Monday, December 27, 2010

"It's Chowda!"* -- Easy and Delicious Clam Chowder

When I was growing up, chowder was one of my mom's go-to recipes partly because all of us kids liked it and partly because it was so inexpensive to make. I love this recipe not only because it's inexpensive and one of my mom's recipes, but because it's really, really easy to make. And in the wintertime, it's hard to resist a steaming bowl of chowder for dinner.

There's a good chance you have just about everything to make clam chowder on hand, with the exception of the clams. I like to keep a couple cans of clams in my pantry during the winter so I can whip up this dinner easily. Here's the list of ingredients, along with the measurements:

2 cups potatoes, finely chopped
1 cup celery, finely chopped
1 cup carrots, finely chopped
2 7-1/2 oz. cans of chopped clams
1 quart (4 cups) of half-and-half (I didn't use half-and-half. More on that in a moment...)
3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup flour
Salt and pepper (and other seasonings. Again, more on that later....)

Cut up all your vegetables. In a large pot, combine vegetables with clam juice (don't add the clams) and enough water to barely cover the vegetables.

When the vegetables are tender, drain, but be careful to reserve a cup or two of the broth. You use the flavorful broth to adjust the consistency of the chowder before serving.

Next, make the white sauce.  First, you'll start with a roux by melting the butter over medium heat then adding the flour. Let the roux cook for about a minute. Add the half-and-half.  Stir constantly with a whisk until thickened and bubbling. Getting it to this stage took a little over five minutes for me.

Note:  I don't know how often my mom even used half-and-half, though her recipe says so. On the recipe I copied from her, she added "2% milk works".  I figure she wrote that because that's what she had on hand whenver she made chowder.  Yesterday, when I made this batch, I used the rest of the whole milk I had on hand (about a cup) and mixed it with 3 cups (or so) of 1% milk. Worked fine. Granted, the sauce will be creamier and will thicken more quickly if you use the half-and-half or even the 2% milk, but you can improvise.

Pour the cream sauce over the cooked vegetables. Add clams. Stir. Adjust consistency with the reserved cooking water.

Season to taste.  My mom's recipe doesn't have specific amounts for seasoning. She just listed some suggestions: salt, pepper, celery salt, garlic salt, parsley flakes, sugar, and red wine vinegar.  Personally, I think this stage is kind of fun because I get to pretend I'm some sort of gourmet chef, adding a dash of this and a splash of that.

In the batch I made yesterday, I used kosher salt, freshly ground peppper (as you can see above), celery salt, parsley flakes, just a dash of sugar, and few good splashes of red wine vinegar. Just do a little bit of seasoning at a time, taste it, and add more if necessary. You can also add more cooking water, depending on how thick or thin you like your chowder.

And that's it. Delicious, homemade clam chowder.  So good, so filling. Even better when served in a bread bowl. It's one of Mom's classic recipes for a reason.

*"Showdaire? It's chowda!"  If you caught that Simpsons reference, you're a friend of mine. Love those classic episodes.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Really, Really Good Toffee Recipe I Stole

Yes, I stole this recipe.  The things I'll do for a list of ingredients...

When I was in college, one of my roommates made toffee for everyone at Christmas. Delicious, crunchy, addicting toffee. Of course, I had to get the recipe. Turned out, my roommate was sworn to secrecy by the person who gave the recipe to her. I can't remember exactly why this was, but she was sticking to her promise. After some begging on my part, she told me that she couldn't give the recipe to me, but she also couldn't stop me from finding the recipe that just so happened to be written on a card that was kept between the pages of a certain cookbook. So I found it and copied it down, thus "stealing" the recipe. The only guilt I've felt since is from eating waaaay too much of this toffee whenever I make it.

Anyway, this toffee isn't difficult to make -- you can make a batch in less than twenty minutes. Personally, I think it holds its own against the store bought toffee, even Almond Roca. For that reason, I think this toffee makes for a great gift for family, friends, and neighbors.  That is, if you can stop yourself from eating all of it before you give it away...

To make homemade toffee, you'll need:

3 cups almonds, finely chopped (I measured 3 cups before I chopped them)
One 7 oz. chocolate bar (or as many bars that add up to 7 or so ounces. More about the chocolate in a moment...)
2 sticks of butter (Don't even try using margarine. It's got to be butter.)
1 cup of sugar
3 tsp. water

In years past, I've used the 7 oz. Hershey chocolate bar that the recipe calls for. However, my friend from France has since made me prejudiced against the Hershey milk chocolate bar -- my friend is very open-minded about American food, but she says that those milk chocolate bars "aren't chocolate." So, I splurged this year and bought a different brand. It came in 4 oz bars, so I just used two for this recipe.  People have loved the toffee when I've made it with Hershey's, but I will tell you that my batch this year is even better. Take it for what it's worth.

