Monday, March 28

A Yard Sale Story

Our closets and cabinets are happier than they've been in a long time thanks to our first-ever yard sale!

Last weekend we joined up with our long-time friends Jason and Laura to clean out the extra stuff in our lives and hock it to other people. I highly recommend partnering with others because combining our things resulted in a pretty impressive inventory. They had tons of clothes, we had tons of books, etc. Joining forces also meant that we split the cost of signs and an ad in the paper - $30 total. And it's always good to have extra hands for setting out items, extra eyes to watch the money, and extra hagglers to handle the customers who want to fight for every penny. Jason and Laura are much more expedient bloggers than I am, so you can check out their yard sale post from almost a week ago by clicking here. Check out this extra-tasty little nugget showcasing their video skills:

I started to write that the hardest part of having a yard sale is pricing the items the night before, but we all know that separating out the proverbial wheat and chaff in your closet takes much more work. Fortunately, we had discussed this endeavor a couple months in advance, so we had a pretty sizeable collection when the time came. Still, the thought of making 50 cents off of a hidden treasure in the back of the top shelf of something sent me into a last-minute purging spree in every nook and cranny of our little house. Tip: watching a few episodes of TLC's Hoarders is a great way to make yourself feel ridiculous for holding onto a keychain someone gave you in fourth grade.

On Friday evening we packed my car to the gills (air vents?) and went to Laura and Jason's for dinner and a pricing party. (Anything's more fun if you think of it as a party!) Our collection filled their kitchen, dining area, and half of their living room! It was funny to hear what price each of us would ask for an item - it definitely showed what we care (and don't care) about! How the heck did we all accumulate so much stuff in just two years of marriage??

After each item had a price, it was time to put up street signs. At this point it was pretty late, so it felt like we were on some spontaneous adventure from our college days. Kind of funny that yard sale prep is now our idea of late-night shenanigans, huh?

Once all our signs were placed we were exhausted and Michael and I made our way home. After a too-short sleep, we got up and loaded the old blue truck with the two desks that didn't make it over the day before. When we got to Laura and Jason's it was a little after 7 am and they had already begun moving items to the driveway. It's a very good thing they had, because customers started showing up way before we were finished setting up. By eight o'clock (the official start time) we had already made around $30!

Several major roads connect to Laura and Jason's neighborhood and the weather was perfect, so we had a steady flow of traffic throughout the sale. Many wanted to haggle over prices and some bought things that I was sure would be headed for the thrift store at the end of the day. We certainly had plenty of stuff left at closing time, but considering the mass we started with we were all pleased. We loaded up the leftovers and Jason and Laura hauled them off to a local charity for donation.

How did we come out? Well, we met our most important goal, which was to rid our homes of lots of unnecessary clutter. Michael's goal was to make enough to cover the cost of the newspaper ad (he obviously didn't have very high hopes!), but the final tally was pretty exciting:

Team Baareman: $183    Team Vaughan: $104 
(after ad cost)

Here are a few more pictures to make you feel like you were there. : )

These fab chairs were for sitting, not for selling!

His tag: "Not for Sale." My tag: "Best Offer."  

Yard sale buddies!

Any seasoned yard salers out there? Any tips for next time? (Besides accumulating less stuff! : )

Tuesday, March 22

Recipe Review: Spinach and Strawberry Salad

It's officially spring now, which means there's nothing more appetizing than a light and refreshing salad. Except maybe some sweet and juicy strawberries. You know where this is going...

I needed to make something for a church potluck on Sunday, and since I didn't want to go to the grocery store for the fourth time in a week (there are only two of us, after all!), I decided to use what I had in my kitchen. Publix had great deals on strawberries and baby spinach last week, so I had plenty of both in the fridge. The idea hit me: I could make something beautiful and healthy without going to the store or even turning on a kitchen appliance! So, I searched Southern Living online (always a great source of recipes) for a spinach and strawberry salad. Here are the simple and scrumptious results.

Not the best picture, but we were in a hurry to get set up.
The strawberries kept sinking to the bottom!

