Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Step Up and Win: One Code to Rule Them All Winner

We have a winner!

Thank you to CSN Stores for offering up a $35 gift card to any of their stores. According to random.org, our lucky winner out of 34 eligible entries is #5 - in this case Miss Kara! As luck would have it, I will be able to ceremoniously present the winning code to her in person as I will shortly be heading out Colorado way to visit the lucky winner, her hubby and an adorable two month old I can't wait to hug!
A few more suggestions when you are perusing the CSN sites:

This projector lamp could look pretty cool in your home theater room:


 A great selection of rugs, all shapes and sizes.

 I thought this was sort of a neat modern looking newspaper/magazine bin for a minimalist feel.

 Happy Shopping!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"I Could Make That" - DIY Frame + Art

In this post I shared some of the canvas art Bob had been working on. I'm happy to say we finally have it up on the wall! The process took a little extra time because he wanted to create a custom frame for the canvas. Here's how we (and by that I mean he) did it:

We picked up a few 1"x4"s of wood from Home Depot that would fit around the rectangular canvas to create an extra thick frame.  Our kitchen counter does double duty as a workshop in a pinch.
Bob then took the saw to it in the right measurements.
Oh wait, did I say the right measurements??
Take Two:
To get the canvas to fit snugly into the frame, he added two pieces to the back of the canvas using wood glue. This allows the painting to sit slightly back in the frame as opposed to jutting out of it.
Next up, the wood frame was glued together with wood glue and left to set before attacking it with white spray paint.
Because the frame is so deep, this took some extra long nails hammered into the wall to get it to hold - pretty intimidating. We are so happy to finally have something in the space above the media shelves! Thanks Bob!
Partially hidden from view by our extra large holiday poinsetta that is still kicking (out of the reach from our curious kitties of course!). If you are wondering what I am using as a potholder for the plant, it is a silicon pie pan. Wonder if you can find that one in a Real Simple "creative uses for every day items" article?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Step Up and Win: One Code to Rule Them All

Why yes, that is a Lord of the Rings quote in the post title. . .

CSN Stores is back with another giveaway for the Next Step Readers! You lucky devils. You might remember from past giveaways the vast number of offerings from this collection of shopping web sites. From TV stands to rubber bands to ceiling fans, they've got you covered.

This time around, you are entering to win a $35 gift code towards your CSN shopping experience on any of their web sites. Since their selection might seem daunting at first, here's a few items to get you thinking about how you could spend that $35:

As much as I love the phrase "Keep Calm and Carry On," I am starting to see it on every other poster and tote bag I walk by. This play on the British morale booster caught my eye!
Oxo Good Grips Pop Containers are definitely on my "eventually I will get these" list. I can't wait for my pasta to have a stylish home.
And in honor of the upcoming Packers/Bears NFC Championship game this Sunday. . . I have to show my true allegience. (Sorry Chicago, I may call you home now, but I grew up near the green and gold!)
Entry details:
- US and Canada residents only
- 1 entry per person, please
- Comment on this post, be sure to include your name and preferably email address to be eligible!
- Answer This: Bears or Packers this Sunday? I swear your answer won't have any bearing on your eligibility if you say Bears! If you are an AFC fan, be sure to weigh in on Steelers/Jets as well!
EXCITING UPDATE: Packers win! Will it be the Pack or the Steelers in the end??
- Contest closes end of day Monday, January 24.

I will pick a winner using random.org early next week and post results by Wednesday, January 26. I will notify the winner via email to provide them with the electronic gift code. Yes, it's just that simple!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mealin' and Dealin'

I should preface this post with the note that I really don't know what I mean by the title. I had the word meal in my head and this is the first thing that popped in the ole brain. Try and do some free association as I move forward and maybe it will start to make some sense. . .

Over the holidays we hosted family and, at final count, had 4 separate Christmas celebrations. Basically, this means a lot of time in the kitchen to avoid a lengthy credit card bill come January filled with take out food and restaurants. I thought I'd share a few of the tasty new recipes we tried out. You already saw the Walnut-Chocolate Meringue Pie, and I shared the recipe for Chocolate Crinkles last winter. Although, to get your mouth watering maybe I'll start things off with a photo of said Crinkles. (I made three batches this season!)