There are packaged almonds at the store already chopped, but I find it more cost-effective to buy the almonds in bulk and chop them myself. This step is the most time consuming -- once you've got the amonds chopped, the rest goes by quickly. I suggest starting with slivered almonds - they're peeled and half-chopped for you. I'd also suggest using a sharper knife than the one my son was using.

You want the almonds to be finely chopped, but they don't have be uniformly sized, as you can see above. Most of the nuts are small, but there are still a few bigger ones, too. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

Put 1/2 of the chopped almonds in two pie pans or in one pizza pan. Break up 1/2 of the chocolate into pieces and place the chunks on top of the almonds. 

Before you start making the syrup, be sure to have the rest of the chocolate broken into pieces. You have to move kind of quickly for the last few steps, so it's good to have it ready.

In a saucepan, combine butter, sugar, and water.  Cook on high, stirring constantly. Cook until the mixture thickens into a syrup and becomes just a little darker than the color of a brown paper bag (see picture below for the side-by-side with the brown paper bag). It took me about five minutes to get to that point.

Here's the part where you have to move kind of quickly, which explains the blurry pictures.

Pour the syrup over the nuts and chocolate. As you're pouring, try to pour it evenly since it's a little hard to spread.

The syrup hardens pretty quickly, so hurry and scatter the chocolate chunks over the top of the syrup in your pan(s).  After a few seconds, the chocolate will start to melt. Once the chocolate is getting gooey, start moving the chunks around to spread the chocolate over the surface. After you've spread the chocolate, sprinkle the rest of the almonds on top.

Once you've topped the chocolate with the almonds, the toffee and chocolate need to cool and harden. I put it in the freezer. I think this helps make it more brittle, which makes the last step easier.

After it has cooled and it's completely hardened (which takes an hour or so in the freezer), break into pieces. From there you can either indulge or package it up and give it away. I think I'll be doing a little bit of both this year.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lovely Links: 'Because I'm Not That Crafty' Edition

I'll just say it right now: I'm struggling a little this Christmas season. I was really sick for a good week and half this month, so I feel like I missed out on the whole first part of December. Top it with the fact that I'm now about to settle into my third trimester and with that comes the pregnancy-related lethargy and discomfort. I'm doing the best I can, but not nearly as well as I'd hoped. There is one plus to my Christmas season thus far: I officially got all my Christmas shopping done today. Hooray!

{For some reason, I'm not totally averse to holiday baking and cooking. Cooking and baking relaxes me (for the most part). Next week, I'm going to share a super-easy and delicious toffee recipe.}

Because I appreciate other people's craftiness and creativity and because I'm currently lacking in those areas, I thought I'd share some links to help make your holiday a little more homemade.

A Week of Elving -- SouleMama
This entire week Amanda at SouleMama (I want to be like her) has been posting all of her family's "elving" in preparation for the holidays. Along with the cute pictures of her creative family, she has shared a bunch of great recipes and gift ideas.  The link above is to the first day of the family's "elving" activities -- from there, you can scroll over to the other days.  The things I want to make the most from her posts:  the homemade peppermint lip balm (from day 1), the miniature trees (from day 2 -- my son would have so much fun with that craft. Maybe we'll do it this year after all), and the cute bread bags (from day 4).  

Quick and Easy Holiday Decorating Ideas -- Simple Mom
I love every suggestion in this post. The great thing about them is that they cost hardly anything to make -- you may have some of the materials already. I may still do them, but if I don't this year, definitely next year. I really love the epsom salt candles -- they're pretty and they look so easy to make.  The jingle bell jar is also great.  I love easy crafts -- just my style.

Christmas Cards Hanging on the Line -- Make It Do
I love this simple display for Christmas cards. It only costs a couple bucks to make and it looks like it takes no time at all.  And while you're at Make It Do, you should check out her fun advent calendar pattern (I was totally going to do this one, but ran out of time before the month began) and her stove-top potpourri, among the rest of her awesome Christmas posts.

