Tuesday, January 25

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

I've always hated that phrase. Who wants to encourage complaining? When I think of the "squeaky wheels" I've known, the memories are not fond. BUT, I learned this week that, like it or not, the old adage is absolutely true.

A few weeks ago I shared a goal to make photo books from my travels in college. Guess how excited I was when I got an email a few days later advertising a huge deal at my favorite site for photo products? I've used My Publisher for several copies of my wedding album and a photo calendar for my grandmother, and couldn't be happier with the quality of each item. I love that their software allows me to choose the layout of each page, drag-and-drop each photo into it's place and customize the text, background, covers, etc. There are only two downsides: it's hugely time-consuming for someone as detail-oriented (nit-picky) as me, and they're reeeeally expensive. Thus the excitement over a 60% off deal. At least those were the only downsides I knew about...

So, my deadline was Sunday and my goal was to finish books from my trips to Mexico, Moldova, and Lebanon/Jordan. China will have to wait for another deal. I'd been working on my projects steadily, but still had a good chunk of work on Sunday, so I finished just before the 3 am deadline (the deal ended at midnight on the West Coast). However, I ran into some infuriating roadblocks along the way. 

I've previously only ordered one book at a time or several copies of the same book, and nowhere in their software does it mention that it is impossible to order more than one product from their company at one time. What?? My plan of saving hundreds on photo books was foiled! Even if I was willing to pay for shipping on each book separately, the software took two hours hours to upload my first project before I could start another order (and of course that finished well after 3 am). I was so mad and delusionally tired at this point that I wrote the following email to the "Contact Us" portion of the website. It's ok to laugh. I read it to my coworkers this morning for a bit of comic relief.


I am irate. Irate. An incredibly dissatisfied customer.
I've been working on three long photo books (75-100 pages each) for weeks and stayed up into the night tonight (I live on the east coast) only to take advantage of the 60% off deal. Too bad your website and emails didn't mention two very important things:
1. I can't order more than one item at a time, which means my order comes nowhere close to $200 and gets me 10% less of a discount than I had planned. I also will have to pay an additional $30-40 in shipping to get the two books I couldn't order tonight. In addition, I assumed that when you advertised a $20 "gift card" back-to-back with the %-off deals that they could be combined. Of course not, from now on I'll expect to be tricked by your company.
 2. It has taken over two hours for my book to upload on my lightning-fast wireless connection without refreshing the browser or anything of that nature. Since I worked on my books until late to pack the most into my order and my first book is still uploading, I missed the deal for my other two books (although I haven't decided if I'm going to pay you any more money, especially for shipping things in three orders that I should have gotten in one). You brag about chat support on your website, but I couldn't get anyone any time near the order deadline, which defeats the purpose of offering it. On top of all that, it's 3:30 in my timezone and I'm still staring at my computer waiting for a confirmation screen before I can go to bed.
I write a blog and I was planning on writing a glowing review of your software. I've told my friends to order their photo products from your site. But as soon as I've gotten half a night's sleep I will be changing my tune for all the world to hear. What I really want back is my time, which I've spent way too much of on your confusing site and glitchy software. But what you could do for me instead is give me back the money I'll have to pay in shipping three separate orders. I won't even request the difference between the sale price I was planning to pay and what I'll actually have to pay now for your absurdly overpriced products.

 What a dramatic grumpy-pants, huh? : ) I've never done anything remotely like this. In fact, I usually try to hide behind the buggy or slump over in the booth when someone near me complains about poor customer service. I worked in retail for a short time and I remember how helpless I felt when explaining nonsensical corporate policies. But somehow unleashing my fury via keyboard was much easier. I did feel compelled to repent of my anger the next day. It's funny what lack of sleep and losing (okay, not saving) money will do to a person. I should have added to my list of goals for the year to limit my personal investment in getting good deals. This can be a problem for me. 