Spinach and Strawberry Salad
Prep: 10 min.
Yield: Makes 8 to 10 servings

  • 2  (6-ounce) packages fresh baby spinach
  • 2  pints fresh strawberries, sliced
  • Sesame-Poppy Seed Dressing
  • Toppings: chopped cooked bacon, chopped fresh broccoli, blanched sugar snap peas, sliced red onion
Combine baby spinach and strawberries in a large bowl; toss with 1/2 cup Sesame-Poppy Seed Dressing just before serving. Serve with remaining dressing and desired toppings.

Sesame-Poppy Seed Dressing
Prep: 5 min.; Chill: 24 hrs.
This recipe goes with Spinach-and-Strawberry Salad
Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups

  • 1  cup  sugar
  • 1/2  cup  cider vinegar
  • 1  tablespoon  minced onion
  • 1/2  teaspoon  Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4  teaspoon  salt
  • 1  cup  vegetable oil
  • 1/4  cup  sesame seeds, toasted
  • 2  tablespoons  poppy seeds
Pulse first 5 ingredients in a blender 2 or 3 times or until smooth. With blender running, add oil in a slow, steady stream; process until smooth. Stir in seeds; chill 24 hours.
Shirley Delcour, Knoxville, Tennessee, Southern Living, MARCH 2005

Wow, was this fantastic! And incredibly easy. The most time-consuming part was cutting up the strawberries, and that went quickly. For my toppings I used sliced red onions and a little chopped bacon. Deeelicious! Although it would have been almost as good without the bacon in case you'd like to leave it out. The dressing recipe does make about three times the necessary amount and calls for a ton of poppy seeds and sesame seeds. In the future, I'll halve the total recipe and cut back on the seeds - they make the dressing look ugly when served on the side.

This salad is definitely a keeper! What are your favorite recipes for spring?

There's an App for That: The 5 Apps That Run My Life

I'm not an early adopter of technology, but once it creeps into my life it takes over. Enter the iPhone.

When Michael's incredibly thoughtful parents gave me an iPhone as a replacement for my archaic, smashed-to-pieces Nokia, I was dazzled. At first I was just mesmerized by the slick interface and novelty of the touch screen. But inevitably I made my way to the app store and discovered there was way more to this gadget than I had imagined. I'm not a big fan of games except for the occasional crossword puzzle. (If I'm going to waste time I'll do it on facebook, thankyouverymuch!) But a few apps have redefined the way I take care of business - and fun!

Here's a list of my top five apps:

1. Mealboard. This app alone is enough to make me a long-term iPhone devotee, at least as long as it's not offered by another system. It stores countless recipes organized by customizable categories, from which you can create weekly meal plans and menu templates. You can even make customizable grocery lists from these meal plans. It takes a serious time investment to get started, but I entered a lot of my favorite recipes in a short time by doing it whenever I was watching TV or waiting for dinner to cook. Now, whenever I see a recipe I'd like to try I enter the ingredients (I don't bother with the instructions) into my phone for later use. I love that I can plan my meals over my lunch break and go straight to the store after work. It's also great for someone like me, who's always trying new recipes - I no longer lose and forget about recipes we like.

2. Week Cal. It's not hugely different from the built-in calendar, but it includes a handy week view. It copies info and settings from the original calendar for an easy transition. For some reason I just really prefer the way the appointments look on this app, which means that I actually use it. I've even started scheduling things like my weekly TV night and doing laundry.

3. Mint. I love using for our online budget. It's free and links with multiple bank accounts for a complete and up-to-date look at our finances. The mobile app allows me to see how much money I have left in a certain budget, like groceries, before I make a purchase. It also allows me to assign budget categories to purchases (although most are automatically assigned) while on-the-go so everything's organized the next time I log on.

4. iBooks. I've recently started reading books on my iPhone. Anything that's available through Project Gutenberg is free to download on iBooks and other online readers. Since most of these books are old classics, I've embraced it as an opportunity to fill in some of the cracks in my literary education. So far I've read A Christmas Carol, Mansfield Park, and The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I'm reading Jane Eyre now. I tried Moby Dick and decided I just wasn't enjoying it. Sometimes it's good to just be honest with yourself and move on! I'll always be attached to the feel, look, and smell of real books, but I love the convenience of reading at times that I wouldn't normally be carrying a book. My favorite thing about it is reading in the dark, especially since Michael goes to sleep before I do. It's also great for dark car rides.