Holiday Decorations Made with Food - Small Notebook
In my last post, I mentioned how my mom and I made decorations out of gingerbread. Using food is an easy and inexpensive way to decorate for the Christmas season. This link to Small Notebook has a lot of great ideas, both in the actual post and in the comment section. I really like the orange garland and the cranberry advent wreath. So pretty!

"Seeing Christmas Through New Eyes"
If you're feeling a stressed over all that's left to do or if you're feeling a little ashamed that you're not as together as all the people in the links I've mentioned (*raising hand* I'm feeling it.), check out this beautiful presentation from one of my favorite speakers ever.  It's a great reminder of what this season really is about.


{This isn't a crafty link or anything, but I thought I'd let you know that all of Dave Ramsey's  (if you don't know already, he's my finance guru) books, CD's, software, and other select items (like that envelope system wallet I have) are only $10 each. He's also selling some of his programs and packages at lowered prices. Here's the link to his online store -- definitely worth a look!}

Monday, December 13, 2010

Only in December -- The Best Gingerbread Cookie Recipe

Seriously, these are THE best gingerbread cookies. Ever. Not only are they delicious, but they're soft, too.  In fact, whenever people try these cookies, the most common response is, "Soft gingerbread cookies?!"

But I have to say from the get-go:  I can take almost no credit for their wonderfulness. My mom picked up the recipe years ago at a gorgeous four-star inn and restaurant in my hometown (my husband and I also had our wedding reception there almost eight years ago. We love that place.). The only change I made to the recipe was the amount of flour in it -- I think the amount indicated in the recipe was a misprint (when I followed the amount on the original, the cookies were like pancakes).

Anyway, without further ado, the gingerbread cookies that I wait all year to make...

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter (3 sticks), softened
1 cup brown sugar (I use light brown, but I'm sure dark would be fine, too)
2 large eggs
1 cup molasses
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. ground ginger
5 cups all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, combine butter and sugar until smooth. Add eggs one at a time until incorporated.

Add molasses. Mmmmmm....the smell reminds me of Christmas (and my dad, who loves old-fashioned molasses candy). Mix. 

In a separate bowl, combine the soda, salt, spices, and flour.  Add to the wet mixture. Mix until smooth. 

Before you roll out the dough, you need to let the dough chill for a couple hours.  Before I put my dough in the fridge, I like to split it up, flatten it on a piece of plastic wrap, wrap it up, and stick it the fridge. This makes rolling out the chilled dough a little easier because it's ready to go.

Once your dough has chilled, roll it out on a floured countertop until it's about 1/4 inch thick.

Cut into desired shapes.  This is my boys' favorite part of the process, right up there with eating the dough.

While you're doing this, you should also be preheating your oven to 350 degrees.

On a lined or greased baking sheet, bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes. It can be a little tricky to tell when they're done (wait until they're golden brown?). Just mess up one of the uglier cut-outs to test for doneness.

Let the cookies cool on wire racks before you decorate decorate with frosting, candy, and/or sprinkles.

Or just eat them sans frosting (sometimes they don't last long enough to get frosted -- my family eats them so quickly!) Serve to your family and friends and bask in the deliciousness that is homemade gingerbread.  Just one of the reasons I love December.

{Note:  A couple years ago, my mom and I thought it would be fun to use the gingerbread cookies as decorations around the house. When we did that, we added a couple extra cups of flour to the dough. The extra dough makes the cookies really hard but suitable for using as decor. When we cut out the cookies, we put a little hole in the top with a skewer so we could hang them once they were baked. We frosted them like we usually do, looped some ribbon through the holes at the top (we also used fishing line on some of them, too).  My gingerbread snowflakes looked great on my tree.  Talk about cheap homemade decorations!}

Note: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have disclosed.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

One of the Basics: Homemade Whipped Cream

I never know when I post things if it's just me spouting obvious stuff.  Take homemade whipped cream. Maybe everyone who reads this knows how to make it. Then again, most of the time at church and other social functions, I always see a can of the aerosol whippped cream or a tub of Cool Whip. Never the homemade stuff. This makes me wonder if lots of people either, A) just don't know know how to make homemade whipped cream, and/or B) think it's time consuming and not worth the effort. Let me just tell you here and now, homemade whipped cream isn't only really easy to make, it also costs hardly anything and it is soooo much better than the stuff than comes in a can or tub.

