Saturday, December 10, 2011

Stumped Shopping? Things the Crafters on Your List Never Knew They Needed

Christmas is rapidly approaching, and if your shopping is anything like mine, it's getting to be crunch time.  Or perhaps you're just not sure of what to ask for- you have everything you need, right?

Well, here are a couple ideas for the baker/crafter on your list.  Or maybe some new items you just didn't know you needed.

Counter-Saving Cooling Rack
No matter how much counter space you have, you can always use more.  My sister got these cooling racks for me last year for Christmas and I don't know what I would do without them!  I have two, and sometimes even then I wish I had a third.  Such a great space-saver, and folds flat for storage when not in use.  Sometimes the bottom one is a little difficult to fold, but the effort is worth it.

Measure-All Cup
This measuring cup is amazing.  Just push up to the amount you need, fill, and pop it out!  Get every bit of that peanut butter, corn syrup, or shortening you were using without the hassle of scraping it out of the measuring cup.  I like the Pampered Chef one ($10 for the two-cup, $6 for the smaller one-cup)- the Pampered Chef one is unique because it allows you to flip the cup over and use it as a liquid measuring cup and both imperial and metric units (with increments as small as 10 mL and 1 teaspoon).

Quick Turn Fabric Tube Turner
Fabric Tube Turner
This Dritz Quick Turn turns the pain of making straps into a breeze.  The first time I used these I couldn't believe how simple it was.  I had been trying to turn a strap for an apron for my niece, and finally went searching for a tool to help me.  For under $5 at JoAnn's (in our store, not shown online), it made me want to make more aprons.  I know they say you can't buy love, but give this to the crafter on your list and you'll automatically become their favorite person ever.

Stamps - you can get many stamps for $1 at JoAnn's, Pat Catan's, Michael's, and sometimes even the dollar store.  They usually change with the seasons, so there's always something new and different in the dollar section.  If you want to spend more you can get great sets of stamps.  I prefer clear stamps, but still get excited over any stamps I get.

If they already have stamps, how about some cool ink pads?  The glue ink pad with glitter to sprinkle on is on my list this year.

What's on your wish list this year?

Blogger's note: I was not asked to give reviews for any of these products, nor compensated for these reviews.  They're just some of my favorite products that I wanted to share!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Kids' Book Nook: Making a Pillow for a Bookcase Bench

Earlier I talked about my niece's first birthday and my need to provide somewhat practical gifts- something they won't outgrow quickly- as well as the need for it to be somewhat creative and very personalized.

When my sister-in-law mentioned that they'd like a bookshelf for my niece's room, I began searching the internet for just the right one.  I wanted to make it personal in some way.  They had adorable princess bookshelves and really beautiful maple bookshelves.  Then my creative/practical sides (a dichotomy that surfaces in me quite often) started to voice their opinions.  What if she hates the color pink?  What will she think of this bookcase in five years?  In ten?  If I do anything to personalize this beautiful bookcase I may end up ruining it.  She's a climber- is she going to try to climb to the top shelf?

And then it hit me (okay, maybe browsing at Target helped)- what about a bookcase that's meant to be climbed on?  I liked the one at Target, but I was also attracted to the other cube furniture there that could be used vertically or horizontally, thinking it would be nice to give her something that could be turned upright when she got older and inevitably acquired too much stuff (it happens to everyone, right?).  I began looking for bench bookcases, and it looked like Bed Bath & Beyond had something reasonable, but reviews discussed it needing no tools for assembly, and I became concerned about how sturdy something held together by some two-way tape and a few wooden pegs could be.  I wanted to buy a longer one, but Target only had these in stock, so I bought two (and assembled them myself!).