Don't you worry - there's a happy ending to this story. As bad as I feel for Thom, the guy who read my diatribe, I'm doubly glad that he put on his big-boy pants and sent me an excellent, gracious reply. My Publisher is extending me two single-use coupon codes to get 60% off and reduced shipping on both of my remaining books. Awesome, right? While they say the "one product only" issue is addressed in the notice of special offers, I have yet to find it on their website or software. But now we all know. As mortifying as it is to see how such a small thing totally rocked my world, my "squeaking" will probably save me about $100 through this extended offer in addition to what I saved on my first order.


Now that I've caught up on sleep, (I slept 13 hours last night!!) I still love My Publisher's products, and will continue to order them only one item at a time. It doesn't mean I won't grumble about it, though. : )


So, what's your "squeaking" story??

Saturday, January 22

Wedding Cake Part 2: Baking and Making Frosting

When I left off last time I had only made it to the craft and grocery stores. The next steps in my cake extravaganza were baking the cake layers and making the frosting.

To make a four-tiered cake, I used my four graduated cake pans to bake two cakes of each size. After leveling the tops, I split each of these cakes in half to end up with four thin layers of each size that would come together to form my tiers. Make sense? Here's the step-by-step:

1. I followed the cake mix instructions to make the batter. You know what this looks like. There are a few simple changes that can make the cake sturdier and tastier, but I just followed the instructions this time. 

2. I poured the batter into pans. Since the leavening agents in cake mix work quickly, you really shouldn't make the batter more than an hour before you use it, so I made it in batches of one or two boxes. Since I knew that a cake mix makes two 8- or 9-inch cakes, I poured half the batter from the first box into my 8-inch pan. I then marked the depth of the batter on a toothpick and used that to judge how much batter to pour in the 6-inch pan. I've never read that you should do that, and I'm sure you could just estimate, but nobody obsesses over silly things like that more than me. 
*Note: In the future, I think I'll use more batter to make my layers a little thicker and the cake a little taller. 


3. I baked the cakes in pairs. The 8- and 6-inch cakes finished in a little over 30 minutes. While they baked, I made a double batch of batter for the 10- and 12-inch cakes. These took a little over 45 minutes. Since the sizes are different, it's important to check them frequently and usually take the smaller one out before the larger one finishes. I repeated the process for a total of four batches and eight cakes. This took under three hours, most of which was hands-off. If I had known at this point that I would eventually make frosting, this would have been a great time to do it. I wrapped the cooled cakes in plastic wrap and refrigerated them overnight, but you could move on to the next step as soon as they're completely cool.

4. I leveled the tops of my cakes for a flat surface. I use an inexpensive tool called a cake leveler to do this. Check it out here. You can just use a long serrated knife to do this, but I prefer very consistent results and a 0% chance of cutting myself (I'm a bit clumsy). 


 











5. I split (torted) my cakes into two thin layers. I used my cake leveler for this step, also. I measured the height of the leveler after using it to trim the tops of my layers and moved the wire to half that height. I then used the leveler to cut each of my layers in half.


I should have trimmed this top more.
 











In actuality, I went on from this point to fill my cake layers with store-bought frosting and apply a thin layer of the same frosting to the outside of the cake. But, since I eventually made frosting, it makes more since to tell this part next. To view my recipe for Italian Buttercream, click here.

1. I separated my eggs and placed the whites in the bowl of my stand mixer. Then, I brought sugar and water to a boil on the stove. Using my candy thermometer, I cooked the sugar syrup to a soft ball stage, which is about 240 degrees.


 













3. While the syrup cooked, I beat my egg whites to a soft peak stage. Then I gradually added sugar and beat to medium peaks. For those of you who weren't required to take food lab in school, this handy link shows the difference between soft, medium/firm, and stiff peaks when beating egg whites or cream.












4. As soon as the syrup reached temperature, I poured it into a glass measuring cup and slowly poured it into the egg white mixture with the mixer on. Be very careful! This stuff is 240 degrees and if it drips on your hands it's hard to get off quickly.

5. I continued beating the meringue until it cooled to room temperature. Then, I added eight sticks of cubed butter piece by piece. The mixture looked separated and wet until about the sixth stick of butter. I was getting panicky that all my butter (the most expensive part of baking) was going to waste, but in the end it came together beautifully!




