Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Fast Food without the Restaurant

     Does your family love fast food?  Do you not love to feed it to them?  I have the same problem in my house.  So much of the food arrives at fast food restaurants pre-made, pre-packaged, par-cooked, and flash-frozen.  Those are the problems to list before we consider the questions of cleanliness of the facility, how often they change the oil in the fryer, what kind of oil are they using, and exactly who is that guy cooking your meal anyway?  Hmmmm… I haven’t even mentioned the price of taking the entire family out for what used to be a cheap meal, but seems to be an expense many of us can’t afford anymore.

     Never fear!  I have a solution!  We DIY everything imaginable anymore, so why not fast food?  That’s what I did for dinner tonight and it was positively delicious!  We were in the mood for Long John Silver’s.  An additional problem to the ones I listed above is that there isn’t a Long John Silver’s anywhere near my house.  So, I made my own.  Turns out that it’s easier and cheaper than you might imagine. 

     We’ve already talked about homemade french fries, so I’m not going to beat that dead horse again.  I had Tilapia filets in the freezer that came from Sam’s.  It took me about 5 minutes to search on the internet for copycat recipes – they are absolutely everywhere.  Faster than you can say “Long John Silver’s” I was in the kitchen getting to work.  

     The menu in my house tonight was batter fried fish filets, french fries, hush puppies, and coleslaw.  My hubby and son said it was better than the “real thing”.  And I estimate that the entire meal cost us roughly $12.  We had a lot more food than we would have at the restaurant and it cost less.  Try searching up some copycat recipes for your favorite restaurant dishes and see what you can come up with for your family.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Making Cleaning Supplies with Basics & Essential Oils

     It is one of my passions in life to make things simple and get back to a good, old-fashioned basic way of doing things.  I'm sure it won't surprise you to learn that cleaning products are included in the list of things that I try to make myself.

     The advertisers of the world would love for you to believe that every surface, every space, and every nook and cranny in your home requires a specialized cleaning formula that can only be produced in a major manufacturing facility.  They attempt to brainwash us into believing that we need countless sprays, wipes, gels, and powders in order for our homes to be truly clean.  And without their specialized formulas we are either going to somehow destroy the very homes we live in by using the "wrong" products on them, or we are simply living in filth and don't even know it.

     I am here to tell you that this is not true!  You can have a clean and sanitary home without spending a fortune on commercial cleaning products, and even adjust your cleaning supplies to fit the specific needs of your family and your own personal values.  The options are vast and the only ingredient I'm going to advocate strongly is essential oil.  If there is something on my list of basics that you don't feel comfortable using, then leave that ingredient out of your repertoire.  Each and every one of us can find the solutions that work for our families.

The main ingredients used in homemade cleaning supplies are:
White Vinegar
Rubbing Alcohol
Hydrogen Peroxide
Baking Soda
Essential Oils
These are inexpensive, common ingredients that can be used to replace most of the commercial cleaning supplies that we generally purchase.
      My go-to general cleaner is 1 oz Ammonia with 27 oz of water, and 10 drops of Lavender Essential Oil.  It's an incredibly mild solution, but it makes my bathroom sparkle!  Plus, with the addition of the essential oils, the disinfecting power is increased and your cleaner has a lovely fragrance.
      The Essential Oils I use are First Botany CosmeceuticalsI have been using Lavender because it's one of my favorite scents, but there are other great Essential Oils available from this company.  Tea Tree is a fantastic oil to use in cleaning products as well.  I love these oils because the large 4oz bottles make enough cleaning supplies to disinfect my home for years to come.  Additionally, a few drops can eliminate odors in the trash cans and garbage disposal.  You can also place a drop or two under the seat of your car for a fresh smelling interior.  The Bulgarian Lavender Essential Oil that I use in my household supplies can be purchased here.  It's my favorite because, not only is my home fresh and clean, but the lavender is known to be a relaxing scent.  A little extra calming and de-stressing in the home can't be a bad thing.