Then I set off to make the cushion. (I made two)  (More split back pillow and standard pillow case ideas here)

For two ~11 x 23 cushions I used:
1 yard patterned fabric
1/2 yard muslin (I bought the very wide, high quality muslin)
2/3 yard batting

Cut the fabric
For each pillow
Cut two pieces of the muslin 1 1/2 inches longer each way than you want the pillow to be (for mine that was 12 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches)

Cut one piece of the patterned fabric (the front) 1 inch longer than you want the pillow to be (12 x 24 inches)
Cut the back pieces of the pillow- each side will need a half inch seam allowance to hem the seam.  You will also want another inch or two to overlap, so my pieces ended up being 12 x 13 and 12 x 14.
Cut two pieces of the batting to the size you want the pillow to be (11 x 23)
You can cut these on your rotary board if you hold the ruler down tight to the board.

Fold under and press 3/8 of an inch on one of the shorter sides on each piece of muslin.

With the folds on the outside (your pillow inside out), pin and sew the three remaining sides together with 1/2 inch seam allowance.  Trim the corners and turn the pillow casing right side in.  Put in both thicknesses of batting.

Pin and sew the folded sides together with 1/8 inch seam allowance.

Tack the pillow to keep the batting from sliding while in use.  This can be done by machine or by hand.

I liked the tacking done by hand better because it wasn't as tight.
Back pillow- machine; front pillow- by hand

For the pillowcase
To make the finished edges of your overlapping pieces, fold under 1/4 inch on a shorter edge of each piece of fabric.  Fold under again and press.

Sew along the inner edge of this hem, about a 1/4 inch seam.

Pin these pieces to the front piece, right sides together and overlapping the back pieces.  Sew all four edges with 1/4 inch seam allowance.  Trim the corners and turn right side out.

Put the pillow in the pillow case and place on bookcase.  Tada!  A bench!

And she finally climbed up on it earlier this week.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Operation BFF: Black Friday Deals!

So earlier I posted about our Black Friday traditions, and I'm proud to announce that Operation Black Friday Fabric was once again a success.
Our caravan.  Yup, all shopping carts in this shot are ours.

This year we added two people to our team, making five able-bodied people to maneuver carts (or baby-sit them), coordinate fabric, and apparently entertain the JoAnn staff.

We got in line a little after five, chatting with other crafters about the Cricut and sipping hot chocolate.  The line seemed longer, which my seasoned Black Friday Shopping sister (who had been shopping since 10 pm the night before) attributed to the earlier openings of other stores.  With so many people and pretty much no major deals in scrapbooking, baking, or painting, we were clearly doomed.

Once the doors opened at six, we snagged carts and went about grabbing fabric.  Within minutes we had a Christmas tree, several bolts of fabric, and scored cutting number 73.  As we waited for our number to be called, we continued browsing fabric and making alterations to our selections.  Then the cutting process began....for all five of our carts full of flannel and fleece. (By the time they were done cutting our order, they were on cutting number 91!)

303 yards of flannel and fleece, 30 yards of batting, 10 patterns, a few thousand yards of thread, and numerous buttons later, we carefully navigated through the store before we decided that attempting to shop for anything else at the time was futile.  So we decided to check out what we had to avoid creating an avalanche in the middle of JoAnn's.
Our legendary special ops team.  And order.  Mission accomplished.

When we reached the register we found out that we had become the talk of JoAnn's as the one cashier excitedly claimed the opportunity to ring up our order.  Our 333 yards of fabric/batting, patterns, thread, and other notions that jumped into our cart, er, carts ended up saving us more than $2,200 (costing us under 30% of the retail value) with the sales and the 25% off coupon (not applicable on the flannel because it was a Friday doorbuster, but applied to the fleece).