I'll admit now, when I was a kid, I wanted Mom to buy the aerosol kind of whipped cream. I still think it's kind of fun.  And even if it isn't made from scratch, there aren't too many crazy ingredients in the aerosol kind -- usually cream, milk, sugar (or corn syrup).  Depending on the brand you may or may not find the artificial flavors or dextrose. The propellant is usually nitrous oxide. In all, the ingredients are fairly pure. I mean, cream is the first ingredient listed. That said, you do pay more for the can of whipped cream than you would if you made it yourself. 

As for whipped topping (aka Cool Whip), the first ingredients listed are water, hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and then some light cream or skim milk.  With whipped topping, according to an article I read, you're spending around 41 cents per ounce for mostly water and air -- that's twice the cost of homemade whipped cream. Meh.

If you're still hesitant about switching from can or tub, just at least try to make the homemade stuff and compare it to what you're used to. You'll instantly be able to tell that whipped topping doesn't taste a thing like the real stuff and you may not want to go back. And like I said, homemade whipped cream is easy to make and cheaper. Why would you go back?

To make about 2 cups of whipped cream, you'll need:

*1 cup very cold heavy whipping cream
*1 to 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
*vanilla extract and any other extracts, liquers, or spices (optional)

Not too complicated, right?  It cost me somewhere between 60 and 75 cents to make a single batch of this stuff.

As for the tools to make the whipped cream, you have a few options:

According to Julia Child (yes, I actually consulted my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking for you), the best whipped cream is made by hand, with a large balloon whip. I'm sure she's right, but that is a lot of work. If you want to skip the arm workout, she also suggests using a hand-held electric beater. Mrs. Child wasn't too keen on using a stationary mixer, though, because she says they don't produce as light and smooth of a whipped cream. I'm sure she's right and who am I to argue with a master, but I used my KitchenAid mixer with success.  So, really, the choice of tools is at your discretion.

Before you start, it's a great idea to chill your bowl and beaters (or whisk) in the freezer for about 15 minutes or so. Doing this not only makes the cream whip more quickly, but it also increases its volume.

In a deep mixing bowl, beat the cream until soft peaks form.

For those not familar with the term, the soft peak stage means that you can pull the whisk or beater out of the bowl, flip it over, and the peak will fall over on itself. See how the tip of the peak down in the bowl is standing up but the tip is curling over? 

Once you've reached the soft peak stage, sprinkle the sugar over the top of the cream and beat until the soft peaks return.  If you're going to add vanilla extract (which I recommend. Yum!) or any other extracts, liquers, or spices, add them with the sugar. Be careful with this stage -- you need to mix the cream enough that you don't have granules in it, but you don't want to overbeat it either. In my experience it doesn't take too long to get back to the soft peaks.

For optimal and fluffy results, keep it chilled and use within a couple hours. That said, it's still good for a day or two after you make it, it just won't be fluffy like before. But when you put a dollop of day old whipped cream in hot chocolate, who cares, right?

And that's it.  Easy as pie. Mmmmmm....pie....

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Dirty Truth: Get Rid of Your Kitchen Sponge

I'll just cut to the chase: the kitchen sponge is the dirtiest thing in your house.  Seriously.  Apparently, you are more likely to find dangerous bacteria in your kitchen sink than in and on a flushed toilet. This was just one of the things I learned from the book I just finished, Organic Housekeeping.

The author, Ellen Sandbeck, goes on to tell about two microbiologists who collected kitchen sponges and dish rags from a thousand kitchens in five American cities. On 2/3 of the sponges they tested there were dangerous bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, and staphylococcus. Turns out the reason why these dish scrubbers were so filthy was because the cellulose sponges provide a perfect habitat for bacteria: the sponges are porous and easy for bacteria to cling to, there's a constant food supply, and the moisture of the sponge keeps them alive. According to this book, a damp sponge can nurture a population of bacteria for up to two weeks. On a dry surface, bacteria only live for a few hours.

Ick. I've always used those green and yellow sponges. To keep mine sanitary (and so I wouldn't have to replace it as often), I'd run them through the dishwasher. Turns out most dishwashers don't get hot enough to kill the bacteria completely and the drying cycle doesn't dry the sponge out adequately. I've also microwaved mine after seeing someone suggest it on TV.  If the sponge isn't wet enough, though, it can ignite in the microwave. I've heard you can boil sponges, but that seems a little much.

So what's a person to do? Live in paralyzing fear of the germs that lurk on our sponges?  Buy cases of sponges and replace them daily?  Is boiling or microwaving them the only option?  Nope. Here are a couple alternatives -- one is a 'random reuse' suggested by Sandbeck; the other is a recent money-saving discovery of mine.