So there you have it! Our cake layers are ready to be filled, frosted, and stacked. Tune in for those steps soon!

Friday, January 21

Angelyn Bakes a Wedding Cake! (Part 1)


That's right, a wedding cake! What was I thinking?? : ) I'll share with you the nitty-gritty details of making the cake, but first, here's a preview of what it currently looks like, all ready to be decorated.

 



My brother, Steven, and his fiance, Roberta, are getting married in July in Natal, Brazil, her hometown. I am so excited!! I'm excited about the wedding, excited to go to Brazil, but most of all, excited that my very special big brother is going to marry such a wonderful girl. She's so much fun and she'll be a great sister-in-law. Check out their sweet engagement pictures here.  
You may need to be facebook friends to see them.



I was honored when they asked me to make their wedding cake, especially considering I've never made one! Since I'd rather spend my vacation time with family than with cake I need to get in plenty of practice before the trip. So, this one isn't for eating. In fact, it's already going stale because I can't fit it in my refrigerator. My plan is: A. to learn the process of putting the cake together and B. to use the assembled cake as blank canvas to practice several designs.

To get started, I bought a pan set for a four-tiered cake, which includes 12-, 10-, 8-, and 6-inch pans. I also got some cardboard cake circles the same size as my cake tiers and some wooden dowels (much cheaper at Lowe's than the craft store) to use for support. Some other handy things that I already had include large and small offset spatulas, a cake leveler, a candy thermometer, and most importantly, a KitchenAid mixer. <I love you so much, sweet KitchenAid!>


Then, I bought my ingredients. I decided to use cake mix for convenience since one of Beta's family members is going to bake the real cake. I also bought frosting, which I only used to fill and crumbcoat the tiers. I originally planned to cover the cake with fondant and thought that the frosting wouldn't really matter until I talked with my friend/boss Erin, who makes wedding cakes as a side business. She convinced me of several things: 1. Fondant might be hard to work with in beach humidity. 2. Store-bought frosting is not firm enough to support fondant as well as buttercream. 3. A good buttercream recipe is very forgiving of mistakes. She was absolutely right on all counts. Check out Erin's bakery website here.


Gorgeous cake Erin made for a friend's shower


So, here's what I've used so far:
  • 6 boxes yellow cake mix
  • 7 tubs store-bought buttercream frosting
  • 18 whole eggs and 16 egg whites (anybody have good recipes using egg yolks?)
  • 16 sticks butter (!!!)
  • 2 2/3 cup oil
  • 4 cups sugar
It's a good thing we're not eating it, huh?

Well, that's enough for this post. A girl's gotta get some sleep! I'll post the baking and frosting steps tomorrow. But first, here are a few pictures of cakes that make me swoon!





Doesn't that just make you want to get married all over again?






Monday, January 17

Shed a Little Light

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, here's a video of a song that I've started listening to every year on this day. While it's nice to just have a day off, I love to ponder these words and ask God to continue to use his people to stand against injustice.

Oh, let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King,
And recognize that there are ties between us -- all men and women
Living on the earth. Ties of hope and love, of sister and brotherhood.
 
That we are bound together in our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children can grow free and strong.
We are bound together by the task that stands before us 
And the road that lies ahead. We are bound and we are bound.

A Kitchen Catastrophe!

Perhaps I shouldn't, but I like to think of myself as a good cook. I love to try new recipes, which means that there are few ingredients I haven't used or techniques I haven't tried. So generally, whether we love it or not, the result is a solid meal. But not tonight...

I was excited to try a recipe for "Polenta with Wild Mushroom Saute" from a cookbook my parents gave me for Christmas. The New Best Recipe Cookbook is put out by America's Test Kitchen, which doesn't publish their recipes online, otherwise I would link to it. I wanted to make something tasty since Michael and I had the day off, but I wanted it to be easy since I'm in the middle of making a wedding cake. More on that later!

