Friday, March 30, 2012

Let Them Eat Cake

It's that time of year again. You know. Spring. When ALL of my kids have their birthdays. 

That means cake, cake, and more cake! 

And, of course, now that they are in school, I have to think up cute things for them to take for their birthday treat for their friends IN ADDITION TO a cute birthday cake for their party (which could be challenging depending on the theme they choose). Thankfully my kids are flexible and I can usually convince them that my "easier" version of their cake idea will be even more awesome.

This year, I got off easy with my youngest. Since she is only 2, she really doesn't know what she wants and really doesn't care about what her cake looks like. We did a dinosaur party and my cake was a total flop. I tried to use a cookie cutter to make dino shaped cupcakes. FAIL. So what the kids got was random shaped cupcakes out of the part of the cake that I didn't ruin. They didn't care. Sugar is sugar, right? I've got to step up my game for her next year, though, because 3 year olds are in a whole different league.

Next up is my son's 6th birthday. We had originally decided on a pirate party, but somewhere along the way he begged for a bowling party. Since I hadn't started on any of the decorations or planning, switching was easy. And I am SO glad we changed. Since we are going to a bowling alley for his party, I don't have to clean my house before OR after the party! Yay! This sounds like a cop out, but I clean ALL THE TIME. I jump at any chance for a break.

So back to the cake. I really try to make everything from scratch. I know it would be really easy, and pretty cheap, to go get a box of cake mix and can of icing. But I can't pronounce some of the ingredients, and really, I have everything I need in my pantry. And, thanks to the internet, I have thousands of recipes at my fingertips (this is one of those times that I am very grateful for the internet..... there are other times that I hate it, but this is not the place to discuss that).

Today I have to take my son's treat to his school. I decided to make cake cones. I've never actually made any (or eaten any) but I remember seeing them as a kid and thinking it was SO cool. It's really easy too. All you do is line up your cones in a baking dish (I used a rectangular cake pan) and fill them half way with cake batter. You can't see it, but I put a few chocolate chips in the bottom of the cone before filling them with batter as an extra special surprise when the kids eat them. (I'll get better at taking pictures to post.... I'm still new at this blog thing). Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Let them cool completely and top with your favorite icing. I added sprinkles because what kid doesn't like sprinkles?
They didn't turn out exactly how I wanted (I wanted them to look more like soft serve ice cream), but I think they are still cute. I guess I need to practice my icing technique. Here's the whole batch.....
I used Keebler brand cones as well as Safeway store brand. I figured there was no difference. There IS a difference. Definitely spring for the name brand cones in this case. (When they are on sale there really isn't much price difference anyway).

So, here are the recipes I used for the cake and icing. 

Cake: This could possibly be the best, light, fluffy, moist chocolate cake I've ever had. And it is SO simple to make. I won't rewrite the recipe here since they have great instructions at this link: Hershey's "Perfectly Chocolate" Chocolate Cake

Icing: This is my "go to" recipe when I need a quick, easy vanilla buttercream. I don't remember where I got the recipe because it's scribbled on a scrap of paper in my recipe box and I've had it forever.

1/2 c. butter (softened)
1 lb. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
3 Tbsp. milk

When making icing, it is really important that your butter is room temperature. Beat it with you mixer on medium for a minute or so to make it creamy and fluffy. Add vanilla and milk and beat until mixed with butter. Add sugar a bit at a time and beat into butter mixture. Continue beating until it reaches the consistency you are looking for (depending on if you are spreading or piping the icing). You can add a little extra milk if you need to thin it out, or a little extra sugar to thicken it. 

For my cake cones, I spooned the icing into a piping bag with tip (you can use any tip you want) and then piped it on in a swirl pattern. I learned that putting ALL of the icing in the bag at one time makes it hard to pipe. I would recommend putting half in..... pipe some of your cakes.... and then refilling the bag with the rest of the icing to finish.

I will update this post with my son's party cake and my daughter's treat and cake next month. 

The last thing any of us needs is more stress. I'm trying to "not sweat the small stuff" as best I can and keep my life simple. I hope my recipes, tips, and experiences can help YOU keep YOUR life simple, even during the birthday party craziness.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


It's not what you think.

Apparently there is a new trend (well, new to me anyway) to not use shampoo when you wash your hair.... "No (sham)Poo".....

I'm probably the last one on Earth to hear about it, but just in case you were out of the loop too, here's the gist. (Thank you to my friend who spoke to me about this today... you know who you are). 

For those of us with curly hair, moisture can be our worst enemy and turn our lovely locks into a frizzy mess. Yes, there are many products out there to "tame", "smooth", and otherwise reduce frizz, but they don't always work. And besides, they cost a lot and often have crazy chemicals in them. You can blow dry your hair straight, but there is no guarantee that that will keep the frizz away either. And with three kids, I do NOT have time to blow dry my hair all the time. I'm lucky if I get a shower. It's getting better now that my kids are getting older (2, 4, and 6), but I still have WAY too much to do to spend that much time on my hair. However, I have vowed not to just put it up in a ponytail and actually attempt to "do" my hair as often as possible.