Sponge Solution #1

In the book, Sandbeck recommends ditching the sponges altogether and using dishcloths instead. Dishcloths work okay, but they don't offer the scrubbing power that sponges have. To fix this, the author suggests cutting the tag off one end of a plastic mesh bag from a bag of onions or oranges. This will make the bag into a tube. Fold the dishcloth a couple times and slip in into the mesh bag tube and then fold it until it's the size you want. Once you're done using it, pull the discloth from the mesh tube and throw the dishcloth into the laundry. Rinse off the mesh bag and hang it up to dry. Whenever the mesh bag gets too worn, toss it out and use another. Easy enough.

I was dubious of this at first, but once I tried it, it worked better than I thought it would. I'd even go as far to say that it worked just as well as the green side of my old kitchen sponge. The only drawback is that it felt a little cumbersome -- I liked having that little sponge to get in all the corners and edges of my dishes and pans. Even so, I threw out my supposedly bacteria-laden sponges and was ready to use the mesh bag srubber exclusively. That is, until I found out about my next solution...

Sponge Solution #2

It's kind of funny, serendipitous even, that I found out about this next solution right after I'd read about kitchen sponges. I was flipping through a catalog and came across something called a 'spaghetti scrub'.  I went on to read the review of the product, Goodbye Detergent's Original Spaghetti Scrub.

This little scrub is made of peach pits, cotton, and polyester. It's made up of a bunch of little strands of the material, hence the name 'Spaghetti Scrub'. Because of the materials used and the design of the thing, it can't harbor bacteria because it dries quickly and completely. Even better, the scrub doesn't require dish soap to work. Even with my old green and yellow sponges, I had to give it a squirt of dish soap to get it really working. Not so with the Spaghetti Scrub.

 In the catalog, the reviewer said she'd never use anything but this scrub for her dishes. Intrigued, I went to Amazon and checked out some of the reviews there. Again, nothing but positive things. So I ordered one. For a package of two scrubbers, it costs around $10, which seems a little steep at a first. However, these scrubbers are supposed to last for months. I was buying my old sponges fairly often, every few weeks for about a dollar each. Plus, I'm using a less dish soap than I usually did while washing.With the Spaghetti Scrub, I get a better and more sanitary product that lasts much longer than the old sponges I used.

I got my scrub in the mail last week and let me tell you, I'll never use anything else. It works better than anything I've ever tried! Just get the scrub wet, give it a squirt of dish soap if you want (it holds onto the soap much longer than the sponges did), and wash away.  The true test of this scrub came when I had to wash my stainless steel skillet. I'd cooked eggs in it for breakfast and I always dread cleaning it because it takes a bunch of dish soap and intense scrubbing to get all the egg off. With the Spaghetti Scrub, it came off easily, with hardly any dish soap at all.  Is it weird to get kind of giddy about a scrubber? Because I totally did with this thing. It made doing dishes way easier! And just as advertised, I just hang it from my tap and it dries right out.

The mesh bag method is a good way to do dishes without a sponge, but the Spaghetti Scrub is even better. The best thing about either method, though: no more worries about that filthy kitchen sponge. Send it to the trash where it belongs!

Monday, November 29, 2010

In a Pinch: Makeshift Mascara

A couple Sundays ago, I started getting ready for church only to realize that I'd left my entire make-up bag at my parents' house. My son and I had spent the night there while my husband was camping with the scouts. What was I going to do? I couldn't skip church, especially since I was teaching a class that day, and I couldn't quite justify going to the store on Sunday for just for mascara. So what did I do? Like in so many other instances, I turned to Google.

Turns out, there are bunch of recipes for homemade mascara. Now, I'm all for saving money with homemade things, but there are a few instances where the trouble isn't worth the possible savings. I will say now, for the record, I will most likely never make my own mascara regularly. I'll just keep buying the kind that comes in the green and pink tube (with a coupon, if I can get my hands on one). However, I found an easy recipe for makeshift mascara, specifically for someone in a pinch like me. To my surprise, it worked quite well.

For some makeshift mascara, all you need is some Vaseline (the site I got the recipe from also suggested unscented chapstick) and some eyeshadow. In a small bowl, combine a few pea-sized globs of Vaseline with some eyeshadow. You could use any color for this -- brown, black, blue, whatever. I happened to have a sample of dark grey eyeshadow that I only really use for Halloween. Mix the Vaseline and the eyeshadow together with a chop stick, the end of a brush, or some cotton swabs with the ends removed. Basically, mix it with something besides your fingers. 