This was my first experience with polenta. For those of you who don't watch the Food Network (they make it all the time), polenta is essentially grits made from yellow cornmeal. That simple. I should mention I've also never made grits. I've made a five-layer Bavarian torte, but not grits...

I decided to cook the polenta while I was prepping the ingredients for the mushroom saute. Without thinking, I dumped all of the cornmeal into boiling water at once, only to later read that I was supposed to pour it in a slow stream while stirring vigorously. Whoops! The result was boiling water with a ton of sticky yellow clumps that, try as I might, I just could not break up. As the polenta continued to cook, it got thicker and clumpier, and ended up looking like this. Yuck!



My polenta crisis took my attention away from everything else, so when the sticky stuff was done, I still had to make my mushroom saute. The recipe calls for a total of two pounds of mushrooms. That's a lot of mushrooms! When I was planning my prep time I forgot to factor in wiping the dirt off each mushroom individually.
In case you're wondering, it's not recommended to wash mushrooms because they absorb water. Also, the dirt on them has a tendency to form a sludge that won't rinse off without wiping.



As I prepped my mushrooms I stewed over what I'd done wrong with the polenta. Deciding that I wouldn't be mastered by such a simple dish, and that cornmeal is incredibly inexpensive, I decided to make another batch. It was even more disastrous than the first! I managed to move it to an eye of the stove that wasn't actually on, and after 10 minutes of subjecting it to a firm beating, I discovered it was cold.



At this point, I abandoned my second batch of polenta, which was stone cold and just as lumpy as the first, and made the wine sauce to drizzle over the sauteed mushrooms. It was horrid! It should be known that neither of us likes the taste of wine, but I've had enough good wine sauces at restaurants to have high expectations. This was sour and purple and tasted like feet! I shuddered and immediately poured it down the sink. Sorry, I was too miffed to take a picture!

Here's a look at the finished product, which I served with some steamed sugar snap peas. Thank goodness for frozen veggies, which really are quick and easy! The verdict: the mushroom saute had good flavor and texture, but was a little salty. Even for someone who really loves mushrooms in the right context, it was a little too much fungus. The flavor of the polenta was nice thanks to plenty of butter and salt, but the gummy balls of uncooked cornmeal were not appetizing at all.



Are there any seasoned polenta-makers out there? 
What the heck did I do wrong??  

I'm sure some of you have had a similar kitchen catastrophe, so dish!  

Tuesday, January 11

Reverse Bucket List


Street food in Shanghai
One of the popular topics for beginning bloggers is a bucket list -- a list of things you want to do before you die. But when you really think about it, most bucket list items fall into one of two categories: goals that you could accomplish immediately if you were willing to put forth the time, effort, or money; and things that are unlikely to happen without a change of circumstances out of your control. I guess I've never had a bucket list because the achievable things I haven't accomplished are ones that I'm half-hearted about, and I've had no lack of unexpected and exciting opportunities. Praise God for the riches of his kindness in giving me so many incredible experiences I never would have thought to put on my list!



At the end of my life, these are a few of the things I'll be glad to have done:


Cenote in Coba, Mexico

Climb the Great Wall of China
Swim in the Dead Sea
Dive in a Mexican cenote (underground lake)
Climb Mayan ruins
Use outhouses on three continents  : )
Be a "nurse" on two medical mission trips
Eat dinner in a bedouin's tent




Clinic in Moldova
Stand on Mount Nebo (where Moses looked over the Promised Land)
Explore an ancient sea castle with my family in Sidon
Hike through alligator-infested waters
Publish two poems
Ride a rickshaw in Beijing
Go snorkling by myself in Playa del Carmen
Eat fried bugs (and lots of other things) in China




Sunset in Byblos, Lebanon
Wade in the Mediterranean Sea
Tour Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, and St. Paul's Cathedral
Play dodgeball at a deaf orphanage in Moldova
Go to church at the Brooklyn Tabernacle
Eat beignets at the Cafe du Monde plenty of times -- I love that place!
Get tingles while playing Battle Hymn in Sanford Stadium



Half-marathon - Oct. 2010

Mud wrestle in a hurricane
Be an extra in a movie
Lose about 70 pounds
Instigate a giant water balloon fight on North Campus
Finish a half-marathon
Become a Registered Dietitian
Marry the best person I know






How about you? What's on your reverse bucket list??