     With a bit of ingenuity, some basic supplies that are probably already in your house, and a bottle of Essential Oils, you can have a clean, sanitary, sparkling home that smells as fresh as it looks.  I've replaced the expensive rinse aid in my dishwasher with White Vinegar and a few drops of Essential Oil.  I'm making my own liquid laundry detergent with Borax, Washing Powder, Soap Flakes, Water and Essential Oils.  My clothes are cleaner and I control exactly what goes into the detergent.

     I would love to hear about your experiments with homemade cleaning products.  I'm still searching for the optimal formulas for various jobs.  I will share them here as I find them.  If you have one you would like to share, I'm sure everyone would be glad to know about it, too.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Chocolate Chip Cookies Done 8 Ways

     Yesterday morning I awoke to find an email from King Arthur Flour that completely changed my day.  It turns out that this week is National Chocolate Chip Cookie Week and I didn't even know about it!  Let's see... an entire week dedicated to the baking and eating of Chocolate Chip Cookies?  Whoever came up with this idea is a genius!  So, naturally, I did what any dedicated blogger with an obsession for baking chocolate chip cookies would do.  I rushed to the store to pick up extra cookie ingredients and chained myself in the kitchen for the next 8 hours creating new and exciting ways to make Chocolate Chip Cookies.  Of course, I'm here to share them with you.  I wouldn't want any of my friends to miss out on this Chocolate Chip Cookie Extravaganza.  (My teenage son is certainly excited about it.)

     Let's begin with a basic cookie recipe.  The one I've been using for the last couple years comes from Cookies & Cups.  The link to the recipe can be found here.  The website is owned by Shelly and she is an amazing baker.  What I love is the way she creates wonderful foundation recipes that give us room to create our own incredible recipes.  Personally, I love to take basic concepts and turn them into something creative and new.  This is so much easier to do with people like Shelly providing such wonderful foundations for us to learn and work from.  So, now that you have found the amazing foundation recipe, let's get started on our celebration of National Chocolate Chip Cookie Week.

#1 - Caramel Pretzel Chocolate Chip Cookies
Let's begin with something simple.  Start with the base recipe and for your add-ins, use 1/2 cup Kraft Caramel Baking Bits, 1/2 cup Pretzel Pieces (I broke up mini pretzels in a zipper bag), and 1/2 cup Chocolate Chips.  Easy as pie.  This recipe was actually my son's request when I started baking.  It was all I could do to keep his hands off the cookies long enough to get a picture.

#2 - Root Beer White Chocolate Chip
One of the reasons I love the basic cookie recipe from Cookies & Cups is because the recipe uses 1 Tbspn of Vanilla Extract.  Most cookie recipes use as little as 1 tspn.  By choosing a foundation recipe with a larger amount of extract, we have the flexibility to dramatically change the flavor of the cookie by changing the extract we use.  In this case, I used Root Beer Extract instead of vanilla.  The entire 1 1/2 cups of add-ins is white chocolate chips.  This one simple change and choice of add-ins made for a delicious and very unique chocolate chip cookie.

#3 - Dark Chocolate Chip Cherry Almond
Again, we can alter the flavor of the cookie foundation by changing the extract.  I wanted a very strongly almond flavored cookie and so I changed the entire tablespoon to Almond Extract.  If you prefer a milder almond flavor, try using half Almond Extract and half Vanilla Extract in your cookies.  For the add-ins, use 1/2 cup Dark Chocolate Chips, 1/2 cup Sliced Almonds, and 1/2 cup of diced Maraschino Cherries.  Be sure to pat your cherry pieces dry with a paper towel before adding them to the cookie mixture, otherwise you will end up with a wetter dough than you want.

#4 - White Chocolate Chip Macadamia Nut
How about a well known Chocolate Chip cookie flavor that my husband says I don't make nearly enough?  These cookies simply use the base recipe and add in 1 cup White Chocolate Chips and 1/2 cup Macadamia Nuts.  I choose this ratio because of the high cost of Macadamia Nuts.  If you don't mind the expense, feel free to even the ratio out and use 3/4 cup of each.

