Thursday, October 17, 2013

Halloween Candied Caramel Corn

Last year I made these Halloween treat bags filled with candied popcorn. (Melt candy melts, pour over popcorn, stir and let set....easy and yummy!) The treat tags use clip art by my fabulously talented daughter. You can download them here for free in my teacherspayteachers store. 
This year, I took this favorite to another level by combining caramel corn with the candy melts. I got the idea from some expensive "Zebra" popcorn we bought that had chocolate and white chocolate drizzled on caramel corn. We actually like this just as well as the commercial kind. 
First, make your caramel corn. Here's a tried and true recipe:
15 cups popped popcorn
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
Cook brown sugar, butter and corn syrup in a saucepan over medium heat until it bubbles around the edges. Cook and stir for five minutes. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda. Pour over the popcorn and stir. If you like chewy caramel corn, stop here. If you like it crispier (more Cracker Jack-like), bake on sheets in the oven at 200 degrees for up to an hour, stirring every 15 minutes or so. ( I bake it for about 20 minutes).
 Place about half a bag of Candy Melts in a plastic bag and microwave for 20 seconds. Take the bag out and mush around. Microwave 15 seconds at a time until just melted. Squish the bag around to make sure the candy is liquid. Clip off a tiny corner of the bag and squeeze over caramel corn.

 Stir the popcorn lightly and let it cool completely. Seal in plastic bags.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Easy Crocheted Baby Blanket

What's a grandma to do while waiting for a new grandbaby? Make something, of course. This one went camping with me, got stuffed into my school bag in case I had time between classes, and left in the backseat of my car on the day I did a triathlon in case I was there early enough and needed to calm my nerves. I had an overtime load of classes as the due date approached, but I finished it the day before Cooper was born (a week past his due date). That pattern was super simple so I could pick it up any time and start right where I left off without thinking, but I thought it was a really beautiful design. Here is the booklet where I found the instructions.

It took one jumbo skein of lightweight yarn and a size 5 mm (H8) hook. The basic pattern is a shell with five double crochets each, with a single double crochet in between each shell. I plan on making this one again. The pattern is called "first baby blanket," but it's a generous size, so it will be useful into the toddler years.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Cooper is here!

 Actually, he's been here for a week, but here are the pictures of the happy parents and Lance and I visiting a day later. Hailee and Chris have a lot of family, so there is a lot of love and care surrounding them and this little guy. I'm very grateful to them for allowing me to be a part of this wonderful circle and have a grandparenting role in baby Cooper's life.
 Could there be a happier grandpa?
There's no describing this feeling.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

First Birthday Cake Shortcuts

 When I make wedding cakes, perfectly even layers and perfectly smooth icing are worth spending hours to achieve. For my grandson's first birthday cake, however, I cut some corners, and when the cake was all done, it showed. My perfectionist self wasn't thrilled with the lopsided, leaning tower result. How could I remedy the situation without essentially starting over? Curling ribbon! You can barely tell that the layers are leaning to one side because the ribbon is a distraction.

I curled the ribbon in long lengths and taped the ends to a skewer, which I inserted behind the candle (which is also leaning, but that's another problem). I think it added some fun to the cake, too, so I might do this again, even with a  non-leaning cake.

I also saved some time shopping for a "1" candle. I didn't want to drive around to different stores, so I bought the only one in the store, which had a yellow outline and looked kind of weak against the bright blue and orange on the cake. I saved it by piping blue icing around the edge.

I had planned on piping dots all over the cake, but while I was standing in line, I saw these candy buttons and candy spots at the checkout line, and immediately recognized their time-saving value. I was a little worried the color might bleed, so I stuck a few in some icing and left it for a couple of hours to be safe. I was so happy when there was no bleeding. Sticking these babies on the sides of the cake was so much easier and neater than mixing icing colors and piping the dots.

