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Birthdays and many firsts

My birthday was last week, and my friend Danielle’s birthday is today. Since she enjoys a glass of wine every now and then, I decided while browsing Pinterest one day to make her a wine tote. The user friendly quilted wine tote tutorial on the Needles and Spatula blog prompted this burst of creative gift making. I found the fabric back when I was on my little fabric shopping spree, and even though it was my most exciting find of the day, I’ve had to sit on the surprise until now. Danielle loves owls, so I’ll let the picture speak for itself as to why this fabric almost made me squeal in delight.

owl wine tote

Ok, I can’t just let the fabric speak for itself. How perfect is it that Danielle likes owls AND I was shopping for wine tote fabric AND I found fabric with owls flying around carrying wine? I couldn’t have planned it better if I had a fabric designer at my personal disposal.

This project was the culmination of a few firsts. It’s the first project that I’ve completed with my new birthday sewing machine, Betzee. The binding at the top wound up being sewn on by hand because Betzee and I are still getting acquainted, and we’re experiencing some tension problems. Literally, tension problems — I kept winding up with snarled thread on the wrong side of the fabric. I’m sure a consultation with a sewing friend will set me right again, but a narrow binding sewed to  two layers of fabric and two layers of batting on a curve wasn’t the ideal situation to straighten out my tensions with Betzee. I watched a couple episodes of Numbers starring the dashingly handsome Rob Morrow while finishing the project, so everything came out ok in the end.

Also, this is the first time I’m joining a linky party in the blog world. I recently discovered Quilt Story, a lovely blog all on its own. My favorite days are Tuesday because a wealth of inspiring fabric-based projects are featured from a multitude of bloggers. I’m looking forward to following on Tuesdays, so I can find some other quilting blogs to follow, and I’m thankful that Heather and Megan over at Quilt Story take time each Tuesday to inspire others to be creative.

Oh, and one more first. Last night, some friends had dinner, and I took grasshopper cupcakes to celebrate Danielle’s birthday. I highly recommend making these layered cupcakes. They start with a base of brownie and vanilla cake mix, so you won’t be tied in your kitchen all day making them. I did adapt the recipe a little; instead of using only the vanilla canned icing, I added a packet of the new Duncan Hines Frosting Creations Mint Chocolate icing flavor to the vanilla icing. It made the cupcakes more minty — a perfect refreshing treat to finish off springtime meals.

Fresh Poppy Design

Cool and Colorful Pasta Salad

I knew going into the weekend that getting everything that was on my to do list done wasn’t actually possible, and I got even less done than I had hoped for, but it was still a productive weekend. I even got a sewing project done on my new sewing machine. I can’t show the project yet because it’s a birthday present, but the unveiling will be soon.

I started Saturday morning by going to the farmer’s market downtown. I was going to walk, but I’ve been inconveniently congested for about a week now, and when I woke up Saturday, I just didn’t have it in me to make the trek downtown, especially since that would have meant lugging all my veggies home. I’ll have to make that my mission another day. Then, I won’t feel as bad about the calories if I — oh, I don’t know — eat an amazing caramel apple filled donut.

Here’s the pile of veggies that I came home with. Next time, I’ll know better to check about the source of some of the veggies since I pulled a grown in Mexico sticker off the eggplant, but I guess it’d be a little hard for the produce to all be grown locally right at the moment since we’re just finally seeing sunshine. The rainbow chard and the carrots came from an organic stand though, and they went into a soup that was nothing to write home about. Still, at least lunch is ready for the week even if I most likely won’t be giving the recipe a permanent home in my recipe book.

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Saturday evening was girls’ dinner night at a friend’s house. She did an awesome job setting the table with beautiful spring flowers, and each guest was supposed to bring a spring dish that started with “s.” I took my cool and colorful salad, but for Saturday night is was known as spiral pasta salad. Shhh… don’t tell. I’ll put the recipe here. It’s an old family favorite, so my apologies if someone isn’t getting appropriate credit, but I just took it from my mom’s cookbook. If anyone out there is looking for some summer lunch ideas, here you go. This salad is perfect as a light meal on hot summer days. And, it makes a ton. I took it to the party in my 4 quart Pyrex bowl, and there was just enough room to toss the salad without getting it everywhere.

