sign saying "home grown". My husband teased the owner, saying "versus what? We're in Michigan, right?" and the farmer said he had to put the signs up when a customer complained to him about a fellow farmer up the street who had peaches from Georgia he was selling at his stand and when pressed, admitted they were not locally grown. Evidently, commercialism even rears it's ugly head in the farm land, what a shame.

COOKING: How I manage my holiday cookie baking extravaganza

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People in my network (professional and personal) always look forward to my Christmas cookies. I have to admit, I do too. It is not that I am a glutton for punishment, but that I truly love baking. Seeing all the different kinds of cookies I can manage, baked to golden perfection and put into pretty tins for gift-giving makes me really feel I have accomplished something special, and I am sharing something special for the season. After all, that is what Christmas is all about. It gives me an excuse to stop by the neighbors during the cold when we barely see each other. It gives me a way to thank the mailman, the cleaning lady, the sitter, the teachers in the school lounge, and my clients at work. It is a very personal thank you that people really appreciate. I include a designed cookie "cheat sheet" with each tin or plate, using one of my clip art styles I have developed as an art director. This adds a special touch to the cookies and also alerts people to an ingredient they love or might be allergic to. 

So why am I bringing up Christmas baking in August? Because it is almost time to start again. I am sure you are surprised. But the secret to baking 9-11 different kinds of cookies for Christmas gifts is to start in September. I make a plan the end of August, make a list of my cookies, and a rough grocery list that I keep on the fridge. Every weekend I try and make 2 batches to freeze. Cookie dough lasts 3 months in the freezer, perfect timing for Christmas. Also, many slice and bake cookies work better when slightly frozen. Some cookies I even pre-shape and then freeze in one layer on wax paper, then after 24 hours, peel them off, wrap in saran, then pop in a freezer ziploc and label the bag. I then put them back in the freezer. If it is a rolled "slice and bake", I make the cookie right up to the "roll part", wrap the log or rectangle in saran, then in tinfoil, label and freeze. SO come December, our downstairs freezer is full of labeled cookie dough. 

What I do then is choose two days in December, usually the Monday and Tuesday one week before Christmas, and I take them off as vacation days. Traditionally, I take Sunday and Monday and bake traditional Italian cookies with my Mother and sister. This does not have anything to do with my cookies in the freezer, because as my mother points out with slight aloofness, "They are American." But Tuesday is the day for MY cookies. The night before I pull out the drop cookies and let them defrost in the fridge overnight. The others I pull out as I go and bake them off all day. My Breville convection oven (see previous post) as well as my main oven are cranking. And as I pull them out, I let them cool on the dining room table. By evening, I have 9-11 batches (some batches I double) waiting to be put into tins and plates for gift giving the next day. I box the rest and use them through the week for parties and other gift needs that come up. By Christmas, whatever is not used, I wrap in saran and freeze. Cookies, once baked, have been still delicious defrosted in the summer if wrapped well enough. And thats how I do it. Preplanning, prework, a second freezer, lots of saran wrap, discount plates and tins from JoAnn Fabrics and a day off in December and you have a holiday baking extravaganza. 

Some other suggestions I have is buying butter when on sale and freezing so you save money and have it on hand when you need it for baking. Also, have a rough list of who you plan on giving the cookies to, so you know how many plates and tins to buy when they go on sale. Your recipient list can also help you gauge if you need to double certain batches. I have some "Lime Cremes" that make a very small batch but are delicious. SO I always double that one, as well as some "Nutella Drops".

RECIPE: Whole-Wheat Peach Muffins

Pin It I have switched my diet to eating whole grains with little to no sugars since December, and I feel great. I sometimes get a little bummed that I can't enjoy all my baking that I do for my family. But I found a great whole-wheat baking mix called Hodgson Mills that I was able to make some spectacular muffins with. I think Red Mill is another company that has whole grain flour and mixes. I used some fresh peaches in this recipe, but I would guess you can use a variety of fruit. There is little sugar in this recipe, so If you like things sweeter, you might want to up it by a third or so. But I freeze these in a ziploc and grab one in the morning to work, By the time I am at my desk, it is defrosted and ready to eat! Its a great, healthy alternative to a bagel and cream cheese...or Egg McMuffin!

Whole-Wheat Peach Muffins

2 cups Hodgson Mill
s whole-wheat baking mix
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup sugar 
pinch of cinnamon 
pinch of nutmeg
5 Tblsp. butter, melted

1 egg, beaten

1 cup reduced fat buttermilk

1/2 cup fat-free skim milk

2 peaches, peeled, pitted and roughly chopped

1 tsp. vanilla

1/8 cup pecan chips

Preheat oven to 350˚. Spray a large muffin tin with baking spray like PAM®. Set aside.
In a large mixing
bowl, mix the baking mix, baking powder, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg with a fork. In a small bowl, beat the egg and add the milk and buttermilk and mix again. Add to the dry ingredients as well as the melted butter. Mix roughly until moistened. Add the vanilla, chopped peaches and pecans, and gently mix until all combined. It is alright if the batter is lumpy. Cook until golden and springy to the touch, about 25-30 minutes. Let cool for a couple minutes, then turn them out to cool completely on a wire rack.