Of course the end result didn't matter to Ryan. He decided it was better to smear it on himself and the balloons instead of eating it. He is mad in this picture because people were trying to get him to eat it instead of play with it. I didn't mind one bit. On your birthday, you get to do what you want! Happy Birthday, baby!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Baby Pool Summer Fun

 Baby who loves water + baby pool + hot day on a shade patio + toys from the dollar store = Fun! Some things never get old or outdated. Check out these funny squid dive toys from the Dollar Tree. Of course Ryan's favorite toy was a plastic tupperware container (had to keep him from using it to drink all the water, though).
When I was pregnant with Ryan's dad, Andrew, we lived in student housing with no air conditioning, and it was an unusually hot summer. Since Brennyn's favorite thing was the campus pool (with no shallow end, so she learned to swim fast and well) I donned my hugely unflattering maternity suit, and that's where we spent the summer. These kids have chlorine in their blood.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Green Bean Casserole 2.0

I'm usually too much of a food snob to admit to liking anything with a cream of mushroom soup base, but I do I love the ubiquitous Thanksgiving green bean casserole. I also love fresh green beans, but my son, who eats at my house frequently, doesn't care for them (and I give him a pass, because he eats everything else on the planet). I noticed that him eating the casserole on Thanksgiving, though, and enjoying it. So I set out to find a better version, one I could use in the summer with the abundant fresh green beans, and wouldn't feel so heavy. After a little trial and error, and adjusting of existing recipes, here it is. Bonus: you can make it in a slow cooker. Try it out on your green bean hater. Mine loved it!

Green Bean Casserole 2.0
 1 lb. fresh green beans
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup french-fried onion rings
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 can (8 ounces) water chestnuts, sliced
1/4 cup water
1/8 tsp. black pepper

Layer half the ingredients in a slow cooker, then repeat. Cook on high for about 3 hours or low for about 5 hours. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter Nest Treats

These easter nests are made from those dried chow mein noodles that you probably haven't had since the early 1980s. When I went looking for these a few years back, I was surprised they were still around. It brought back some bad memories of childhood canned chow mein dinners, but at least these were the tasty part of those convenience dinners gone awry.
There are a lot of recipes with different variations of easter nest treats, but the best recipe, by far, is the one adapted by my sister from a twenty-year-old recipe. Here is a link to her blog with a better picture of the nests. The only thing I changed from her version is that I used chunky peanut butter instead of creamy, and I always make these with Cadbury chocolate eggs. As much as I love jelly beans, they just don't work as well with this recipe.

Melt 1/4 cup butter and 4 1/2 cups (1 bag) of mini marshmallows over medium heat, stirring until smooth. Stir in 1/4 cup peanut butter and 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips until melted.
 Remove from heat and stir in 4 cups of the chow mein noodles. When you stir this up, it's going to look like something went wrong. It'll be all sticky and stringy, but don't worry, it will be fine.

Dip your hands in cold water to prevent the stickies and make 18 nests on waxed paper. Leave an indentation in the middle large enough to place two or three of the Cadbury eggs. That's it! Easy and delicious.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Small Traditions

Women's World Magazine interviewed me the other day on tips for bringing families closer together and deepening bonds. I started naming ideas from my new book 52 Activities for Family Fun, and some other ideas I've come up with recently, drawn from my new-grandma status. After the interview was over, I realized almost all the ideas I felt had meaning had something to do with tradition. None of the things were big and expensive; on the contrary, they were small, sometimes silly, things.

This hit home again yesterday, when I woke up on my birthday morning anticipating the expected joys of the day: A well-chosen card from my husband (he is the master of card-choosing), Cadbury creme eggs (which I was going to buy for myself, but my daughter Brennyn beat me to the punch by sending me some through the mail), enchiladas for dinner, flowers, and a card mocking my age from my teenage son (along with a very sweet note). These are the things that cause me to look forward to the day, because they are, well, expected. Chevy's Fresh Mex and the scratch-and-sniff-better-with-age-stinky-cheese card, are, by themselves, not the stuff dreams are made of, but they are the fabric of birthdays past, present, and future.