#5 - Ultimate Chocolate Chocolate Chip
We are going to add some extra ingredients to our basic recipe this time.  We want a chocolate foundation for these cookies.  There are a number of ways to achieve this.  Personally, I prefer to use cocoa powder because it means one less staple product to keep in my pantry.  However, if you prefer squares of Baker's Chocolate, you can go that route as well.  After the foundation dough is made, you will need to mix in the chocolate.  I place 6 Tbspn Cocoa Powder in a small bowl and add 2 Tbspn Vegetable Oil.  (You can use any oil that you feel comfortable cooking with.) Mix this until you have a smooth, thick liquid.  Personally, I don't add any additional sugar to my chocolate.  I like the contrast of the slightly less sweet cookie with the sweeter chocolate chips that are baked in.  If you feel the need to maintain the sweetness of your cookies, you can add 1 Tbspn of sugar into your chocolate mix.  If you prefer not to use cocoa powder, simply melt 1 square of Baker's Chocolate (unsweet or semi-sweet depending on your preference).  Now mix your chocolate into the cookie dough with your mixer.  Add 1/2 cup Dark Chocolate Chips, 1/2 cup White Chocolate Chips, and 1/2 cup Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips.

#6 - Mocha Chocolate Chip
For these cookies we are going to use the technique of switching out the extract from the recipe, as well as adding chocolate to the cookie foundation.  Replace the Vanilla Extract with Coffee Extract.  You will want to use a coffee extract rather than brewed coffee because you will get a much stronger flavor without altering the consistency of the dough.  Now add in your chocolate as in Recipe #5.  Your add-ins for this recipe will be 1 1/2 cups of chocolate chips.

#7 - Chipotle Bacon Chocolate Chip
This recipe is going to require the most additional work because we are going to candy walnuts and bacon pieces.  First, you will need approximately 1/2 cup of cooked bacon.  You can use pre-packaged bacon pieces if you like.  It works better if you have some bacon grease to add in, though.  Personally, I cut a package of bacon using my kitchen shears into large "bite sized" pieces.  Then I toss them all into a pot and cook until all of the bacon is done to my liking, and drain off the grease into my bacon grease container, which I store in the fridge.  Take the 1/2 cup you want to use for the cookies and place it back in the pan.  Put the rest of your bacon pieces in a air-tight container and store in the refrigerator to use in other recipes or to top a salad.  Add 1/2 cup walnuts to your bacon, along with 1/3 cup + 1 Tbspn Sugar, and 1 tspn of Chipotle powder.  (This recipe is not for the faint of heart.  These cookies will definitely have a kick to them.  Beware!)  Cook on medium heat and stir constantly until the sugar melts.  You can add in 1 tsp of bacon grease to help with the process if you feel that you need a bit of liquid.  I'm sure you can find detailed instructions on candying things online and they will include specific temperatures and such.  I apologize.  Granny taught me to add a pinch of this and a dash of that and to stir until it "looks right".  That's how I candy things as well.  When I see a nice, shiny liquid, I spread my mixture on some wax paper and let it dry.  It takes on the appearance of a brittle.  Once it's cool and hard, I put it in a zipper bag and break it to small bits with a hammer.  (Don't you regularly use a hammer in your recipes?)  Now, back to our cookie base... Add the broken pieces of brittle, along with 1/2 cup Chocolate Chips.  Remember my warnings!  These cookies might bite back.  Keep a glass of milk handy.

#8 - Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip
This time we are starting from scratch with a new recipe.
I/2 Cup Butter (1 Stick)
!/2 Cup Packed Brown Sugar
1/2 Cup White Sugar
! Egg
1/2 Cup Peanut Butter
1 1/4 Cup All Purpose Flour (I recommend King Arthur Unbleached)
3/4 tspn Baking Soda
1/2 tspn Baking Powder
1/4 tspn Salt

Preheat Oven to 375 degrees
1. Cream the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy.
2. Beat in egg and peanut butter until you have a smooth consistency.
3. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Add to mixture slowly, combining well between each addition.
4.  Add in 1 cup of chocolate chips.
5. Drop in spoonfuls on baking sheet.  Do not press them down.  We want these cookies to bake up and keep their thick shape.  Trust me, the insides will be delicious with all those chocolate chips.
6. Bake 9-10 minutes until the cookies are light brown. (Ovens are all different.  Adjust the cooking times to suit your oven.)