Also, I decided to link to more of the recipes as opposed to making this post insanely long. Happy clicking!
I'm not always a breakfast eater, but I wanted to make sure we had a stocked kitchen in the AM. I went to a tried and true Blueberry Coffee Cake recipe from an old Cooking Light. No, my kitchen didn't suddenly just downsize - this photo is from a couple years ago when I first made this recipe!
We wanted to do something special for Christmas dinner, so we tackled our very first ham. After reviewing both the package instructions and the write up about smoked hams in my brand new copy of Joy of Cooking, we felt pretty good about our chances of not screwing this up. And then I realized I don't have the right kind of pan for this bad boy. We McGyver'd a roasting pan out of a tin grill pan that we folded over the edges of a 9x13. It surprisingly held up pretty well and kept all of the juices from soaking the bottom of the ham. After cooking for about 20 minutes, Bob diamond cut the ham, glazed it with a brown sugar/apple cider vinegar mixture and we threw it back in for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile the ham was sharing the oven with a cheesy friend.
My go-to Mac and Cheese recipe is insanely easy (read all about it in this post). I stepped it up a notch after seeing this Martha recipe for a "Classier Mac" via the Smitten Kitchen blog. Gruyere, white cheddar, a lovely cream sauce and topped with breading. It was delish, but definitely take Smitten's advice and halve the recipe. We had plenty of leftovers even with 5 people at the dinner table!
If you are looking at the ham and also thinking that was more than enough for 5 people you would be correct. We decided to use some leftovers for an egg bake we prepared for the next morning. I had this ham and egg bake at a friend's holiday brunch and was very glad to get the recipe last minute via email to make this one!

Breakfast Casserole
Cube 10 slices of soft bread
Dice ham to fill  1 ½ cups 
1   cup grated cheddar cheese
Beat with mixer: 7 eggs, 2 cups milk and ¾ tsp seasoning salt. In buttered 9x13 pan, alternate layers of bread, ham and cheese. Then pour egg mixture over all. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Bake uncovered at 350 for 45 minutes.
If this so far just looks like an endless parade of meat and cheese you would be correct. We threw some greens in by re-hashing our Arugula Salad and Mustard Vinaigrette from our Harvest Party (recipe here.)
The next night we had plenty of leftovers, but we substituted grilled chicken for ham. The basil aoili was a repeat from our Labor Day get together (recipe here). A little grated Parmesan over the top. Yum!
I did spend some of the holidays out of the kitchen, luckily, but it was fun to come up with several menus for the week. I think we saved some money by not eating out every meal, and by doing things ahead of time like the cookies or the egg bake we saved some of the hassle.

By the end of December and the above recipes, we had used up 18+ eggs, a loaf of bread, pounds of cheese, the rest of my flour and a freezer full of meat. Now that it's January and the belt-busting holidays are over, maybe its time to revisit my "run a 5K goal" and get myself back into shape!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Times, They are a Changin'

. . .and with the end of the holidays comes the inevitable take down of all holiday decorations. A big accomplishment for the weekend, somehow fitting everything I already had into the same two oversized plastic totes. And making room for all of the new things I've acquired by adding one more box to the equation.

Sunday night, and our tree is still up - losing needles by the pound and void of decorations. We just couldn't bring ourselves to the errand of taking the tree out this weekend. It better be soon though. I need to do some research on the tree recycling places in and around Chicago where they stand ready with the wood chippers. My city guilt has gotten to me after a few too many years of discarding the ole tannenbaum in the dumpster out back.

One piece of decor stayed up but we pulled a switcheroo to keep it useful. I wrote about our Christmas card holder I found for $10 at Pier 1 earlier this season. Since it's scroll design doesn't call to mind one particular holiday (as a snowflake or even star shaped card holder might), we are keeping it up for an ever-changing display.
PS. This photo was taken earlier in the season - we did get quite a few more cards so it didn't look quite so empty!
Call me crazy, but I keep just about every card I receive. I like to think I'll cut some up and use designs and phrases for my own cards. Most of the time though, I can't bear to cut up something that has any kind of personal message in it so the card pile is accumulating quite rapidly. Looking naturally at what holiday is coming around the corner, I sorted through and picked out cards featuring reds, pinks, flowers and more to create a Valentine's Day card holder. Even leaving room for a couple dear Valentine's we'll receive new this year!
You can also think of this as a good reminder to both myself and Bob of the holiday that is coming up in February and to stay sweet to each other!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Cheesy Gift

Kudos to my sister and brother in law for giving us an ultra-creative gift over the holidays.

