Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I finished the class!

Last night was the last class of course I, so we were given our certificates.

This actually was a lot of fun, and I learned an amazing amount of useful things in just 4 weeks.

I hadn't originally planned to do the next two classes, but since they are still doing a half off the tuition deal, I am going to do the next one where we learn to work with royal icing and do all kinds of flowers....including daisys.

This is the cake we did last night.

The top has a whole cluster of roses, then there are little sweet peas and a shell border around the bottom.

While I was working on it in class, the teacher showed me that the tip for doing flower petals has changed over the 20-some years since I got my set.

While the new tip is actually easier to learn how to do a rose with, the tip I have makes more realistic looking flowers, it just takes a bit more work.

I think I'm glad to have that old tip, but I may actually buy one of the new ones too.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A few thoughts about smart shopping

I used to think those ladies that said they could cut one quarter of their grocery bill off by smart shopping were nuts. But that was back in the day when we had two good paying jobs (and worked the hours to go with them), so a trip to the grocery store did not constitute the most important chore in our weekend.

Now days we must pay a lot closer attention to where every penny goes, and it has become a sort of "can I beat them" game.

Since I'm armed with a list of what's in my freezer and my pantry (you did do that this week didn't you?), shopping is a sort of five part exercise in beating the system.

Part 1: The List
If you are trying to save your pennies, never, NEVER go to the store without a list (never go when you are hungry either.....its deadly to your health and your finances!)

The List begins with a sort of running note during the week of those things that we are out of or we're close to out of.....milk, bread, etc., are the basis of this part of The List.

Additions to The List really grow when the weekly ads arrive (see Part 2)

Part 2: Weekly Grocery Ads
You may have thought of this part of the newspaper or the bulk mail as just something else to recycle. If so, you need to revise your thinking.

I start out with a sheet of notebook paper and the ads for the three stores that are in our area (close enough that we can do all of them in one day without having to take a cooler with us).

I go through each ad and write down the items that I might be interested in and what the price is at each store. You'll discover that more than one store may have the same item on a sale. This is where it gets tricky and it becomes more important to write this all down before you go.

Just because two stores have romaine lettuce on a BOGO (buy one get one) free special, it does not mean it makes no difference which store you get them at. This week at two stores in our area they had just such a special running. At one store I would have paid $3.69 for two packages under the BOGO, at the other store it was only $3.29 ... its all good! Read all that fine print and choose the store that saves you that extra $0.40 on top of getting that free package!

After I know what all the specials are I go through the whole list and highlight which price is the best on items that are available in more than one store.

All of this data gets transfered to a new sheet of paper with sections for each store. I write down what the items are at each of the stores and what the prices advertised are (it pays to make sure you actually get the price that was advertised).

Part 3: Coupons
Now when you get that Sunday paper, there are usually some little packets of coupons in there. Once again, these are not just to go in the recycle bin! Read those sections with a pair of scissors in hand. Clip out the ones that are for stuff you actually use (don't bother with the rest of them, there's no point saving coupons for baby food if your youngest child is 24--unless they have a baby of their own!)

After you have created your master list in Part 2, go through the coupons you have and see what coupons you have that can be used for anything that's on your list. My favorite thing is to find something that's on a great sale that I also have a great coupon for....its like found money!! And a lot of stores in our are will double your coupon up to $1.00, so it can be like getting free food.

Make a note on your list if you have a coupon to use for something. If there is a particular store that you know has a better deal on something that was on your list in Part 1, make a note of that too.

Remember, The List is your roadmap to saving $$$!

Part 4: The shopping
Do this part right after breakfast in the middle of the week if you possibly can. You don't want to shop when you're hungry (your brain doesn't function well, and everything looks good so you'll overspend every time). In the middle of the week you will get the best selection on the items that are on sale and might be limited in quantity.

Take your own cloth bags with you! The grocery stores in our area give us $0.05 per bag that we bring in because they aren't using the ones they have to pay for. Besides, why do you need all those plastic bags.....adding to the landfil is not what I have in mind when I do my shopping. I even take my cloth bags with me when I go to Walmart....they may grumble, but they will use them (they won't give you any kind of $$ off tho').

Stick to your list! Buy what you know you need. Don't buy 6 cans or packages of something you've never tried just because its on sale, that doesn't save you anything if no one in the house will eat it. And watch for expiration dates on EVERYTHING that you buy.

When you're picking up the things on your list, compare the prices of different sizes, watch for the coupons that are right there in the store in those little dispenser things on the shelves and the ones that are right on the packages (I bought a bigger jar of pickles for less than the smallest jar by picking up the size that was on sale and using the coupon that was with the display).

Usually our only departure from our list is a trip through the markdowns. My mother (who has been doing this for years!) calls this "used meat" when it is at the butcher counter. Since we usually will not buy pre-ground hamburger (who knows what's in there!), we look for quality pieces of beef that are marked down. A chuck roast that is well aged makes some of the best hamburger you'll ever eat, so if you have the ability to grind your own, consider this option.

Part 5: The Reward
The reward is more money in your pocket and eating well. As we have shopped over the last two weeks, I have gotten $211 of groceries for $136.14 -- we saved 35.5%!! over the three stores. In one store I saved 46.4%. We have also earned two $0.10 per gallon off on a gas fill up, which will save us another $5 or so.

My favorite "save" for this week was this one: we needed coffee, and one store had a particular brand of bulk whole bean coffee on sale for $8.99 a pound. I also had a coupon for a FREE 12 ounce package of the same brand of coffee if you bought either a pound of bulk or 2 12 ounce packages. I bought a pound and a quarter of bulk beans and got the 12 ounce package for savings of $8.20!