HOME: Christmas in September? You betcha!

Pin It I love Christmas. It is absolutely my favorite time of year. And I keep it that way by preplanning and starting early. I start holiday baking in September. I also do my to-do lists and holiday card list in September. And I start my shopping in September. Now-I don't get it all done before December-because some of the fun of the season (especially with living in such a bustling city) is shopping during the holidays. But I keep who I have left to buy for in December to a minimum so I am not as stressed out. I keep a small list of gift ideas and recipients in my purse or wallet, with any size or age notes next to it. I also keep a "miscellaneous" list I may need, such as bows, cards, cookie tins, etc. This way, from September to December, I am buying things as they go on sale or as I am inspired. The great thing about doing Christmas planning and purchasing this way is the spend. You can spend a little bit of cash a week if you plan right. That way, you are not having a big money burden in December or the heart attack credit card bill in January. The one thing you will need thought out if you plan on pre-shopping is storage. I am fortunate I have a usable third floor attic that I hide bags in. So if you are going to try and pre-shop, have an idea of where to store everything. Husbands get less cranky that way and children are less curious. Merry September Christmas!

BOOK REVIEW: Eve: A novel of the first woman by Elissa Elliott

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This was a pleasant surprise I found at the library. I picked it up because of the cover art, and read the first couple of pages and was hooked. What I loved about this book was not just the poetic prose throughout the story, but the way the author brought Eve's family to life–real life. She was a mother and a wife, like many of us. She had children of all ages with their own issues, like many of us. She was very much human-questioning her faith, her marriage, her favoritism among her children. She is a rich, complex character that you laugh and cry with in this story. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the introduction of the first civilization during Adam and Eve's time on earth. Their lives and the lives of the first human civilization as we know it meld and clash.The existence of other humans, more advanced then they are, calls into question everything Adam and Eve believe in. The author really seems to have done her homework on early civilization near the Euphrates and adds that day to day into Eve's family life. This makes the book very educational and interesting. This was a wonderful read. I highly recommend it.

PRODUCT REVIEW: OMG, The Easy-Bloom plant sensor is AMAZING

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My husband and daughter gave me the Easy-Bloom plant monitor for Mother's Day, and I had not had the chance to try it out until this week. This is a little computerized monitor that has a very elegant design that you stick in the ground and it can either give you recommendations for an area or tell you what is wrong with a certain plant. I was a little skeptical. Also, it looked complicated to set up and I wondered if I had to download software and yada yada yada. I was very wrong.

First, they provide a battery with the product, and very easy set up instructions. I put the USB connection from the sensor into my computer and it prompted me to go to the website and set up an account. I did have to download software, and it took no time at all. You follow the prompts, and immediately can tell it what you want to do. I wanted to monitor my poor little Ostrich fern that is not doing well, and I have been having trouble with the corner it is in since last year. SO you click and choose "monitor" mode, and type the plant you want it to find in it's database. It will show you which plant, and you can confirm. Take the top part of the monitor out of the usb, plug it back to it's base that looks like a pitchfork. I put it next to my fern in the dirt.

After 24 hours and one watering cycle, I took the monitor out and plugged it back in my computer. Have your account on the website open when you do this and make sure you are plugging it in all the way.

The reports you get are amazing! (see screen grabs). It gives you a "plant view" with diagrams, as well as recommendations for that spot. I was blown away. And as it turns out, my ostrich fern is not getting enough water. A problem that is easily remedied. This gadget takes the guesswork out of gardening. I recommend this for any gardener. It is about time I have a gadget for the garden that is worth the expense. I am putting it next to my arborvitaes next! My husband bought it at Home Depot, and I hear Brookstone might have it. Happy gardening!

RECIPE: Summer Loving Lemon Bars

Pin It Lemon desserts are a favorite around my house, especially in the summer-and especially lemon bars. I have merged two recipes together to create my own. Mine have a touch of flour and cream in the lemon mixture to give it a little bit of a lemon curd texture. I have tried a Williams Sonoma lemon curd bar recipe. It had great lemon flavor but the bars never quite set right. They felt like pudding on top of a crust. So I have reverted back to a more traditional approach and just added some of the "sizzle" that the Williams Sonoma approach includes.

Summer Loving Lemon Bars
Makes 16 bars

1 cup all -purpose flour
1 stick of butter, softened
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. grated lemon peel
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 1/2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1 1/2 Tbsp. heavy cream

Heat oven to 350˚ F. In a small bowl mix the crust ingredients with a fork until crumbly and combined.

Press into an 8" square pan evenly and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden. Let sit and cool slightly. Lower the oven to 325˚F.

In another bowl, add the lemon peel and lemon juice, the sugar, flour, baking powder and salt. Mix until combined. Then add the eggs and cream and mix until light and fluffy. Pour carefully into the pan over the crust. Bake for 20-30 minutes-or until evenly golden and filling is set.

While warm, gently run a knife along the sides. Let cool for one hour. Sprinkle powdered sugar over the bars and cut into squares. Eat up!
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