"Wine and Cheese Party in a Box"

We opened up the box to find a nice bottle of red (Italian in origin to prep us for our planned trip overseas this spring), some good hunks of cheese, party plates and napkins, a cute set of party invites and a set of stemless wineglasses I had admired at a gift shop during some Thanksgiving holiday shopping up north. On top of that, a stack of printed out appetizer recipes and - wow - a gift certificate for their cleaning service (we can't wait to take advantage of that one).

A gift right up our alley, the only question now is - when's the Wine and Cheese Party going to be??

Monday, January 3, 2011

Pie Month - Choco Late

"Month" may be a relative term - I set out in October to make at least 4 pies, a new endeavor for this girl. Well, two months went by but I got the fourth one made. Not-so-hot on the heels of tasty apple pie, pumpkin whoopie pies and lemon meringue pie, I set out to make a Chocolate Walnut Meringue Pie.

After reading about my newfound meringue skills, my sister sent me a recipe from Cooking Light and asked if I could contribute a pie to our Christmas celebration this year.

The crust is made up of graham cracker crumbs and crushed walnuts. A few quick pulses in the food processor reduced them to the right size. Adding melted butter gave the mixture a stickier quality allowing me to press it up against the sides and bottom of a 9 inch pie plate.
While the crust bakes in the oven for a bit, I got to work on the chocolate filling.
Finally, the time consuming meringue was added to the top. I ended up having enough crust and chocolate filling left over to fill a couple ramekins. While the pie was to be saved for the next night's dessert, we split the ramekins up as soon as they were done in the oven - a good "taste test" for the dish.
Giving the pie a good full day to chill in the fridge helped keep the crust together and cut into pieces easier - a challenge I had read about in some of the comments of the recipe.
Yum-o. The pie provided a delish refreshment during our traditional family gift opening intermission. Here's the full recipe:

Chocolate Walnut Meringue Pie
from Cooking Light
1 1/2  cups low-fat graham cracker crumbs (about 10 cookie sheets)
1/2  cup finely ground walnuts
1/4  cup butter, melted
Cooking spray

3/4  cup sugar
3 1/2  tablespoons cornstarch
Dash of salt
2  cups evaporated fat-free milk
4  ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
3  large egg yolks, lightly beaten
1  teaspoon vanilla extract

4  large egg whites
1/4  teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4  teaspoon salt
1/2  cup sugar
1  teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350º. To prepare crust, combine the first 3 ingredients, tossing well. Press into the bottom and up sides of a 9-inch pie plate coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350º for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Set aside. To prepare filling, combine sugar, cornstarch, and dash of salt in saucepan; whisk in milk and chocolate. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Gradually add 1/2 cup chocolate mixture to egg yolks, stirring constantly with a whisk. Return egg mixture to pan. Cook over medium heat until thick (about 4 minutes), stirring constantly. Stir in vanilla. Spread mixture into prepared crust. Reduce oven temperature to 325º. To prepare meringue, place the egg whites, cream of tartar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Beat with a mixer at high speed until foamy . Add 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form (anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes). Add vanilla, beating just until blended. Spread meringue evenly over filling, sealing to edge of crust. Bake at 325º for 25 minutes. Chill thoroughly before serving.

And with that, my extended Pie Month concludes!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Holly Days: Red Red Red

This year's wrapping paper theme focused on one shade. I had done "The Blues" a few years ago and it makes things pretty easy in the buying department - if the color doesn't fit, just put it back on the shelf.

I picked up the paper from Target, and have to say I think I might move on to other options next year. A couple of the rolls had the thin paper that rips all to easily - the challenge of getting the rolls that have enough paper to wrap more than just a few gifts. I had also bought some glittery red paper that, while thicker, made the tape difficult to stick because of all the glitter.
 Gotta add some tissue paper. . .
The definition of not helping. When he got up, Sonny was covered in red glitter. A foreshadowing of gift opening to come.
The ribbon doesn't last too long, so I had to get creative with a few things. When I had a piece that wouldn't be long enough for a gift, I tied it into a bow and taped it to the box. I eventually brought out some red fabric I had and cut it into strips to use. You can also see how the tags I wrote about in a previous post got attached. The one highlighted below is a vintage-y postcard I cut to the shape of the tags and punched a hole in.
Another close up.
All getting set to be added under my sister's tree with the rest of my family's gifts. A couple cool papers to share: the Paisley design is from Pier 1. I think I might be checking them out come next season!
Of course, no cuter present than my niece Ella - one of the ways I used to haul my gifts to the 'burbs was in a giant bag from last year - we couldn't pass up standing her up in it for a photo op once it was emptied out!
Hope you got everything you wanted underneath the tree this year!