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When (not if) you make the salad, cook 1 lb of tri-colored spiral pasta. This isn’t rocket science, so if you can only find a 12 oz bag, as was the case last Saturday, that’s fine too. I felt like there was plenty of pasta. Don’t let the pasta get mushy by overcooking it.

While you’re waiting on your water to boil and the pasta to cook, you can cut up all the wonderful fresh veggies that go into the salad.

I used one tomato, one green pepper, and one cucumber. I usually also add a can of sliced black olives, but I forgot to get them this time.

The recipe also suggests onion, broccoli florets, and fresh sliced mushrooms. I never add them, but you can add basically anything that you want in whatever proportions. The “official” recipe calls for two tomatoes, and I might go with that next time.

You’ll also notice my cubed cheese and mini pepperonis in front of the beautiful looking mix of tomato, pepper, and cucumber. I recommend adding these two ingredients. You don’t have to, but I do. I recommend cubed instead of shredded cheese for the sake of  texture though you can do shredded. And I spring for the mini pepperonis when possible, so I don’t have to slice the full sized ones. The recipe also suggests adding bacon bits if desired, but I’ve always used pepperoni.

Toss everything together. You’ll probably need to dump everything from one bowl into another larger bowl because you didn’t believe me when I said that this recipe makes a ton of salad, but that’s ok. You’ll learn.

Then, for the dressing, the recipe calls for 8 oz. of Italian dressing. I recommend buying a larger bottle because in my experience, a little more dressing is sometimes needed after the salad chills in the fridge. Once you mix the Italian dressing into the salad, put in 3 tablespoons of McCormick Salad Supreme. Make sure you add that. This recipe is all about customization, but trust me when I say that leaving the spice out is a huge mistake. Somehow I always forget to pick up the spice when I’m out shopping for other ingredients. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to make another trip back to the grocery store (like on Saturday) or how many times I’ve found myself racing through the grocery store on my way to a party just so I can get this spice. The grocery store had it on sale on Saturday, so I stocked up, but I bet you anything, I’ll still find myself in a spiceless predicament sometime in the future.

Mix the spice in well, and make sure everything is coated by the Italian dressing. Chill everything in the fridge for 2 hours. Eat the salad. Come back to post and tell me how good it was.

Here’s your shopping list:

12-16 ounces of vegetable spiral pasta
Vegetables as desired (suggestions listed below)
Tomatoes
Green Pepper
Onion
Cucumber
Broccoli florets
Fresh Sliced Mushrooms

Additional add-ins as desired (suggestions listed below)
Sliced black olives
Pepperoni
Cheese (cheddar, colby, or colby/jack work well)
bacon bits

8 oz of Italian dressing (though I generally use more than that)
3 tbsp McCormick Salad Supreme (found in the spice aisle)

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My own little cake wreck…

I learned this weekend that it’s best for me to not try to make Easter themed food. Last year, I made the creepy deviled egg chicks that the family was squeamish about eating — and understandably so.

Deviled eggs chicks This year, not wishing to let that tradition of food gone terribly away die, I made a cake – the ugliest cake ever. My mom and grandma wanted me to try to replicate the buttercream icing from the birthday cakes that we used to get from the Catonsville Bakery. I mean, it was really no big thing that they were asking for since the last time I had that icing was when I was….oh….five. And, then I ate the smallest bit, scraped it off my cake, and gave it to an adult. I wasn’t a fan, but I would have been happy if I could have replicated the icing for them. I told my mom I wasn’t going to go all out on the decorating because it’s been about two and a half years since I decorated a cake. That  one turned out ok for the most part though the monkeys could have used a little work.

monkey cake But, my mom told me that if the icing was the right kind everyone would want roses on their slice of cake, so they could have more icing. I wasn’t even good at making roses when I was practicing them, so I knew making them after such a long break from decorating would be a disaster. I figured that instead I could do Easter eggs on the cake. How hard could they be?

Bunny doo doo cakeUh…they are very hard to make. And, yes, those are supposed to be Easter eggs. This cake shall go down in the family history as the little bunny doo doo cake for what should be fairly obvious reasons.

Ah, well. Sometimes creativity is risky. If I’m going to attempt something next Easter, I’d better start a rigorous training program by the Fourth of July to prepare.