This was probably the largest amount of fabric we've ever gotten on Black Friday, and amazingly enough, it was the fastest we've ever gotten out of there too.  In two hours we went from the pathetic people standing outside to the proud owners of flannel, fleece, batting, and a Christmas tree.
Operation BFF is a success.
And if you're jealous of our deals, the fleece is still $2.99/yard through Sunday, and if you got the mailer or massive stack of ads in the Thanksgiving paper, there is a coupon for 25% off your total purchase for Saturday morning, making the fleece $2.25/yard.  How can you pass that up?
What was your big Black Friday deal?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Growing Like a Weed: DIY Instructions for a Growth Chart

Buying things for babies always proves difficult for me.  I have a need to be somewhat practical, but also a desire to give something creative and meaningful.  What do you buy them when they already have everything they need?  Do they really need another toy that they'll outgrow in six months?  What does another outfit really do for them?  But I don't want to give overly practical gifts like savings bonds (although I'm sure would be much appreciated about fifteen years down the line).

When these children are my nieces, all of these needs are heightened.  I want to give something cool, but nothing that just anyone would give them.

Then, scrolling through a friend's facebook I found my solution: a growth chart.  It was simple, inexpensive, and something that is meaningful.

To make your own growth chart you will need:
6" x 6' board - I used pine (did you know that a 6" board is actually 5 1/2"?)
Sand paper
Spray paint
Ruler, yardstick, or tape measure
Acrylic paint
Paint brushes

For lettering and numbers:
Printed text and tracing paper (or a stencil)

First sand the board.  Next, spray paint it- first adding a sparse coat to help the paint stick to the board.  Then spray an even coat over the board.

A light, sparse coat will help the paint stick the the board.


Once the board dries, use a tape measure to mark the measurements.  I marked both sides of the tape measure, then went back through making each line an inch long (the ruler I use to cut fabric with was great for this).  Mark enough lines to start the measurements just under a foot (so that the number 1 will be on the board) and to finish just over six feet (or if you're using a 4 foot board you could start the board around a foot and a half and go to around five feet).

Print out the name and numbers, and trace them using graphite .  (I liked this way better because I wasn't limited to the fonts and sizes at the craft store, but it was more time consuming and took a very steady hand when painting).

Paint the lines, making the lines at each foot slightly longer than the other lines.  Paint the numbers and name.  Add a design if desired (I used a design based on a fabric I used for another project for her birthday- more to come on that project later).

Voila- growth chart!  A great baby shower gift, first birthday present, or Christmas gift.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

'Tis the Season- for Bargains!

Its the weekend before Thanksgiving, and while I'm trying to figure out when summer even ended, my family is gearing up for the holidays.  The lit candy canes are already lining the driveway and my mother has begun ferreting away mysterious packages that have arrived.  And we have begun to prepare for Black Friday.

My sister is a serious bargain hunter, which means Black Friday to her is better than Christmas or her birthday.  At the beginning of November she begins scouting out sketchy copies of ads posted online.  Once the ads show up with the paper, it's serious planning time.  She makes lists of what she needs from each store, clips coupons and devises a schedule.  For my sister I think it's more about the experience and the savings rather than having to get that perfect gift.  For me, there isn't really anything that inspires me to wait in line all night, hoping the crowds won't get too crazy, or to hope that there is enough in the store.

Until we started going to JoAnn's.  How can you ignore flannel at $1.50 per yard?  Black Friday at JoAnn's is unlike any other store the morning after Thanksgiving.

My sister and I started going to JoAnn's five years ago.  Fearing long lines, we arrived two hours early.  We ended up waiting in the car for an hour before anyone else arrived, and even then it was the employees.  The line begins to form about an hour before the store starts, and we've made friends with other regulars who we've stood next to in line for the past few years, discussing what we're shopping for, swapping craft ideas and sharing knowledge.  We go every year for flannel for my grandmother who makes baby blankets to donate.  Another woman gets fabric to make Christmas gifts for her family.  Someone is always there for the Cri-cut deal.  The line remains orderly, and we help people scope out where trees, the Cri-cuts and other various deals are, and people calculate how many people ahead of them want the same item to determine their odds of getting the deals.

Once the doors open, everyone gathers buggies and begins shopping.  I've never seen anyone snatch anything from another or snag something from someone's cart, rather they ask others if they could have the bolt once another got their piece of fabric cut.