So, back to the "no-poo" method. (Ok, I can't really call it that. It's just weird. I'll have to think of some other name for it.) This is what I learned from my friend and some research on the internet (here). I'd like to actually read the book "Curly Girl" by Lorraine Massey, but until I have more time, I'm going with what I can get online.

1. Curly hair is more porous than straight, which is why humidity causes it to frizz.

2. Shampoos have sulfates to remove product buildup and oil, which also remove the natural oils that curly hair needs to stay smooth. (There are sulfate free shampoos, but why spend the money if you don't really need to, right?)

3. Conditioners have enough cleaners in them to use as a shampoo (without the damaging effects)..... it is important to make sure that the conditioners do not have certain ingredients that are harmful (these are listed in the link).

4. The "silicones" used in hair products causes buildup (only removed by sulfates) so if you do "no-poo" you also have to stop using products with silicone (or periodically use a special cleaner to remove the buildup).

5. Do not brush your hair and rinse with cold water just before getting out of the shower (I actually DID know this one) to reduce frizz.

If you want more details, go here.

I already only wash my hair 1-2 times a week (because I don't have the time for more and it really doesn't need any more than that), but I do use shampoo and various products to straighten or reduce frizz. I still have trouble, though, with my hair getting frizzy. And if it's raining outside or I'm in a humid climate? Forget about it. It even frizzes in a ponytail. So I have decided to try this method and see what happens. (My friend said it's been weeks since she used shampoo and it has had an amazing effect on her curls, so I'm hopeful). I washed my hair today with conditioner. No shampoo. I also did not brush it after my shower, used a cotton cloth instead of a terry towel to try it, and did not use any product. I probably should have shampooed it one more time with sulfate shampoo to remove the gel I had in it, but I decided not to (my product seems to have a low level of silicone, so I don't think I have much buildup to remove). I had to go to a school fundraiser, and I didn't have time to let it dry properly (and I didn't want to blowdry it), so I just pinned it up. We'll see what it looks like when I take it down. But it feels clean. The research I did warns me of a "transitional period" where my hair may look and feel worse before it gets better. Apparently this can last a few weeks. I'm hopeful that, because I don't wash my hair all the time already, it won't take long for it to "adjust" to the new program. 

Just another way I'm trying to save money, reduce chemicals, and live a little simpler.

Here are a few more websites I found with some great information on the ingredients to avoid when trying the "curly girl" method of caring for your hair:

It's been almost two weeks since I started my no shampoo regime. The first few days I was pretty skeptical and my hair seemed to look worse (though this could be because I wasn't able to let it air dry after I washed it the first time). After the second "wash"  with conditioner only, I was thrilled with the results. Super curls with very little frizz. Now that I've "washed" and dried my hair with the recommended steps (that you can learn with the above links) I am sold. I will continue to "co-wash" and avoid sulfates and silicones. In fact, I am so happy with the results that I have started doing the same thing with my daughter's curly hair. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Pizza Night

There is always one night of the week that feels like pizza night. I mean, who doesn't like pizza? (And it's one of the few foods with veggies in it... the sauce... that I can get my 4 year old to eat). Last night was our pizza night.

We have begun a quest to make the BEST pizza. We still have some tweaking to do, but we've come up with a pizza that is consistently delicious, EASY, and completely made from scratch. (except for the cheese.... but I plan to learn to make my own mozzarella this summer!) And, unless I start raising my own milk cows and growing and grinding my own flour, that's as close to scratch as I'm gonna get.

I make the dough, my husband makes the sauce, and depending on what's in the fridge, we have come up with some really unique and delicious concoctions. The best thing is that we are always prepared for pizza night. Every few months we make a big batch of sauce that we freeze in two-pizza portions. (I wanted to post the recipe here but it's not written down. My husband says I'm going to have to wait until the next batch and follow him around with a I will. And then I'll post it so you can make the most delicious pizza sauce too!) We freeze grated cheese the same way so that we only have to thaw enough for that dinner.

You get the benefit of all of my trials. Here's what we've come up with so far. (I will pretend like you have NEVER made pizza before, so I apologize if I go into too much detail).

The Oven: I think the most important thing when making pizza is the oven. Ideally you have a wood burning brick or stone oven. But who am I kidding..... very few of us have those (though my husband promises to build us one in our outdoor area in the near future.....I won't hold my breath). SO, since we don't have the fancy ovens that the pizza places have, we have to make our oven INTO a pizza oven. You MUST use a pizza stone (or other baking stone) to achieve a good crust. And you MUST put you stone in the oven WAY before you put your dough in so that it can get up to temp. (I usually put it in 45 minutes or so). I turn my oven to 500 degrees to heat the stone and then lower it to 450 right after I put in the dough so it won't burn the cheese too fast. I know some people who prepare their pizza on the stone and then put the whole thing in the oven. THIS DOES NOTHING! You must put the stone in first. Then how do get the pizza in, you ask? You need the proper tools, of course.