The trick is to find some kind of brush to apply it. You might have to get creative with this. I lucked out because I had an extra mascara wand on hand -- I saved and washed one from a previous tube and I have been using it as an eyebrow comb {random reuse!}.

Like I said before, the makeshift mascara worked surprisingly well. It definitely didn't have the consistency I'm used to when it comes to mascara. It felt a little weird and gummy when I put it on, but once it dried it was fine. My eyelashes actually felt a little softer afterwards, too. Make-up emergency averted.

Friday, November 26, 2010

I'm Dreaming of a Debt-Free Christmas...

As much as I love a great deal on something, I don't do the Black Friday sales. I just can't think of anything I want bad enough to get me to push through crowds, camp outside of stores, or lose hours of sleep. More power to you if you're braver and less lazy than me -- you've earned the savings. 

In any case, I thought Black Friday would be an apropos time to mention budgeting for the holiday season.  It is totally possible to stay afloat and on-budget during the busy Christmas season. Granted, it's not always easy and it does take some planning and extra work, but it can be done.

As an article on says, "If you pay for your holiday festivities with credit, you're bringing a stalker home for Christmas. The holidays will follow you around all year long."  For some people, the money they spend on the holiday festivities follow them for months in the form of bills and interest. Ever heard of Blue Monday?  It's a Monday in mid- to late January that is deemed the most depressing day of the year. One of the reasons it's so depressing is because that's when the post-Christmas credit card statements start coming in.  Sad, but true.

So, to help you avoid "bringing a stalker home for Christmas", here are a few ways you can stay out of debt and cut back this Christmas season...

Create a Christmas budget.
This seems obvious, but it can make or break you when it comes to staying out of debt this Christmas season. For the last couple years, before we start our Christmas shopping, my husband and I plan out our Christmas budget. It's nothing fancy or complicated. After we've paid our regular, monthly expenses, we figure out how much money we have left to spend on all things Christmas. We figure out a specific amount that we can spend on each other and a specific amount for our son. After that, we move on to the extended family -- our parents, siblings, and nieces/nephews. We also set aside a little extra money for other miscellaneous expenditures (gifts for friends and neighbors, decorations, activities, etc.).  Having a budget is like having a game plan. It sounds simple (though it does take discipline), but it works.  If you're intimidated at the thought of budgeting, there are sites like that can help you track your expenses.

Use cash.
One of the main keys to sticking to our Christmas budget, I've found, is using cash. Not even the debit card, but actual cash. I've written about using cash and envelope system before, but I'll mention it briefly again: When you spend cash, it actually a little painful because you see and feel the connection. With a credit card, spending is abstract; with cash, it's anything but.

Once we've made our budget, we head to the ATM and withdraw the amounts we specified in our Christmas budget. A certain amount of cash for me to spend on my husband and a certain amount for him to spend on me and so on. We do this for everyone on our shopping list. And once the cash is gone, it's gone. Purposefully leave your credit card at home. If we do online purchases, we make sure to stay within our budget and transfer the money accordingly. Not only does this keep us on budget, but it also makes us do our research to get the best deals and most for our money.  We've been using cash for the last few years and while it does take a little more discipline and work, the peace it brings later is totally worth it.

Make a list.
Check it twice {ha ha}.  Knowing what you want to buy before you buy is really important.  Impulse buys can wreak havoc on your budget and debt-free goals. My husband is awesome about giving me very specific lists of things he wants, making budgeting and shopping easier. Before you go shopping for anything, be specific. Once you know exactly what you want to buy for each person in your Christmas budget, you can find the best deals and choose accordingly. Which leads to the next tip...

Do your homework.
Once you have your budget set and your gift ideas in place, it's time to do some research. For each item you're going to buy, do a Google search. Doing a search will give you an idea of the cost and where you can get the best deal. Visit the websites for the stores you are planning to shop at and compare prices. There are also great deals when you skip the stores and shop online -- and it's easier to resist the temptation of impulse buying when you buy online.

Start early.
I feel like a hypocrite even mentioning this because I always seem to procrastinate all of my shopping until a week or two before Christmas. However, I have friends who get their shopping done months before Christmas. Spreading purchases over an extended period of time is a great way to avoid debt during the holiday season.