Easy Potato Crockpot soup

Wow, between the vacation and the vacation jet lag, I’ve been terrible at keeping this blog lately. This past week if I had to pick one adjective to describe me, I would use (drum roll please) undergraduate. Seriously, it’s as if I’ve reverted to my college days. Want to know what I did the night before a committee meeting at work? I spent time organizing my quilting patterns from Pinterest into a master Word document with pictures on one side of the page and required yardage on the other. My esteemed colleagues would be so impressed, right? I paid the price for that because I then had to stay up until 3:30 in the morning to get my committee homework finished (does waiting until the night before sound like anyone else’s undergraduate life patterns?). It wasn’t exactly an all-nighter, but it’s about as close as an almost 32 year old can get to one.

Last week I didn’t technically meet my goal of creating something new, but I did organize quite a few of those quilting patterns. That came in really handy when I went shopping with my 25% purchase coupon to the fabric store. It makes me happy whenever a cashier says that I saved more than I spent. For a minute, when I heard those words, I got confused and then thought that I was in Kohl’s instead of the fabric store. I gathered up some fun teals and yellows for a quilt along with this sweet little pink fabric that I’m going to use for a faux chenille blanket. Maybe I’ll get some fabric pictures posted, but then again, I still have two vacation posts to go, and this week is going to be chock full of cooking projects and some creativity.

I’ve already made one new thing this week. I made “Jane’s Potato soup” from Paula Deen herself. Well, actually I got the recipe from this blogger, who only used two cans of chicken broth, instead of the three called for from Paula Deen herself. I like a thick potato soup, so less broth was fine by me though the cream cheese on day one was just a tad overwhelming and some extra broth might have been a help. Also, Paula Deen doesn’t specify the can size, so if 10 oz cans are compared to the 14 oz, I think the difference all comes out in the wash.

No one has ever asked me any questions about this recipe, but if they were to ask them, here is what I’d imagine they would (or should) be:

  1. Is this soup easy to make? Ridiculously easy! Open the crock pot twice, toss in ingredients, and you’re done. You don’t even need utensils except for the spoon you stir the soup with (I buy my onions pre-chopped in the frozen foods section.) Also, switch to a slightly smaller spoon while eating so you don’t look like a barbarian.
  2. This is supposed to be in the crockpot for 5 hours, but I’m going to work 12 hours and then run a marathon. Will the soup be ok when I get back? Um…probably not. I’m actually going to say that I think 5 hours means roughly 5 hours for this recipe. That makes this a great soup to make on Sunday afternoon. You can eat if for Sunday dinner, have if for lunch Monday-Thursday, and still have enough left over to leave a serving in the fridge for one lucky co-worker. Unless, of course, you have kids and a spouse that you’re feeding. Then, I’m a little jealous of you in many facets of life, but maybe not so much in the area of cooking. More soup for me.
  3. Is this soup healthy? I did mention that this is a Paula Deen recipe, right? There are 8 oz of cream cheese in this soup. No matter how you want to do the math, this is not healthy.
  4. Is there butter in this soup? Ha, you’re funny. No, but there is an entire block of cream cheese.
  5. Some people say that soup is better after it “marries” in the fridge overnight. Is that true with this soup? Absolutely. I would have rated the soup 3 stars yesterday and gave it a 3.75 today. (Out of a scale of 5. As an English teacher, I’ve been trained to hate referenceless scales — maybe more than non-specific directions about the size of soup can I should use.)

Weeklong potpourri

Oy vey, last week was one of those weeks where by Tuesday, I was wishing it was Friday. And, the work week sputtered to an end that left me wanting to run off screaming into the night instead of trying to dig out from under emails. The registration booklet goes to print this week, so for better or for worse, professors’ schedules are set into place. That will calm things down somewhat, but spring break is next week, so this week there is the pressure to not leave any major loose ends unattended. Oh that and do laundry, so I can hatch my great escape plan for break (ie. pack a suitcase without forgetting anything).

I’ve actually come up with a metaphor for my administrative life. When I first stepped into my role as academic chair of the arts and sciences department, it felt like it would be a mildly crazy adventure, taking me right to the edge of my comfort zone but not completely out of my comfort universe. It was almost as if (the metaphor…) I’d been invited for a tubing trip down a river with an overnight stay in the wilderness. Yep, mildly disconcerting, but I could cobble together all of my life skills attained thus far and complete the journey feeling only slightly uncomfortable. Four years later, the institution has grown quite a bit, and my department has grown right along with it. We added a Communication program that falls under my department, added one full-time member to the department, and added number of new adjuncts to the team. And, emails, lots and lots of emails. If I were to count them… well, it’s just best if I don’t try to do that.