I used to think I failed my children in the tradition area, because we moved around so much when they were small, and their lives were radically changed when I became a single mother and we eventually blended with another family, but it turns out it was a few simple traditions that I kept in tact that seemed to matter. When my husband and I traveled to Idaho to visit my daughter and her husband this Christmas, they made tortilla soup on Christmas Eve and planned cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, the two things I had always made. I was also excited that they also followed the tradition of present-opening on Christmas Eve. It was a surreal feeling, a manifestation of what she carried with her from her childhood.

Things inevitably evolve and change over the years, and that's OK. I went on a ten-mile run in the morning (which I wouldn't have dreamed of doing, ever, when I was younger) so I could afford the indulgences of the day, and also as a kick in the pants to Father Time, and I plan to do something similar every year until I can't do it any more. There's always room for new traditions, but I'll probably always look forward to those silly cards and enchiladas.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Triple Slow Cooker

 I've always been a fan of slow cookers, so imagine how excited I was when I found this baby at Target for less than $40.00. A triple slow cooker! With a traditional slow cookers, the convenience of a make-ahead dish was offset by still having to make vegetables or other side dishes at dinnertime. With this triple version, I can make the entire meal in the morning, and there is truly nothing else to do when we are ready to eat. Each pot has its own control and a wire stand for the lid. I'm in love with this thing!

 Here is my favorite meal using my new favorite kitchen toy: chicken thighs and legs with seasoning salt, green beans and baked potatoes. Did you know you can bake potatoes in a slow cooker? I was skeptical when I saw this on Pinterest, but I gave it a try, and they turn out great. Prepare them just like you would if you were going to bake them, foil and all, and put them in the slow cooker.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Crochet Balls Baby Toy

Lily's first birthday required something handmade, of course. She lives in another state, so I wanted to make something that was light and easy to mail. I decided on crochet balls, but couldn't find a good pattern. They were either too small (lots of cute arigumi patterns, but too small for a one-year-old), or weirdly misshapen. After much trial and error, I found the perfect pattern here. The only modification I made was using multi-colored yarn and leaving out the middle stripe (just use the same yarn instead of switching colors where indicated in the instructions).

First, crochet the halves of the ball according to the pattern. Do this while you are not distracted, because you have to count stitches carefully. My poor husband got a dirty look when he said something funny and made me lose my place!


Sew the halves together with a big darning needle. Stop about an inch and a half from the finish.

 Stuff with polyester stuffing and finish sewing shut. Tie a couple of good knots and weave in the end of the yarn. Happy Birthday Lily!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Best Baby Products for Grandmas

 There is an overwhelming amount of products for babies, and they seem to have multiplied sixty times over in the space between when I had babies and grandbabies. It's been interesting to see what seemed like a good idea, but is used once and then put aside (baby bath contraption, video baby monitor...) These two products, however, are my favorites, and they are new since my go-round with kidlets. I don't know how I survived without them.  
The first is this mesh food holder. My niece Michelle told me about it, and it's Ryan's favorite thing. It keeps him entertained and he could feed himself before he had the motor skills to do it any other way. I put a piece of banana (Ryan's favorite) or peeled apple inside the mesh holder, and then he can suck out the fruit and juice. Since it comes through the mesh, there is nothing to choke on. The banana does make a big mess, so that's why he's naked in the picture. Easier to hose off afterwards! I don't always have baby food around, but I always have bananas or apples. Michelle says her daughter loved peaches and nectarines the best.

