Friday, December 30, 2011

Holiday Recap

My where has the time gone?!  It seems like between the baking, shopping, crafting, and family gathering, I haven't had time to sit down and really reflect on this year's holiday season.  I'd have to say that most of it was one big blur, unfortunately, but there were definitely some fun and special moments.  This year was different from most years in the fact that I just couldn't get in the mood for it.  I'm not really sure what happened, but I didn't even start buying gifts until a couple weeks before Christmas.  Usually I'm online right after Thanksgiving looking for the best deals for everyone.

Let's see - where did the holiday season start for us this year?

We bought a droopy little Charlie Brown tree this year - maybe subconsciously, it's just what fit our Christmas mood - but either way, it was cute and it was ours.  Xander and I had a fun time decorating it, as rinky-dink as it looked.  It only took about a week of it sitting in our front room all bare waiting for some clothes.

Xander had his school Christmas program right before they let out for holiday break.  It was definitely a joy watching him this year.  Last year, he basically just froze on stage once he saw all the people in the big auditorium.  Things went much better this year - for the most part.  He did have one narration that he had practiced over and over again, and knew like the back of his hand, that he was supposed to say before one of the little kids' songs.  I thought that maybe this would be the year that he would overcome his fear of speaking in front of others (that he may or may not get from both of his parents).  But this was not the year.  He peeked outside the curtain, looked around at everyone, and basically stood there.  After about 5 seconds, he went back behind the curtain. He wasn't going to do it.  But his friend Sabrina came out holding Xander's hand and said the words for him while Xander stood next to her.  I was happy that he at least stood up there with her and kind of got the feel for it.  But a bit of me was still a bit sad knowing that Xander knew those words so perfectly and that he should have been the one saying it.  Oh well.  Next year!  I'm just happy that the rest of the performance went smoothly.  He knew all the words to the songs and all the movements to the dances they had been practicing for months.

 About a week before Christmas, we bundled up and headed downtown.  We went to Trolley Square to see all the hustle and bustle and pay a certain Jolly man in a red suit a special visit!  I'm not sure what's gotten into Xander this year, but he hasn't really known what he wanted for Christmas this year.  He didn't really know what to tell Santa.  Santa tried asking him what he wanted and then finally asked if he likes cars, and Xander said yes of course, but that's about all he got out of him.  Luckily Santa has magical powers and knows the insides of children's hearts and knows their wishes :)  After visiting Santa, we took Trax down to Temple Square to see all the lights.  But we sure didn't last long.  Tiffani and I were so cold!  Xander didn't complain at all, but Tiff couldn't feel her toes, and I couldn't feel my fingers.  It was definitely time for us to head out and get back home where it was warm!

 This isn't really holiday related, but it's still worth documenting.  We were at a store the Sunday before Christmas.  We were mostly just browsing around and stopped to look at some clothes.  Xander found an empty clothing rack that just looked like it needed to be climbed on.  Unfortunately, I didn't really think much of it.  We were letting him be a kid and happened to turn our backs.  We never could have predicted what happened next.  We heard a thud and a scream.  Xander was standing on it and pulled it over on top of him.  It hit him right on the head and put a pretty big gash under his eyebrow!  10 stitches worth!  Luckily, no broken bones (which was my first concern) - just the stitches and a pretty bruised up eye and nose.   It was pretty traumatic for all involved - Tiff and I couldn't help but spoil the crap outta him all the next day.  Hopefully it won't scar too badly!