Somewhere along the way the metaphor changed to. Life never feels like a tubing trip down a river anymore. Instead, it’s like at some point, we pulled the intertubes out of the river and walked down a little path. At the end, someone chucked me a helmet and a life vest, and we all shoved off in a giant yellow raft into class 5 rapids. During weeks like last week, I spend most of my time (metaphorically) paddling like crazy and spewing out water while screaming phrases like, “Is there a waterfall ahead?” “Are we going to die?” “Is everyone in the boat?” Sigh… maybe there will be a slight lull in the river this week, but that’s doubtful.

I’ll be trying to race to the finish of my latest quilt project. Ideally, I’d like to have it done by Friday. We’ll see; I’m getting bummed already that I might not be able to make that happen. I did finish piecing the top tonight and did the distressing job of mostly squaring it up. I swear, I was checking the measurements of each section of the quilt as I went, and it still came out wonky. I’m going to need to figure out what I do that makes my quilts so out of whack. I’m going to blame it on the dual problems of my inability to sew a straight line and my rather small rotary cutting mat.  At the same time, despite its issues, I was so excited to see the entire quilt pieced together. I gulped a little in fear though as I realized how large it is when all put together. This is hands down my most extensive quilting project to date.

I did get in some relaxation over the weekend. I spent some time hanging out with my grandma and my mom. I mentioned before that my grandma was diagnosed with cancer with a tumor in her lung and stomach as well as a smattering of tumors elsewhere in abdominal region. It’s been a rough journey, but last Saturday she seemed to somewhat turn the corner. Her appetite is coming back, and she’s slowly regaining her strength. It was good to see her able to make it through the day without napping, and she’s not on meds that are making her foggy now, so she was back to telling stories, talking politics, and admiring my cousin’s attempt to make a Ghostbuster’s proton pack out of spare spark plug wires and VHS tapes. It’s hard to beat a Saturday night just watching a Hallmark movie with your mom and grandma. I hated to leave tonight and drove away wondering if I’ll ever get old enough to not feel a little wistful to leave “home” to come home. In this busy life, it’s hard to soak up enough family time.

And, finally, an update on the goal to try something new. I half cheated this week. I made something new, but it wasn’t new-new. The girls that I shared an apartment with my senior year of college came over to spend some time together on Saturday and to reluctantly say goodbye to our friend who is leaving for Idaho in June. My other friend, Becca, who feeds me every Monday had just introduced me to slow cooker three envelope pot roast. This recipe is amazing. After surviving the class 5 rapids of my work week, racing through some quilting, and cleaning the house (sorta), I had just enough energy to throw four ingredients and a roast into the crockpot at 1 am. I awoke the next morning to the smell of lunch cooking downstairs. Crockpots and this roast recipe are beautiful gifts.

Fake Amish Friendship Bread

Last week was the school’s annual mission’s conference, which means we have many guest missionaries on campus. The goal is that students get to interact with them as much as possible, so in the mornings before the main sessions, there is a breakfast spread with coffee and breads, muffins, and pastries. Faculty are asked to contribute if possible. Faculty are also asked to participate in evening adventures; I was exhausted going into the week and already had two evenings full, so to assuage my guilty conscience for not being available in the evenings, I agreed to do a bunch of baking (sorta forgetting how much time it takes to bake).

I did realize that I had bitten off more than I could bake, but fortunately, that’s when I saw the coupon for our local grocery store. Their 20 packs of chocolate chip cookies were $2 each. Since it costs about that much to buy just the chocolate chips for a batch of cookies, I took the grocery store up on their gracious offer. And, then I mostly cheated for the seven loaves of breakfast bread. Here’s the evidence of that.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHowever, I couldn’t do all that baking and not try one single new recipe. How unconscionable.