Yes, the line to cut fabric is long.  And it is even longer as several people (like ourselves) have carts (yes, more than one) overflowing with bolts of fabric to get cut.  The best solution is to shop with more than one person: one waits while others shop, bringing fabric to the cart and making decisions as you wait.

In the end, buying about a hundred yards of flannel at JoAnn's does take us about four hours, but the savings of more than $5 per yard is more than worth it.  And of course we always walk out with some other wonderful deals on fleece and scrapbooking supplies.

We've already started making our Black Friday list.  Where do you shop and what are you planning on buying this year on Black Friday?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Sweet Thank You to our Veterans: Chocolate Camo Cake

It's easy to get caught up in our lives- in work, in social events, in the daily grind.  It's so simple to forget about our history and the people who have served our country.  Whether you agree with politicians or not, and whether you support the issues going on overseas in the present (or in the past), one thing that I think all people can agree with is that our country's soldiers face a great deal of danger.  They bravely face these dangers doing what they feel they can to serve our country.  Today is a day to honor these soldiers, those who have left their families and risked their lives serving our country.

My grandfather served in World War II, and my father and uncle both served in Korea.  Once a month my grandma makes dinner for a handful of veterans as a way to say thank you.  These men have certainly faced a lot- from head injuries to emotional turmoil.

This month I made them a cake.

I love this chocolate camo and wanted to share the technique with you.  It can be prepared ahead of time to make a simple, easy decoration on a cake.  It also beats flowers and ruffle boarders for guys who hate frilly stuff (soldiers and hunters are prime examples).

You will need:
Black Chocolate Wafers (Merkens black chocolate tastes like Oreos.  Not even kidding)
Dark Chocolate Wafers
Milk Chocolate Wafers
Dark Green Chocolate Wafers
White Chocolate Wafers
Parchment Paper (needs to be slightly longer than the sides of the cake you want to cover or size pieces you want to have)

The amount you need will vary depending on the size cake you're making, but using so many colors I needed maybe one third to one half cup of each color (my estimates are extremely generous) for a quarter sheet cake.

Melt the chocolate.  I used a nifty warming tray my mom had that becomes a buffet server.  This particular warming tray had temperature control, allowing me to set it on low and put the chocolate in glass dishes in a water bath.  (I have used a warming tray in the past without temperature control, but for whatever reason lately it has been burning the more delicate chocolates- white and colors.)

Chocolate burns easily so you want to melt your chocolate slow and low.  Other options include microwaving in 15 second intervals.  Dark and milk chocolate can be melted at half power.  White and colored chocolate should be melted at 40% power.  I've been told that putting chocolate in glass dishes in a water bath in an electric skillet set low also works.

I melted black chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and green chocolate.  I didn't like the original color of the green chocolate so I added a little bit of the dark chocolate to it to make it fit in the color scheme better.  I also made light brown by adding some milk or dark chocolate to white chocolate and light green by adding some of my darker green to white.  I don't have exact amounts, but add a couple pieces or a small spoonful of the colored chocolate at a time until you get a color that you like.

Once your chocolate is melted, you will start doling it out onto the parchment paper.  I made mine slightly longer than the sides of my cake just to make sure it fit nicely.  I work from dark to light in my chocolate, to keep dark chocolate from showing through lighter chocolate as the new layers inevitably overlap the old.
I used another piece of parchment paper as a guide to make sure my line was straight.

Make spaced out drops of black chocolate with a spoon.  You don't need a lot of chocolate on the spoon.  Spread it around a little in different shapes to resemble the random shapes in traditional camouflage.  Once you finish with one color it should be somewhat set (unless you're some kind of crazy speed demon you don't need to wait any), it just needs to be set enough to not smear into the next color.
Black chocolate.  Remember that you have several other colors too add!