Yes this all takes some time, but its worth the effort, and it makes me feel like I'm winning somewhere!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

its a flower cake.....

and I'm pleased with the results of last night's class work....the cake looks pretty nice....white frosting, pale pink flowers with yellow centers....

I used a little almond in the frosting, so it really tastes nice too......

Only one more class to go. Next week we do roses, so we're supposed to practice that this week.....

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

No more bad leftovers.....

I can just hear the chorus out there saying "leftovers, EWWWWWWHHH!"

Trust me here, there is a major difference between what I'm talking about and those 3 week old containers of stuff from the restaurant meal that are turning into a science project at the back of your fridge (yes, I know they're there, I'm a mom after all!)

What I'm talking about here is leftovers that are PLANNED!

When the weather gets hot I just hate to heat up the kitchen every single day to cook something, so we shift into "batch mode". One of our favorites is to cook extra chicken. Depending on what the other meal plans for the week are, it may be worth while to cook a whole extra chicken just to make up chicken salads later in the week.

Here then are two recipes to use left over chicken in:

Chinese Chicken Salad

1 small head of cabbage, finely shredded
1/4 red onion thinly sliced (or use 1 bunch of green onions)
1 large chicken breast, cooked, deboned and shredded (I use a fork to do the shredding)
1 package Ramen noodles, broken into pieces (throw the seasoning packet away)

Toss these items together until well mixed

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp chicken bullion base
1 cup sesame oil
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/4 cup sesame seeds

In a small skillet toast the sesame seeds until they are golden brown.

Blend together all of the other ingredients, then add sesame seeds

Pour dressing over salad and top with 1/4 cup sliced (or slivered) almonds

Any left over salad makes a great lunch the next day!

Chicken Waldorf Salad

1 large chicken breast, cooked, deboned and cut into small cubes
2 inner ribs of celery, chopped into small dice
1 medium red apple (braeburn or gala taste best), seeded and diced
1/2 cup pecan pieces
1/4 to 1/3 cup mayonnaise

Mix chicken, celery, apple and pecans.

Begin with 1/4 cup of the mayonnaise. If the mixture seems dry, add the rest of the mayonnaise.

This is really attractive if arranged on a lettuce leaf with tomato wedges, pecan halves and black olives as garnish.

See, if you plan for those leftovers, there are no bad ones!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Taking inventory

As most anyone with a freezer other than the one in their refridgerator knows, its easy to loose track of what's in there.

Over the years we've gotten better at using up everything, but about every 6 months or so we need to take inventory.

Yesterday, since our dog is off at "sleep over camp" with our daughter, we decided to take that inventory.

I make up a list that we keep posted on the door, and it helps us with planning meals and making sure that nothing ends up as a science project gone bad.

Since we had been so good doing that, this morning I did an inventory in our other food storage area--the basement.

This is where I keep everything from paper goods to home canned tomatoes, and what's in this area helps us with meal planning and saving on groceries too.

A lot of people envision 50 pound bags of wheat when you say the words "Food Storage", but for us, its more about having on hand those things that you actually will eat.

On the whole, if we had to, we could probably go 2 or 3 weeks without buying anything other than fresh fruits and veggies, which isn't ideal (longer would be better), but it does mean if I needed to I could produce a decent meal on very short notice.

So my challenge to all of you today is: do you know what you actually have in your freezer? How about your pantry?

Its time to find out!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cakes and living "green"

As I've been doing the practicing for the baking of "The" cake, I'd been thinking about how much I hated using those spray cans of no-stick stuff, but I'd not been happy with the mess of rubbing on the shortening and then spreading flour everywhere except exactly where I wanted it on the cake pan.

The solution is at hand!

In my cake decorating class I was given a recipe for pan release that I have used and I highly recommend. Not only is it earth friendly, not being in another container that's going to be in the landfill forever, but it is amazingly easy to make and inexpensive too!

I mixed up my batch and put it in a cottage cheese container (the tall one) that I had saved, wrote "Cake Release" in big red letters on the lid with a Sharpie marker and I'm set for quite a while. The container now sits in the cabinet where all those spray cans would live temporarily, but this container is probably going to last a LONG time!

You should try this stuff!

Cake Release

1 cup shortening (I used some butter flavor Crisco that I had on hand)
3/4 cup oil (canola is great, anything will work, just not olive oil unless you like that flavor with your cakes)
1 cup flour

Mix all of these together with a mixer until well blended

I use a small piece of an old tea towel to apply this stuff to the bottom and sides of the pan, then put a piece of parchment paper in the bottom of the pan and apply more cake release on top of the paper. The parchment is really only necessary if you want to be totally secure that there will be no problems getting the cake out of the pan.....

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sunday's cake

Thanks to my sister who had her new digital camera with her, I have these pictures of the cake I did over the weekend to show off.

This was a strawberry cake with a plain white vanilla frosting, then I put the cut fresh strawberries on top.

I can tell you that the bunch of us made pretty short work of eating it too!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Cake Decorating, class 2

This is the cake I did in class last night.

I had a lot of trouble with the purple frosting because it was too stiff to do stars with, especially toward the end of the class.

The green ones on the bottom edge of the cake and the "hill" on top are all very neat and almost all the same size, so I feel pretty good about having mastered that technique.

During class I am also picking the teacher's brain about roses and daisies for wedding cakes. I'll be doing some practicing on rose centers this week as we move to the next step on that in next week's class.

Since we're going to be gone over the weekend, I will be experimenting with baking a cake and freezing it for next week's class. Actually this is a good thing for me to try out since we'll probably need to do that for wedding cake pieces.

Let them eat cake!!