I decided that I would make fake Amish Friendship Bread. If you’ve never tasted Amish Friendship Bread, then I’m sorry to hear that. It is amazing bread. However, the catch is that it’s typically made with a starter. So, if you have the starter in your kitchen, you can make the bread every 10 days. In between baking days, you have plastic bags of starter that you have to knead and add ingredients to. You also have to release the air from the bags, or they will explode all over your kitchen drawer. Just speaking from experience here.  I liken this bread to manna. When someone first gives me the starter, I’m so glad to have it back in the kitchen. I eat it daily for breakfast and even as a snack. After maintaining the starter for a few cycles and eating it everyday for breakfast though, I start to cry out, “All I can see is this friendship bread. Is there nothing else for my daily sustenance?” Also, I start to burn through flour at an obscene rate.

I haven’t researched why it’s called friendship bread; I used to think that it was because the starter was passed from friend to friend. Now I wonder though if maybe friends act together to keep the bread alive. One person cooks it until they are sick of it, and then another person takes over for a month or two. At any rate, it’s clear that though this bread is delicious, the maintenance of the starter is a real drawback. That’s why I was excited to find a recipe that promised to replicate the taste of the bread without the necessity of the starter. I’ll be honest; I don’t think it was an exact copy though I would want to throw in a box of pudding next time because my family often did that to flavor the bread, and that would make a difference. However, the recipe still yielded some delicious bread that was pretty close to the original, and given the elimination of the whole starter process, I forgive the recipe for not being exact. I’d make it again. Another plus is that it makes two generous sized loaves of bread, so there is quite a lot to show for the effort.

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day ends in t-minus 85 minutes, and I’m ready. It’s not been a pleasant day overall. There was  just no way for me to really, truly embrace the cliche that it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all on my first Valentine’s Day back to being single. I’m ready for tomorrow when all the hoopla dies down on Facebook, and I certainly could have gone without seeing every third person buying flowers at the grocery store tonight. Sorry, blog readers, I know that’s a bummer of a way to start a post, but lest you’re ever tempted to think as you read this blog that I’ve got life all pulled together, think again. Today, I would have gotten an F on my report card when it came to rejoicing with those who rejoice — ok a D- because at least the thought occurred to me that I was having a bad attitude and should be immensely happy for all those who were celebrating love today.

And, I know I’m loved deep, deep down. The worship this morning in chapel was amazing, and it reminded me that God is big, much much bigger than I am (no comparison at all really) and holy in what he does. He’s not doing exactly what I want him to be doing right now in my self-centered, panicky little heart, but in a few years, I’ll look back as I’ve done many times before and be grateful that he doesn’t cater to my every whim. I’ll see that he was molding me and shaping me into someone far more mature, and if I chase after him, someone more grounded, secure, and holy than I am today. And, I’m sure he did prompt the hearts of friends and family who texted throughout the day to say “I love you.”  One dear friend reminded me that she is praying for me. God has used her time and again to remind me that he is there.

So, in the midst of the pity party that I’ll stop writing about now, I tried to do what I did in college when I was single on Valentine’s Day and tempted to mope about it. I tried to focus on blessing others. One of my former students is taking her girls on a retreat this weekend, and she emailed me awhile back to see if I would bake the desserts for it, so I got to baking. I put together some of my new favorite nutella lava brownies and baked a chocolate cherry cake that I’ll share the recipe for in a post in the near future. I also tried a strawberry cake mix adaptation that I saw in a comment box on Pinterest. Here’s what I put together:

  • 1 box strawberry cake mix
  • 8 oz. cool whip
  • 1 egg

I combined that, rolled it into balls that were then rolled in powdered sugar, and baked them for about 14 minutes. They are cute and pink and taste ok but not really make again worthy. But, how fun is it to take pink cookies on a girls’ retreat? Fun. And, the girls always have the nutella lava brownies and chocolate cake to make up for the slightly lackluster cookies.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAlso, I decided to do a little something for myself. So, I made some peanut butter hot cocoa. This wound up not being my cup of cocoa. It was a bit too rich for me (of course, I’m jaded since I stepped on a scale this morning), and unless consumed while scalding hot, the peanut butter in the cocoa solidifies, which created a texture of which I was not a fan.

The cookies in the picture are supposed to be a delightful, celebratory pink, but I guess watching only lesson one out of 24 in my photography DVD series has not yet prepared me to capture the nuances of color.

I will go to bed tonight with a valentine of sorts from God. Lamentations 3:22-25, ” The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, To the person who seeks Him.”

 

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