Add dark chocolate in the same manner, overlapping on some of the black pieces and adding some pieces not touching the black.  Try to make it look random.  Follow suit with dark green, milk, light green, and light brown chocolates.
Adding dark chocolate
Adding dark green chocolate.
A few spaces left to fill in.
Completed Chocolate Sides

Fill in any empty spaces.  You'll know what color to use by what is already surrounding the empty spaces.

Frost the cake, making the frosting a little heavier on the sides.  This will make sure that all of the chocolate is attached to the cake, allow something for the somewhat bumpy chocolate pieces to sink into and help keep it from cracking.

Next, determine exactly how long you need your pieces of chocolate to be. (I laid a piece of parchment paper next to the cake and marked it to determine an exact length, then was able to lay that same piece next to the chocolate.)  I peeled the strips of chocolate off the paper first, then cut the pieces of chocolate to that length.  To prevent cracking make sure the flat side of the chocolate is down and use a hot knife (if you still have your warming tray on just stick the blade against the surface for a few seconds to warm it).

Place the cut pieces flat side out on the sides of the cake, sinking the rough side into the frosting.

I know it's a hunting cake, but this camo looks awesome on chocolate frosting!

Voila!  Simple, masculine, camouflage cake.

Thank you to all who have served.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Piece of Cake: Easy Pumpkin Cake

Pumpkin has been on the menu a lot lately, and I realized I left you hanging telling you how to roast pumpkin without giving you a way to use it.  I'm a fan of delicious, and when delicious is quick and easy, it's major bonus points.  Both of the recipes I've been using for pumpkin cake are cake-mix-based, making them simple and quick.

Moist Pumpkin Cake
This recipe is from a recent issue of the Kraft Food & Family magazine, originally intended for cupcakes but still makes a great cake.  A spice cake is recommended, but for less spice, you could use a yellow or white cake mix and add a tablespoon of pumpkin pie spice.

1 spice cake mix
1 cup sour cream
15 ounces fresh pumpkin (or one 15 ounce can of pumpkin)
1/4 cup oil
3 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the cake mix, sour cream, pumpkin, oil and eggs together.  Bake 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Easy Pumpkin Cake
This recipe also uses a cake mix and doesn't come out quite as moist, but is a little more stable if you're going to carve the cake.

Follow the directions for a yellow or white cake mix, using 1/3 to 1/2 cup less water than called for and adding 15 ounces fresh pumpkin (or one 15 ounce can).

Bake according to the directions, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Pumpkin pumpkin cake? Yes, please!

Now to convince my mother that pumpkin cake is better with cream cheese frosting rather than whipped cream...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fall Flavors: Fresh Pumpkin

Fall brings with it an insatiable desire to bake treats laced with the warm, comforting flavors of fall.  (Okay, so the urge might be to eat these delicious desserts rather than make them.)  One of the most prominent autumnal flavors is pumpkin.

Somehow every year Libby makes horrifying cries of pumpkin shortages.  You have nightmares of visiting every supermarket in town, searching for pumpkin and imagine Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie, and Christmas without pumpkin roll.  You worry about the cost of pumpkin with supply short and demand high, wondering who will be cut from the Christmas gift list to put pumpkin back on the menu.  Okay so maybe it's not this dramatic, but you can save yourself a lot of headache and stress over pumpkin shortages (and get a better tasting, fresher, and local product) by making your own pumpkin puree.

Roasting pie pumpkins is easier than it sounds.  Trust me.

Selecting Your Pumpkin
Many local farmers markets and have a wonderful selection of pie pumpkins.  Many people use these cute little pumpkins for decoration, but inside lies a sweet, fresh, delicate flesh- perfect for satisfying those fall cravings.

Darker pumpkins that have some speckles on them are sweeter.  If you are not planning to cook your pumpkins soon and intend to store them for a while, check them thoroughly for nicks and soft spots, as this is where rotting will begin.  Don't forget to check the bottom and around the stem.