Go homemade.
You can save a lot of money making your own gifts and decorations during the holiday season. Plus, like I always say, giving something homemade means more because it takes time and extra thought. While some crafts and projects can be difficult and take a lot of skill, there are even more that don't require a lot of expertise.  Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be posting a bunch of ideas, recipes, and links to help with your homemade holiday endeavors.

Alter your expectations and perspective.
It's too bad that our society places so much importance on the gift giving aspect of the season. Don't get me wrong -- I love getting and giving gifts. But I think it's sad how the most joyous time of year can become the most stressful too. So this Christmas season, don't be afraid to cut back on how much you spend, how much you give, how much you bake, and how much you decorate. I went to a presentation once where an organization expert suggested just cutting back 10%. She said that was enough to give yourself a break without changing too much.

In the end, the most important thing is to make the Christmas season memorable. Sure, people will love the gifts you give and they may remember some of them.  That said, the season that is now upon us is more about enjoying the love of family and friends and celebrating the greatest of all gifts, the gift that came so many years ago in Bethlehem. When we remember those two things, family and faith, our priorities will fall into their proper place as we realize that "maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store" after all.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

One of My Favorite Thanksgiving Side Dishes (a.k.a., the only yam recipe I like)

I understand that yams can be pretty divisive. Most people either love them or hate them. If you like yams, I think you'll love this recipe. If you don't like them, I'll just ask you to keep an open mind. I mean, there are no marshmallows in this recipe. The yams are mashed and sweetened and then topped with sugary pecan crumble. So it is different than the others I've seen. Maybe you won't hate this recipe?  Like the title says -- this is the only yam recipe I like. Give it a try.

There are two parts to this recipe: the mashed yams and the toppings. To get started with the mashed yam mixture, you'll need:

3 cups of mashed yams (how many yams this is totally depends on the size of the yams you use. I used about 4 large to medium sized ones)
4 Tbsp. of butter, softened
2 eggs
1/2 cup white sugar (this year, my mom substituted some of the white sugar with pure maple syrup -- gave it a nice flavor)
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Boil the yams, with the peel still on, until tender (if you can stick a fork all the way through them, they're ready).  Once they're cooked, transfer them to a clean surface and peel; the peel will come off easily.

Once peeled, mash the cooked yams like you would mashed potatoes. I used my KitchenAid, but you could also use a hand mixer or mash it with a potato masher. Get it nice and smooth.

In a mixing bowl, combine the mashed yams with butter, eggs, sugar, milk, vanilla, and salt.  Once mixed, pour it into a round or square baking dish.

One nice thing about this recipe is that you can break it into different days -- you can make the mashed yam mix days before you need them and then on the day you're going to serve them, mix up the topping and bake.

For the topping, you'll need:

4 Tbsp. butter, softened
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
3/4 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix the butter, sugars, flour, and pecans. The topping resembles one you'd see on a fruit crisp -- yum!

Sprinkle the topping all over the mashed yam mixture.  Bake for 45 minutes.

And there it is -- the only yam recipe I like. It's really good -- a sort of cross between a side dish and a dessert. Like I said, approach it with an open mind.

Speaking of desserts...

I couldn't help posting a link to this 'pie' I made today. It's the Pioneer Woman's Nantucket Cranberry Pie.  I just baked it. It was so, so easy to make and it smells AMAZING!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

For the Holidays: Homemade Pumpkin Purée

Unless you're crazy like one of my brothers, you will probably agree that one of the best parts of fall, Thanksgiving, and Christmas is pumpkin pie. What's not to love about cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and sugar mixed with pumpkin and baked in a flaky crust? And the whipped cream on top? Double delicious. My brother is totally nuts for not liking pumpkin pie.

Anyway, I thought I would show you how to make your own pumpkin puree. It's not nearly as hard to make as you think, I promise. Plus, fresh pumpkin purée tastes better than the processed stuff (though I use the canned pumpkin quite often). Pie and sugar pumpkins can be found in just about any grocery store throughout the holiday season and they don't cost very much. For even greater savings, you can grow your own pumpkins, make the purée, and freeze it.

The recipe below makes about 2 cups of purée, but that can vary depending on the size of your pumpkin.

To get started, you'll need:
  • A pumpkin (obviously) -- be sure to use the pie or sugar varieties. The big ones you buy around Halloween aren't great for purée because they have a grainier texture and aren't nearly as sweet. If you really want to use the big pumpkins (like the jack o' lantern types) you'll have to add a lot more sugar and puree it longer. Take my advice and just use the pie or sugar varieties.
  • A spoon and a sharp knife
  • A baking sheet
  • A blender or food processor
  • Water
Step 1 -- Clean out and slice up the pumpkin.