Next up is my most looked forward to event of the season.  The annual family cookie bake-off!  My older sister, Jenny, has hosted this event for at least the last 8 years or so.  We take what we think is our best cookie recipe, bake up a batch or two, then send them off to very willing judges (neighbors) to vote for the winning cookie.  This year, I also set up a cookie decorating station to keep the kids occupied.  I made an amazing sugar cookie and frosting recipe that I found through Mel's Kitchen Cafe.  As much fun as the kids had decorating, it definitely didn't take them much time at all.  After about 10 minutes, they were over it and off just playing with toys again.  Oh well - can't say I didn't try!  As for who the winner was this year - let's just say it's a sensitive subject... I hate to say that I didn't even place in the top three! (or 4... or 5...) Ugh - how embarrassing - what does that say about the recipes on my blog?!  I'm not even going to tell you what I made.  In lots of peoples' opinions, it was one delicious cookie.  Unfortunately, the judges weren't any of those people.  So moving right along ...

Everything was leading up to this day, and what a great Christmas it was!  We spent Christmas Eve over at Tiffani's mom's, where we ate a yummy dinner, dessert, played games, and exchanged gifts.  I made a yummy (and VERY easy) Broccoli Bake to go with dinner and Joy the Baker's aMAZing peppermint chocolate roll for dessert.  Both were hits!  We stayed until about midnight playing a new game called Logo with Tiff's siblings.  We didn't do so well on our team, but it was still a fun time.
When we got home, I still had to get the egg casserole into the crock pot, and then wrap presents!  Oh my, it was a late night. We were up until about 4:00, and Xander got up bright and early around 8:30.  Just about 4 hours of sleep just doesn't cut it for me!  We had a fun morning spoiling each other around our Charlie Brown tree, then we ate a yummy breakfast that I didn't have to fuss over at all since it had been in the crockpot all night.  After breakfast, we took Xander over to his dad's and it was off to my parents' for us.  I made mashed potatoes for dinner and actually made a second peppermint chocolate roll for them as well.  It was ALSO a hit there!  I think this one's a keeper!  

All in all, it was a crazy whirlwind of events, but there was a lot of great time spent together as a family.  I was very happy being able to spread out our Christmas events by doing the bake-off one night, Christmas with the in-laws another day, and then Christmas with my family on another day.  It was a lot less rushing around and time spent driving than what we've had to do in previous years.  I vote for the new relaxed version of celebrating the holidays.

I hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas season, and I hope the New Year brings all that you hope for.  Have fun and be safe!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pretty Cash System Envelopes

So, if you know me personally, you know that I'm a pretty big advocate for Dave Ramsey's cash envelope system.  The basic run-down is that you budget all of your income down to the dollar, and you don't spend more than you make.  Sounds simple, right?  It really is. But you would be surprised how many people are budgeting and spending much more than they actually have coming in.  How does that work, you ask?  Credit cards.  America loves their credit cards.  It's easy spending... but there are many consequences that come with that convenient 'right now, gotta have it' mindset.  
So the deal is that you pay with cash.  Obviously, there are bills that you pay online, and that's fine.  But things that you physically go to the store for (groceries, dinner at a restaurant, movies, etc) should all be handled with cash.  Each category is then divided out into separate envelopes.   Once the cash is gone, it's gone.  No using a credit card to last the rest of the month (because you really should cut those things up anyway!).  You learn real quickly what's important to you. For example, do you really need to go out to eat tonight, because if you do, you know you won't have much 'restaurant' money left over for when your friend comes in town later this month. You really stop spending so spontaneously and actually think about what your money is doing for you and where it is going.
Oh, I could go on and on about how Dave Ramsey's system has changed our lives.  After just a little over a year, we have paid off about $10k in debt and don't have much further to go.  We paid for our entire honeymoon in full with no credit cards and no bills that are following us around afterwards.  Christmas has been saved for all year, so we won't have to go into debt in order to give this season.  It's a very freeing feeling.  This is coming from someone who has had some major money woes.  I couldn't get a loan or a credit card even if I wanted to, so this cash system has been a blessing to us.
Well, so the real reason for my post, besides putting the word out there is this:  I was getting really sick of flimsy and boring white envelopes for our cash.  They were falling apart about every month or two, and we were always having to replace them.  So when I came across this cute and simple solution on Pinterest, I knew I was going to have to put it into action.
I bought so cute and heavy-duty scrapbook paper.  I didn't want these to tear easily like the white ones had been doing!  Got the template downloaded.  A little tracing, cutting, and gluing, and this is what I came up with!  Ta-da!