If you have a cool, dry place such as a fruit cellar or cool garage, you can store whole pie pumpkins. Stored in these conditions they can keep for a while (at room temperature a couple pumpkins lasted about only two weeks on my kitchen counter).  Washing the pumpkins (or any fall squash) before storage can help extend the life of the squash extensively.  My uncle swears by a light bleach solution, saying he has stored squash into the spring and early summer using it (although sources say pumpkins will store for 2-3 months).  The solution should be 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.  And the bonus of this- extra freezer space and pumpkin seeds in the middle of winter!

Roasting Your Pumpkin
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Cut your pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds and pulp (save the seeds for some awesome cinnamon or spicy pumpkin seeds).

Pour some water onto a baking sheet and place the pumpkin halves with the flesh side down and outter skin facing up.
Bake the pumpkin for an hour or until a knife is easily inserted, meeting little resistance (like making a baked potato).

Pureeing the Pumpkin
Once the pumpkin has cooled enough to handle, peel the skin from the pumpkin and break into chunks.  Drain the pumpkin in a colander, then process the pumpkin in a food processor until smooth.  If the pumpkin is still watery after it sits, skim off the water.

Storing Pumpkin
My grandparents always canned their puree, but there are a lot of variables that go into packing an non-acidic food that can make it unsafe.  However, the puree can be frozen in ziplock bags or containers.

Next....make some cake!  Bake a pie!  Mix up a pumpkin roll!  Cook some pumpkin soup!
Sweet inspiration...

And if tasting this pumpkin and the fresher flavor of your fall favorites isn't enough, the two pumpkins I roasted ($1 each at Molnar Farms) made just over two pounds of puree, bringing the cost of pumpkin to about 6 cents per ounce as compared to Libby's at almost 14 cents per ounce!

What is your favorite pumpkin recipe?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Spooky Sweet Treats: Halloween Cupcakes

I am not sure where summer went, but sure enough fall is here.  I feel I have neglected you, dear readers, and thus in the waning hours of National Chocolate Cupcake Day, I bring you a handful of wonderful Halloween cupcake ideas, with plenty of time left to make them for Halloween.

I made these by spreading a thin layer of frosting over the entire cupcake.  Then I spread some black frosting over the spot where the eyes would go (brown or chocolate frosting would also look good and may not bleed as black tends to do after a while).  I used a #44 tip (you can also use a basketweave tip with the textured part facing down and flat side up) to pipe lines across the cupcake, leaving room for candy eyes.  If you don't have candy eyes, just pipe some white with a larger round tip and then black with a smaller round tip.

These were the most popular of my cupcake tray.  I piped the base white with a 2D tip and added Oreo crumbs on top for texture.  I then cut long black licorice strips into pieces about 2 inches long, slid them into the frosting between the layers of the Oreo and attached candy eyes with a dab of frosting.  If you don't have candy eyes, pipe some white and add mini m&m's or a dot of frosting for the center of the eyes.

Melted Witch Cupcakes
Rejoice!  The Wicked Witch of the West is dead!  I made the witches hats with a Keebler's Fudge Stripe cookie turned chocolate side up with a chocolate kiss on top.  I piped a bow with a small writing tip and placed on top of a swirl piped with the same 2D tip as above.

Pumpkin Cupcakes
I made these cupcakes by frosting a pumpkin cupcake flat in orange.  I angled my spatula to add some lines up the sides of the pumpkin.  Then I placed the "stem" (an inch-long piece of pretzel rod dipped in chocolate) in the center and piped vines and leaves.

Batty Cupcakes
The bat is a Wilton candy mold that is a pick that sticks in the cupcake.  I molded the bats with Merkins black chocolate (which amazingly tastes like Oreos) and placed the picks into the cupcakes after topping the cupcake with the 2D tip and adding some festive sprinkles.

Some other inspiration I found after-the-fact:

Which are your favorites?