My other favorite baby thing is this little seat I got from Target. The padded seat helped him sit up before he could do it on his own, and it functions as a play table and high chair. The circle part rotates around to a food tray or a variety of attached toys. I love that I don't have to have a big high chair in my kitchen, and he is very happy to sit on the table and watch me cook or do dishes, especially if he's got a banana in his mesh feeder. He also makes an entertaining centerpiece for Sunday dinner!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cookie Bouquet

My husband loves these sugar cookies for Valentine's Day, but I wanted to do something a little different this year. I decided to make a cookie bouquet, because any food is better if you put it on a stick, right? The recipe for the cookies is here.  Roll out the dough thick enough to support a bamboo skewer. Cut out the shapes and place them on a cookie sheet. Stick the skewer into the dough so it goes through the whole length of the cookie. Make sure it goes through the middle of the dough and isn't coming through on the back.

 Put a piece of styrofoam or floral foam inside a basket, large mug or other container.

 Place some tissue loosely on top of the styrofoam, and tuck it on the edges between the styrofoam and the container.

Stick in the cookies, starting with the middle and working out toward the edges. It's almost too pretty to eat, but I'm sure my husband will manage.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Chocolate Dipped Strawberries - Easy!

Chocolate-dipped strawberries are so delicious and decadent, but you really shouldn't buy them because you can make them easily and inexpensively yourself. It's not hard, I promise, and you'll save yourself the $40 - $50 you would spend to buy them. I used to work at a place where we made gourmet dipped fruit, and imagine how amazed I was when I realized it was nothing more than semi-sweet chocolate chips and a little technique.

First, wash the berries thoroughly and let them dry completely before you dip them. If you get water droplets in the chocolate, it will ruin it, and if the berries are wet, they won't hold the chocolate properly. The best way to ensure that they are dry is to lay the berries out on a towel to air dry, but if you're impatient like me, you can roll them around on a towel until all the water is gone.

The chocolate is simply semi-sweet chocolate chips. Place about a cup of chips in a microwave-safe container. Heat for 30 seconds and stir, then heat for 15 seconds at a time, stir, and repeat until they are just barely melted. Stir until smooth. Do not overheat or you'll get lumpy chocolate.

You can stir in a tablespoon of shortening if you want - this is how some of the retail places do it to thin the chocolate and get a smoother, glossier finish. I prefer to give up a little of the aesthetics, however, for a better-tasting, more satisfying chocolate coating.

 If you want to dip the berries in other toppings such as coconut and chopped nuts, put these in little bowls ahead of time.

Grab the strawberry by the green part and swirl it in the chocolate until all sides are coated. I like to leave a good part of the berry at the top uncoated. Tap off the extra chocolate and twirl the berry to finish off the little tail of chocolate.

Dip the berry in the coconut or nuts if you are going to do this step.

Set the berry on waxed paper on a cookie sheet to set. It takes about an hour until they are set and ready to move.

 I like to add a white chocolate stripe on some of the berries. Put a small amount of white chocolate chips in a baggie and microwave for 15 seconds, take it out and squish it around, and repeat until the chips are just melted. Cut one corner off the bag and squeeze out to make the stripes.

I made a fairly thick stripe on these berries, but you can go thinner by cutting the corner smaller.

That's it! Super impressive, and no one needs to know how easy it was.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Personalized Onesies

 In my experience, people enjoy baby showers for the socializing, food, and, of course, the opening of the presents (ooooh, how cute!!!). Less popular are the games. In fact, some guests loathe the games and just tolerate them to be a good sport. So when I was trying to come up with an activity for Ryan's shower, I tried to find something that would be engaging and wouldn't encourage guests to hide in the bathroom. Personalizing onesies seemed like the perfect idea - an activity and gift in one!

I bought several packages of plain white onesies in sizes from newborn to 12 months and pre-washed and dried them. Then I slipped cardboard pieces inside the onesies to hold the fabric taut and provide a hard surface (cake rounds worked well), and bought some fabric markers.

At the shower, guests were free to decorate on their own or collaborate. Above is a picture of some of the results, and below is Ryan in the onesie I made. Yes, it's self-serving, but you can't argue with its truth.