A New Leaf

I'm sure I'm not the only one of us who's reflected on some personal changes in the past few weeks, but somehow my resolution maker has gone into overdrive this year.

I have a tendency of doing things in spurts. Whether it's organizing all the closets at once and then letting them deteriorate back to their original squalor in a few weeks, or training for a half-marathon and starting an indefinite hiatus from running the moment I cross the finish line, what I lack in consistency I make up for in zeal. For that reason, all this new-found motivation has me a little nervous that I'm setting myself up for disappointment. We'll see.

Here are some of the goals I've set for the near future:
Balance my personal life 
1. Read at least one pleasure book each month and one spiritual growth book every two months.
Good news -- I finished my first novel a week after making this goal!

2. Be in great shape in time for my brother's July wedding in Brazil. I'd like to drop about 10 pounds and tone up all over.
I want to feel great for our trip, look great in the pictures, and most importantly, fit in the slightly-too-small dress I ordered online! : )

3. Have a time of personal Bible study and prayer four times a week.
Daily would be better, but this is something I really struggle with and would be a big improvement for me.

Make it easy to keep the house clean. 
1. Simplify cooking for easier clean-up, faster shopping, and more time for other things (that I tend to neglect).
I'm trying to make things that are quick, feed us for several days, and don't dirty every dish in the house (essentially the opposite of my usual method). I use an incredible iPhone app called MealBoard to plan my meals and make my grocery lists. I still use coupons, but I limit my time investment.

2. Keep clothes off the floor.
It sounds ridiculous, but I usually put on at least three outfits before I choose what to wear. The remaining clothes become a serious chore for me. Last night (Sunday), I chose each outfit I'll wear for the week, ironed and lint-rolled if needed, and hung it, accessories and all, in the front of my closet. I can already tell this is going to be a life-changing discovery. How have I never done this before??


3. Stay reasonably clutter-free.
I read an article recently in which a professional organizer gave her simplest piece of advice: never leave a room empty-handed. Why is this such a new concept to me? It's already making a serious difference.

Miscellaneous:
1. Make MyPublisher photo books from our travels.
2. Stick to our budget and save some serious cash/make big student loan payments.
  Anybody have tips on balancing saving and paying off debt?
4. Be better at staying in touch with friends.

As you can tell, that list is a doozy! What are your resolutions this year, and what advice do you have to help me accomplish mine?

Monday, January 10

A Brand-New Blogger


Hi blog readers! 
I'm honored that you're viewing my very first post (thanks mom)! I'm excited to tell you what this is all about.

After referencing several blogs in the past year for all kinds of things, including coupons, decorating advice, half-marathon training tips, theological insight, and of course, simple entertainment, I've learned how fun and informative they can be. I'm a long-time facebook junkie, but recently I've been pining for a little more composed thought from my social media. Also, my friends Laura and Jason started a blog and I think it's cool. I think I'll write a post soon on the multitude of things we share in common. : )

This blog will serve the following purposes (and several more, I'm sure):
1. A journal/scrapbook/time capsule to chronicle life's little happenings.
2. An outlet for writing, which used to be a much bigger part of my life.
3. A way to track my goals and my progress toward them.
4. A vehicle for tips and tools that I hope will be helpful to others.
5. A slightly more productive way to unwind than watching TV or getting on facebook.

Most of the blogs I read focus on one special topic, like grocery deals or interior design. Someday, when I have enough exciting things going on to be choosy, I might pick a theme for my blog. But in the meantime, you can expect to see posts about crafty projects, places I go, books I'm reading, things important to my daily life, and mostly, what I'm cooking. You'll notice the box that says "What's Cooking" has links to recipes I'm making this week (unless the recipe isn't online). I'm always on the look-out for recipes with a good recommendation, so I hope that will be a helpful feature to you.

I'll wrap it up for now, but come back soon -- the writing juices are flowing. : )