I hope you enjoy the assortment of Chocolate Chip Cookies I have put together for you.  It's time to get to the kitchen and start baking for National Chocolate Chip Cookie Week!  I would love to see your cookie in the comment section below.  We can always use more kinds of Chocolate Chip Cookies in the world!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sweet Tea

     If you are in Starbucks you drink coffee.  If you are in Italy you drink wine.  If you are in the Southern region of the United States you drink sweet tea.  What you may not realize is that, just like coffee and wine, there are more varieties of sweet tea than you can shake a stick at.  And I am here to share with you some of the ins and outs of great sweet tea.

     Let's begin with the basic recipe, shall we?  It seems obvious that we are talking about water, sugar, ice, and tea bags.  But for anyone who has marveled at a delicious glass of tea in a great BBQ restaurant and wondered how they do it, let's start with the basics.

     The first step is going to be choosing your tea.  This is a personal choice and you are going to have to do some experimenting and discover for yourself which brands you prefer.  My favorite is Luzianne, which is followed by Tetley as my second choice.  Actually, these two teas are made by the same company, so it shouldn't be surprising that I would like them both. There are many other brands out there without having to leave the grocery store.  If you investigate specialty tea retailers, the options grow even larger.

     The second decision you are going to have to make is your sweetener.  For the sake of this post, I am going with plain, ordinary white sugar.  Personally, since I drink sweet tea on a daily basis, I use an artificial sweetener in the majority of the tea I make.  However, I have no interest in a major debate over which is the best choice in artificial (or organic, or whatever else) sweeteners.  So, with that said, you work with whatever makes you comfortable and adjust your quantity accordingly.

     Now that you have your tea bags and your sweetener, let's get to work.  How about a half gallon for our first batch and you can adjust from there?  You want to start your water to boil.  You are going to want 3 cups of boiling water to start, so I recommend putting a little more than that into a pot and setting it up on the stove.

     While you wait for your water to boil, put your sweetener in your pitcher.  Personally, I use 2/3 cup of real sugar for a half gallon of tea.  My mother and grandmother use 1 cup.  Again, this is a personal choice.  If you like McDonald's sweet tea and are looking for that level of sweet, I suggest using the full cup.  Personally, I tone mine down a notch from there.  Since your water is probably not boiling yet, go ahead and get your tea bag ready.  If you purchased family sized bags, you will need one.  Two will be necessary if you are using individual sized tea bags.

     When your water is boiling, it's time to pour it into the pitcher.  I said that you are looking for 3 cups, but this isn't a situation that calls for precision.  Just fill the pitcher somewhere in the realm of 1/3 with hot water.  Give it a quick stir with a spoon to help the sugar melt into the boiling water.  And now add your tea bag and let it sit for 10 minutes.  Remove the tea bag.  Add 3 cups cold water.  Top the pitcher off with ice.  Voila!  Sweet Tea!

     Lately, I've been drinking more sweet tea than usual.  I'm not sure how that's possible, but it seems like I'm making it more often, so someone in the house obviously is.  So, I've started to make a variety of flavored iced teas to keep things around here interesting.  This is extremely easy and only adds one step to the recipe above.  After your tea has steeped for 10 minutes, throw in a single flavored tea bag and let it set for an additional 5 minutes.  Finish your tea as listed for regular sweet tea above.

     There are so many amazing tea flavors out there that the combinations are practically limitless. My favorite flavor that I tried recently was from Stash Tea Company.  I used their lemon ginger tea for a very unique flavor of sweet tea.  My husband and son are crazy about the fruit flavors by Celestial Teas (Raspberry, Wild Berry, Blueberry and Peach are all terrific).  And I like a variety of lemon and mint teas to give a light and refreshing flavor sometimes.

     Tea is one of the most versatile drinks I have found.  You can serve it hot, cold, unsweetened, or sweet.  The variety available is almost limitless.  The next time we discuss tea, how about looking at a terrific Darjeeling?  See you then.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Time For a Break!

     I love my life. I'm a stay at home mother who homeschools a teenage boy. It's a terrific challenge and always interesting. I get the opportunity to share my favorite books with him - from classic literature, down to crazy zombie stories that would entertain most teenage boys today. We use the kitchen to learn cool science facts and we use the computer to make sure we don't miss some of the more mundane necessities of scientific study. It's a great experience and I feel very blessed to be a part of it.