Remove all the seeds from the pumpkin. Slice the pumpkin up into wedges, each wedge about 2-3 inches wide. Cut off any stringy parts with a knife.

Step 2 -- Roast the pumpkin slices.

Arrange the pumpkin slices on a lined (we used parchment) baking sheet, skin side down.  Cook the pumpkin in a 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes, or until tender (use a fork to check).

Step 3 -- Scoop out the pumpkin flesh, then purée.

Once you've cooked your pumpkin slices and once they've cooled, scoop out the flesh with a spoon. If you've cooked your pumpkin long enough, scooping it out will be no trouble at all. If you find that it isn't coming easily, roast the slices a little longer {that's what my mom and I had to do with the larger wedges}.

In a food processor or blender, purée the pumpkin with a little bit of water. The water will help the pumpkin mix better. I'd recommend starting with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of water; if the pumpkin is still not getting smooth, add some more water, just a tablespoon or two at a time.

You can either use the purée right away or you can put it into Mason jars and freeze the purée for later use.

That's it -- pumpkin purée in just three easy steps. And then, when you make your pumpkin pie (or cookies or cake or bread) this season, you can tell your guests that you used fresh pumpkin. They'll be impressed. It's up to you, though, if they find out how easy it was.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

And the winner is...

According to the results from, the winner of the subscription is...

...Heidi!  {sidenote: she's my old piano student from high school! How time flies!}

Thanks to the TWO people who entered! {What happened?}

Don't worry, Tara...I've got something for you, too!

Monday, November 15, 2010

For Your Monday: A Promotion AND a Giveaway

I'm not one of those Monday-haters. Well, most of the time I'm not. But today I'm dragging. Hopefully you're Monday is going better. In any case, whether you need cheering up or not, I'm sharing not only a great promotion at a website, but I'm also doing a giveaway {better to give than receive, right?}.

First, the promotion...

Since I'm having a boy in March, baby stuff is on the radar yet again. So, naturally, I think everyone feels the same way, too. The promotion is for a free nursing cover from Udder Covers (oh, the names people come up with...)

How I would have loved to have one of these back when my son was nursing! Uncoordinated lady that I am, it took all my focus to wrangle a blanket and a squirming baby without exposing myself.  I can already tell that it's going to be an enormous help for me the second time around. These nursing covers usually cost $32, plus shipping and handling; if you enter the promo code "Thanksgiving" at check-out, the cover will cost nothing! You do have to pay shipping and handling (which is $9.95 - about the same cost, if not less, to buy the materials to make your own, which is what I was going to do until I got the promo code).  The promotion is for a limited time only, while the stock is available, so if you're going to get one, get it soon!

You don't have to be an expecting mother to take advantage of this great offer, either -- I got mine last year, long before baby #2 was even a twinkle in my eye. They also make for a great baby shower gift -- and with the promo code, you can't beat the price!

Now, the giveaway...

I love Family Fun magazine.  When my favorite parenting magazine, Wondertime, had to shut down (stupid recession), I got the remainder of my subscription filled with Family Fun issues. While not as awesome as Wondertime was, I love this magazine because it's not one of those alarmist parenting magazines, full of safety warnings and articles about the latest disease your child can contract. Instead, Family Fun is just about enjoying your children. It's full of ideas for games, art projects, activities, family vacations, and parties, as well as having lots of kid-friendly recipes and gift ideas. It's a sort of parenting sigh of relief for me.

Anyway, the time has come for me to renew my subscription and I received an offer to get a free gift subscription with my renewal. So, I thought I'd give it to one of my dear, lovely readers. To enter the drawing for a free, one-year subscription to Family Fun:
  • Leave a comment. To make it interesting, tell me how you get out of a funk on a Monday (or any other day of the week). What do you do to improve your mood? This hormonal pregnant woman will take any advice she can get.
For extra entries:
  • Become a follower of this blog.
  • Mention this giveaway on your own blog or Facebook.
  • Post a 'Parsimonious Princess' button on your blog (see the sidebar for a link).
You can do just one or all three of the extras to get the extra entries - just leave me a comment when you've done any of them. If you have already done one of the extras in the past, you can mention it in your first comment.

You can enter the giveaway up until 11:59 PM (MST) on Wednesday, November 17. I'll announce the winner on Thursday morning.

I'm feeling a little better already...

Good luck!
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