So simple and very aesthetically pleasing!  I just pop them into my accordion coupon organizer that I use just for filing these envelopes, and I'm good to go!

Oh, and another annoyance I was having with the white envelopes is the flap.  When you're paying with cash for everything, you're having to get in the envelopes constantly.  Over time (or not so much time), the flaps wear out and rip and fall off.  Really they're just in the way.  So I decided to revise the template a bit by omitting the top flap, so it was just open. 


I think this will work so much better for us.  And I'm just really happy to have something so pretty in my purse.  Especially because I hardly ever whip my wallet out anymore, I gotta have some sort of pretty accessory!  Ah, when did I turn into such a girl!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Big Announcement!

Two Hens and a Monkey is now branching out! I have a brand-spankin' new food and recipes only blog called Mama Hen's Kitchen that I couldn't be more excited about. I'm so excited to have a place that's dedicated to all things kitchen related.
And now I can go back to writing about family and every day things over here at Two Hens. I hope you follow me over at Mama Hen's and I don't lose anyone in the move.

Please check it out and let me know what you think. I think you'll be happy with the first post - it's a yummy seasonal cookie that is sure to please all your cravings. See ya over there!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Stay Tuned

exciting new changes are coming this way! stay tuned!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Counting Down the Days Advent

I am so excited to show you one of my favorite crafts I have made this year for the holidays. Last weekend, it was a full on girls weekend of scrapbooking and crafting. It was my mom, sister, sister-in-law, and niece. There was one exception to the No Boys Allowed rule though.... three month old Preston got to come along, which was totally fine with me. We got to bond a couple of times :)
Anyway, I worked on some thank-you notes and a little scrapbook that I got years ago. But my favorite project of the weekend was this cute little Advent calendar! I saw it about a month ago on Pinterest and knew right away that I would be making one for my family.
Having a 5 year old, I know that his concept of time is a bit skewed. Kids wake up wondering, 'is Christmas TODAY?!' or 'Is Christmas the day after the next day and then 2 days after that and then I go to sleep and THEN it's Christmas?' So then you make those chain count-down thingies, and although they do serve the purpose, they're just not nearly as cute! And they're also done after you use them. Paper being thrown away, and you have to make a new one next year. So I gave it a try, and it was so much fun! From picking out the papers to coming up with the best way to lay out the numbers. I had a great time creating it, and starting December 1st, we're going to have a great time counting down the days till Santa gets here!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Perfect Pie Crust

Pie crust seems to be something that people are scared of. And I have to admit that I used to be one of those people. But now, I have realized that pie crust can be easy. You just have to keep a few things in mind. I hope to convince you that you do not need to be scared of pie crust.
I have tried many different so-called PERFECT pie crusts. I have heard tips and tricks all over the place. With all the recipes I've tried and the pie class I've been to, I feel like I've finally figured out the winning combination to creating an unbeatable crust that will hold whatever sweet pie filling you choose.

Perfect Pie Crust
makes a double crust

3 cups flour
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
10 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
10 Tablespoons vegetable shortening
1/4-1/3 cup ice water

Alright, here's your first key to pie crust success. Everything goes in the fridge for at least a couple hours before starting. This includes your bowl, your pastry blender, your flour and sugar... everything that you will be using. Warmth is your enemy in pie crust. Remember this!

In a large COLD bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the butter and shortening. I have a nifty little trick for butter. Grate it with your cheese grater! Hold onto the butter with the wrapper still on the end so as not to warm the butter too much with your body temperature.

Mix this all together with a pastry blender until the consistency of coarse cornmeal. Small chunks of butter and shortening is what you're looking for.... Did I mention, this pie crust will probably require an extra 30 minutes on the elliptical!