5. LiveStrong Calorie Tracker. This mobile companion to the Livestrong website allows me to look up the nutrition content of most foods, including lots of restaurant items, and tally them against my goal calories for the day. It's so quick and complete that I sometimes use it at work when estimating patients' calorie and protein intakes. It also allows me to estimate calories burned through exercise and count them toward my calorie balance. The exercise numbers aren't accurate since they don't take into account factors like gender and body weight, but it is nice to see a reward for all that hard work. Also, you can make a line graph of your weight and BMI to plot your progress. Unless you're trying to lose weight I don't recommend tracking calories every day, but it can be enlightening to count them every once in a while and see what the numbers tell you.

Are there any apps that you just couldn't give up? Or do you still proudly tote a not-smart phone?

Thursday, March 3

Recipe Review: Orange Pecan Scones

Who doesn't love having a little something extra to nibble on? These scones are easy to make and can be heated up for a yummy breakfast (or afternoon snack - is that weird?) that lasts all week.

I've got to stop using my phone as my main camera!

The online version of the recipe is slightly different than the one in The All New Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook, which is what I use:

Orange-Pecan Scones

2  cups  self-rising flour
1/2  cup  sugar
2  teaspoons  grated orange rind
1/3  cup  butter or margarine
1/2  cup  buttermilk
1/4  cup  fresh orange juice
1/2  cup  chopped pecans, toasted
1  teaspoon vanilla extract
Turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw) - optional

Combine first 3 ingredients. Cut butter into flour mixture with a pastry blender until crumbly; add buttermilk and next 3 ingredients, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead 3 or 4 times.
Divide dough in half; pat each portion into a 6-inch circle, and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Cut each circle into 6 wedges (do not separate wedges); sprinkle each circle with 2 tsp turbinado.
Bake at 425° for 12 to 14 minutes or until golden brown.

Note: Freeze scones up to 1 month. Thaw in refrigerator 8 hours. Bake scones at 350ยบ for 10 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
Southern Living, APRIL 2001

I'm not sure what tempted me to try these scones a few years ago because all the others I've eaten have been tough and dry. For instance, the mini vanilla scones at Starbucks could be used as construction material! But this recipe makes a somewhat wet dough that results in moist and tender scones. Just be careful not to knead it too much or add much extra flour.

Kitchen Tip: If you don't want to buy a whole carton of buttermilk for one recipe you can substitute with regular milk and lemon juice or white vinegar (I prefer lemon juice). Just pour one tablespoon of lemon juice into a liquid measuring cup and fill to the one cup line with milk. Let stand for five minutes to curdle. I scale it down to make just the right amount.

In case you're wondering what a pastry blender is, here's a picture of mine:

I got it at an estate sale for less than a dollar (yes!), but they're cheap in stores, too. This simple tool is the ideal way to distribute cold butter into flour to make pastry. Why not use a mixer, you ask? Small pieces of butter melt when baked and create little pockets of tender yumminess. If you don't have a pastry blender, use a fork or two knives to cut the butter into the dough until the butter bits are smaller than peas and the flour is crumbly.

See the "pockets of tender yumminess?"

Anyone want to come over for tea? I feel like that's more dignified than dunking them in milk. : )

Wednesday, March 2

Jungle Cake Revisited

February is over! I thought it would never end!

It's been a rough month. I've learned that working two jobs is no easy thing, especially when both of us are sick the whole time. I'm still thankful for a chance to work at a unique facility with the friendliest staff I've ever met. But here at the Vaughan house we're dancing for joy at the close of such a stinky time! (Really, I just danced). Now that I've regained some energy and free time I can get back to blogging.

Several weeks ago I posted the first half of the Jungle Cake process, so I figured I would finish it out in case you're still burning with curiosity. : )  The main thing I've learned so far in my cake endeavors is that success has much more to do with time than talent. This is encouraging to newbies like me, because as long as we have enough time and LOTS of patience, we can make just about anything!