The Tools: If you enjoy pizza, and make it a few times a year (or more), I would highly suggest investing in pizza peels. They aren't very expensive and they make pizza making SO easy. There are wooden ones and metal ones. You need one of each. The wooden ones are for putting the pizza IN the oven and the metal ones are for taking it OUT. Here is a picture of mine:
The Dough: I have tried MANY different doughs. And though they are all basically the same ingredients, they don't all taste or feel right. I bake alot, so I'm very conscious of how dough feels. And when making pizza, you want something that you can toss in the air and that holds its shape without shrinking back to a ball. Personally, we like crust that is crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, but not doughy. Also, we prefer a thinner crust, not a deep dish style. Here is the recipe that I have found to be the best so far. (See the blog where I found the recipe here with great pictures of each step, though notice that I changed the amount of salt).

Basic Pizza Dough
1 cup warm water
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey {or sugar}
1 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
3 cups bread flour {give or take}

In a large mixing bowl, preferably that of a stand mixer, stir yeast and honey into warm water. Sit for 5-10 minutes or until bubbles form and mixture starts to foam. This tells you that the yeast active. Pour in salt, oil and half the flour and mix. 
Once that flour is incorporated, start adding flour in bit by bit until you get the pizza dough to the consistency you want: slightly tacky, but when you touch it it doesn’t stick to your hands. Once you reach this stage, turn the mixer on high to knead for 6 minutes. The dough should be smooth and easy to work with. And the bowl should be clean! Lightly grease the bowl & the dough so it doesn’t dry out, cover with plastic wrap and let it rise 1-2 hours. 

Here is a picture of mine all rolled out (not exactly round, but close enough). Make sure to put a liberal amount of corn meal (I use semolina flour because it's finer) on the wooden peel before putting your dough down so that it will slide off easily into the oven.
Add sauce, cheese, and toppings, and bake! Usually 10-12 minutes at 450 degrees. But keep an eye on it so the cheese doesn't burn. I wait until my crust is golden......
YUM! We put sliced linguica sausage, olives, feta, and mozzarella on the pizza this time. What are your favorite toppings? I'm always looking for something new for pizza night.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


I admit it. I am addicted to DIY. 

Since we've moved into our house a year ago, I have been DYING to rip out a wall or re-tile one of the bathrooms. Thankfully, my husband shares my addiction. We successfully renovated our last house together, hardly hiring anyone else for any of the work. We are taking it slow in our new house, however, due to time and money constraints (I'm sure you're all feeling the squeeze of the economy too). So far we've only repainted and refinished the floors in order to make it livable. There are some things we HAVE to do in the relatively near future (like the roof and new plumbing, both of which we will be hiring out), so the things that we WANT to do will have to wait (like updating the kitchen and bathrooms).

This blog isn't really about THAT kind of DIY, though. 
(However, I reserve the right to post about any future home remodel projects.)

THIS blog is about my journey to become more self-reliant, and to return to a more simplified life. With three small kids (who will probably be featured in this blog from time to time), my life can be pretty hectic. Doing things myself is a way for me to teach my kids skills they will need in their lives, and to save money and time (Go shopping with three little ones? I would rather starve. Ok, not really, but you get my drift. And if you have kids, you know how they can turn a short, simple trip to the grocery store into HOURS). Not to mention, when I make everything myself, I know exactly what is in it and can reduce the amount of weird chemicals in our food and cleaning products. 

Don't get me wrong. I am not opposed to store bought stuff, and I am NOT obsessed with chemicals or everything being "natural". I'm not THAT crunchy. (Though I have friends who are.....) When I CAN do something myself naturally, I will. When I can't, I won't. Simple as that.

So what can you look forward to on my blog? 

Cleaning Products---I make my own laundry soap and have begun making bath products too! I will share my recipes and post about my successes (and failures) when making new stuff!

Food---We love to garden and I LOVE to can. Hopefully we'll have lots of home grown loot in our pantry by next winter! I'll post the recipes I use and any other information about canning that I come across. AND, my husband is a fantastic "from scratch" kind of cook. I'll share some of his original recipes!

Chickens----I just started raising chickens for eggs and will share my experiences and new found knowledge. Oh, yeah, and how I killed my rooster..... myself.... and ate him!

Kids---Since they are a huge part of my life, I'm sure I'll post about activities I do with them. Especially those things that happen "accidentally" that end up being a huge success (like blowing pompons across the table.... resulting in over an HOUR of no fighting and mommy "alone" time!)

This is not the end of the list.... but it is the end of my blogging time. Dinnertime is here and hungry children are tugging on my sleeve.....

I hope you will share with me any ideas, recipes, and thoughts you have along the way about Simple Living.

Thanks for joining me!