At this point, add your ice water. Start with just about a 1/4 of a cup. Combine with a fork until just barely blended. If it's not coming together completely, add just a bit more water! A little goes a long way. Too much water and over-mixing will give you a thick, tough, and non-flakey crust. This is what you DON'T want. Use the fork to mix together until you're ready to form into 2 equal discs. That's the only time you should be using your hands to mix. Mixing with hands = warming of the dough = bad.
Once you have formed into 2 discs, wrap in plastic wrap or parchment paper and refrigerated for 1/2 hour. This will re-chill the dough before you start rolling it out for your pie. I used to make the mistake of thinking you could make the dough and then refrigerate or freeze for days on end. No - not an option. Your crust won't be fresh, it'll be tough, and did you know it starts to turn a GRAY color?! not appetizing! This crust is easy enough to pull together that there is definitely time to whip it up right when you need to bake it. No need to prepare ahead of time.

So after your 1/2 an hour has passed, generously flour your counter space. Or if you're like me and don't have much counter space, move your operations to your kitchen table. Place your disc of pie dough on the flour and sprinkle a little more flour on top of that. With your rolling pin, roll out in all directions until you have somewhat of a circle shape slightly bigger than your pie pan. Don't worry about the circle being exact - just a general roundish shape.

I then fold the circle in half, and then half the other way so you have a triangle. I should've taken pictures of this, but since I didn't, I'll do my best. Put the point of your triangle in the center of the pie pan and gently unfold. This should center your crust pretty closely.

Fill your pie with your favorite pie filling. If you're at a loss of what to fill it with, try out my Apple Pie! You won't be disappointed. Roll out the second pie crust and place on top. Or you can make a fun and beautiful lattice-topped crust.

Lattice Top Apple Pie

I feel like it's been ages since I visited my blog. You would think that with all the delicious food this time of year, there would be a ton to blog about and I'd have a couple posts a day. It's not that I haven't been baking and cooking - it's just that I've been enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday and really haven't wanted to interrupt it with blogging. Just like I get a 4-day weekend from my 9-5 job, I have felt like I needed to take a little break from this too. There is nothing more important to me than family. There is nothing that I am more thankful than my family. I'm pretty sure I told Xander how thankful for him about 5,415,265 times. He is my pride and joy. He's a big part of what has made me who I am today. And Tiffani - I couldn't be more thankful for my new wife! Spending time with my little family and our extended families has been so great. We spent the day eating a great dinner over at Tiffani's mom's house with lots of family. After a few hours, we dropped Xander off with his dad and headed over to my parents' house for dessert to spend time with them and my sister's family. Oh my, the dessert! There was a banana cream pie, pumpkin pie, better-than-sex cake, and I brought my signature Apple Pie. I may or may not have eaten leftover apple pie for lunch yesterday.
I have been making this pie for about 6 years now, and it's one that I feel I've finally perfected. I think ever since my dad told me it was better than the frozen (yet delicious-o) Sara Lee Dutch Apple Pie we'd been eating for the previous 20-some years, I have made it a point to bring it to family gatherings. This Thanksgiving was no exception.
I am so excited to be sharing this recipe with you guys! It is probably my most practiced, most favorite, and definitely most YUMMY. The flaky crust and the gooey, cinnamon-y, apple-y goodness on my tastebuds. It's almost like a baby to me. I have held on to it for so long and shared with those that I love. It has grown from a crust that was always falling apart with bumps and bruises to this beautiful and stable vessel for these apples. It is now ready to be let loose into the world, and that it why I'm giving it a debut here on Two Hens! I know it's a little late for Thanksgiving, but Christmas is right around the corner, and you know, you could always just make a special occasion for this tasty little thing. It's THAT good! So without further ado ...