With my tiers frosted and refrigerated, it was time for the fun - fondant. First up was the white cover for the bottom tier. I took some fondant out of the package, massaged it until pliable, and rolled it out to a little less than 1/4-inch thickness. To know when my circle was big enough, I measured the height of the tier, multiplied by two, and added the diameter of the top of the tier, plus a few inches of wiggle room (not really rocket science when you look at it). So, for a 10-inch cake that's 4 inches tall, you would need a piece of fondant that's about 20 inches wide in all directions. Some people like to dust their surfaces with cornstarch or powdered sugar, but I smear mine with a little bit of shortening. When my circle was big enough, I lifted an edge and laid it over my rolling pin. I continued peeling up the fondant and loosely wrapping it around the rolling pin until it was all up.

Rolling out the light brown fondant

To drape the fondant over the cake I just unwound it from the rolling pin. If your frosting is cold, you should be able to pick up the fondant and move it if it's not centered. Smoothing the fondant requires picking up an edge, pressing a small area against the side of the cake, and moving on to a bit nearby until the whole cake is smooth. Once that was done, I trimmed the excess with a pizza cutter and rubbed the whole thing down with a fondant smoother to get out any bubbles. I repeated this process with light brown fondant for the smaller tier, but of course, I had to color it first. I actually had a big tear in the fondant on my top tier, which I chose to patch and ignore as it was really late at night!

My newly covered tier

Trimmed and ready for decorating (still not perfectly smooth)

Since dark fondant colors take a ton of coloring and usually don't turn out quite right, I used precolored black and dark brown fondant from a set of skin-colored fondant for my animal prints. To make the zebra stripes I rolled out black fondant and used a utility knife (none of our paring knives were sharp enough) to cut thin, pointed strips. I flipped each strip over and wet it lightly with a small paintbrush. Then I pressed it gently onto the surface of the white tier. Since the center would be covered, I periodically set the 6-inch cake pan on top to be sure it would look right when stacked. The process was the same for the giraffe print, except that I cut block-like shapes.

Adding stripes one at a time

Cutting and wetting stripes

Giraffe print (you can see the seam from my fondant patch)

Giraffe blocks

Before I stacked my cake I needed to cover my cake board. I stacked together two cake bases with a little icing in between and secured them with tape. Then, I rolled out a large piece of green fondant a little thicker than I would for a cake and draped it over my board. I ended up with a small tear in my fondant, but that was covered by the cake. I trimmed the excess while leaving a little bit to tuck under the edge and smoothed the fondant as I did with the cake tiers.

Covered cake board

With my board ready it was time to stack the cake. Since I didn't like the wooden dowels I used for my practice wedding cake I bought some hollow plastic dowels to use this time. I feel like these provide much more sturdy support. I inserted one dowel in each spot I planned to place a cut dowel and marked the height of the cake each time. I cut four dowels even with the lowest mark on my measuring dowel and inserted them in the holes. Then, I smeared a dab of icing on the cake board and placed the bottom tier in the center. Before topping it with the other tier I spread some icing on the top to work as glue. Once my tiers were stacked I measured a wooden dowel to the height of my cake and pushed it through both tiers, including the cardboard circle beneath the top tier. My dowel happened to be sharp at the end - otherwise I could have used a pencil sharpener.

Dowels inserted and ready for stacking

The grass turned out to be an incredibly easy way to seal the tiers together and add something really special to the cake. To get the effect, I colored buttercream icing green and put it in a decorating bag fitted with a grass tip. I placed the tip near the cake surface and squeezed briefly while pulling the tip away from the cake. The results were perfect! I went all the way around the cake and then filled in any spots that looked sparse. It probably took less than a minute.

After adding the grass

With my cake ready I was only missing my animals. I didn't want my lion to blend in with the giraffe pattern, so I cut a circle from the fondant left from covering my cake board and placed the lion on top of it. Since my figures were formed on lollipop sticks I inserted the lion's stick directly into the cake, just adjacent to my dowel. Then I snipped off the bottoms of the sticks from the monkey and elephant using kitchen shears and placed them on the cake board. Finally, all I had left to do was take pictures!

All done!

So, what do you think? Any ideas for my next cake adventure?