     Just to be sure that things stay exciting when we aren't studying, there's bowling. Don't think that's the most exciting sport? You haven't watched a grudge match between Pete Weber, Jr. and Walter Ray Williams, Jr. Those guys are a hoot! Not to mention, we've never been rained out and handicaps really give each child a chance - without making it an "everyone wins" kind of event. Really, I could write an entire blog post on the subject of why bowling is actually an optimal sport for kids.

     As for me, I'm thrilled to find that the hiking trails in my community have re-opened after being closed down for more than 2 months. I finally got the chance to try out my new hiking boots that I received for Christmas. What a wonderful way to start out the spring!

     Of course, we've all heard about the dangers of having too much of a good thing. My first memory of that phrase dates back to a Halloween candy bucket when I was a young child. Enough said? Yeah. We've all been there. We love our life and it's terrific, but even the best things in life can get to be a bit much at times.  And everyone can sometimes use a break - even from the best of things.

     It's time for our annual standardized testing and once testing is completed, the following days are slated for catching up and focusing on any school areas where my son is having difficulties. That puts the kibosh on extra time for hiking.  Which, to be honest, is probably for the best.  When the trails opened, I walked 8 miles in two days with zero preparation after a lazy winter.  Whatever belly ache that bucket of Halloween candy might have caused, I have as much misery in my legs right now caused by that same old deadly sin - gluttony.

     So, I've decided it's time for a bit of rest and relaxation.  That's why I purchased a hand woven hammock swing to hang under the shade tree in front of my home.  I can't think of a better way to relieve the stress of our busy homeschooling schedule and give my legs a break from the hiking trails than by relaxing in a comfy swing under a recently winter bare tree that's now loaded with spring blossoms.

     I'm imagining the peace and tranquility of sitting in my Cotton Rope Swing Chair after the noise and chaos of another extra bowling practice.  The noise and atmosphere of the local bowling alley will wear on even the sturdiest of parents after 10+ hours per week in that environment. This year it will be a pleasure knowing that I'm coming home to relax in the yard with a good book.  If only I could find a place to put my sweet tea while I sit in the swing...  Oh well.  The peace and solitude will be worth the lack of a beverage.  Did you notice how it's a one person seat?  Now that's tranquility.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Xtreme Pet Products Adjustable Harness

     If you own a dog, there are lots of decisions to make.  Which food, treats, toys and other accessories to buy for them are just a few.  One of my least favorite choices was whether or not to use a harness for walking.  That was until I found the Xtreme Comfort Harness.  Now, I can't imagine walking my dog without one.

     Let's face facts... Things are often a lot more complicated than they need to be.  Dog harnesses are no exception.  Have you noticed how many of them look like a crazy bundle of straps and buckles?  Part of the reason I was hesitant to get a harness for my dog was because I imagined strapping him into it would be akin to participating in a professional wrestling competition.  Not to mention that there is always the concern of what is safest and most comfortable for our pets.  Right?

     It turns out that it's really not as complicated as all that!  There is a pet harness that is comfortable for your pet, and very easy for you to use.  It's a dog harness vest that's made by Xtreme Pets Products and Capone and I are both crazy about it.

     This product is only available at the Xtreme Pets Products website.  It comes in 8 different sizes and 8 different colors.  So, it doesn't matter if your dog is the tiniest of toy breeds, a 50lb Shar-Pei, or somewhere in between.  There is an adjustable harness that will fit them just right.  Plus, the rugged outdoor dog can have his harness in a cool camouflage while the princess of the house can wear a stylish purple harness to accent the pretty pink bow on her head.  For Capone, I chose a basic black harness in size Large (designed for dogs weighing 10-14 lbs).  At 10.2 lbs, it fits him perfectly and is a lovely accent to his fur.

     To see this harness in action, watch the video above.  You will see how simple it is to put on your pup and how much happier they can be without the leash pulling at their necks.  And don't forget to visit the Xtreme Pets website at to see about purchasing one for your own dog!  I'm sure they will thank you for it.