Lattice-Top Apple Pie

1 recipe for a 9-inch double crust
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
5 granny smith apples - peeled, cored, and sliced
1 egg

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in flour to form a paste. Add water, white sugar and brown sugar, and cinnamon. Bring to a boil. Reduce temperature and let simmer, stirring often.
Place the bottom crust in your pie pan.

Fill with apples, mounded slightly. Gently pour the sugar and butter liquid over the crust. Pour slowly so that is does not run off.... but just know that no matter how careful you are, you are probably going to want to put this thing on a baking sheet. This will also help with the after-baking clean up.. unless you like to spend time scrubbing out your oven.

Cover with a lattice crust. In a small bowl, whisk an egg with a small bit of water. Brush your egg wash all over the top of your crust. This will give you that beautiful golden brown top crust. Sprinkle the top generously with cinnamon.

Bake for 15 minutes in the preheated oven. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F and continue to bake for 35-45 minutes, until the apples are soft.
Let this cool for at LEAST 3 hours! This is a very important step. I promise. As much as you will want to cut and eat this right out of the oven, that is not a good idea. You will end up with Apple Pie Soup! Sounds yummy - but probably not what you're looking for. After at least 3 hours, dig in! Slice it up and pair with a big ole' scoop of Vanilla Bean. Oh yes please! Come to MAMA!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Blueberry Streusel Cookies

As the holidays are upon us, family traditions are all around us. Movies that we watch together as a family around the holidays. Games we play after we stuff ourselves with delicious meals. Concerts and lights we go to see around the holiday time. And of course, we can't forget those foods we eat and can't live without each and every holiday season.
Last week, I thought back to what holiday yumminess I have eaten year after year and what foods make me think of the holidays with my family. Blueberry streusel muffins. Those were a staple of every Christmas morning. Mom would make a batch of oatmeal and blueberry streusel muffins while we were anxiously waiting to see what Santa had brought for us. I sure do love me a blueberry muffin, but I wanted to come up with something that could be eaten morning, noon, and night... and then again for your midnight snack. Muffins are messy, you usually have to put it on a plate, and they're sometimes bigger than that quick snack you may want to grab. So I came up with an amazing cookie that very closely resembles a blueberry muffin. All the way to the streusel topping. My goodness, these are great! They're rich and cakey, yet a cookie so much easier to eat. The streusel topping adds this amazing crunch to the tops and edges of the soft pillowy cookie. And they don't fall into your coffee nearly as easily as a muffin would. I don't know about you, but I am not a fan of that goo at the bottom of your coffee mug after half your muffin has fallen in! Pretty sure this wouldn't happen with these cookies. Please try these cookies and let me know what you think about them. I personally think they're great and I kinda can't stop eating them! I'm happy to present these yummy pieces of heaven to you all.

Blueberry Streusel Cookies
makes 32 cookies

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup blueberries

for streusel
4 Tablespoons butter, cold
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Mix butter with sugar. Beat with a mixer until light and fluffy.

Beat in eggs and vanilla until well mixed.

Add flour and baking powder and blend well.

Little Monkey Xander helped out with this step!

It is now time to fold in the blueberries. You want to be very gentle with a rubber spatula, folding the blueberries into the dough. You don't want to squish your berries - make sure they stay intact so they end up hot and gushy when the cookie is baked.

Wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled--3 hours or overnight. If you skip this step, you will end up with a very sticky and hard to work with dough.
Before taking out your dough, you need to make your streusel. Combine all ingredients with a pastry blender. You don't want to work it too much. You want to see little pea-sized balls of buttery dough.

Once the dough is completely chilled, form Tablespoon-sized balls in your hand. Dip the tops of the doughball into the streusel and place on a baking shape leaving an inch in between each cookie. Please pay no attention to my ugly baking sheets! I do take donations in the form of new baking-ware!

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 13-16 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies are golden brown.

What baking traditions do you have in your family during the holidays?? Come join the fun at the My Baking Addiction and GoodLife Eats Holiday Recipe Swap sponsored by Chicago Metallic in your blog post.