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Easy homemade cream cheese

In our family’s quest to eat more healthful foods – while keeping our budget intact – I’ve decided to take on a few new challenges in the kitchen.  I recently made a list of projects that I intend to tackle in the coming months.  One of the first projects I tried was making my own cream cheese.

You may wonder why I’d want to make my own cream cheese when I could buy an 8-ounce brick of it at the store for a couple of dollars.  First, I enjoy trying new things when I cook; it makes preparing foods more of an adventure than an everyday, mundane task.  Second, when I read how simple it was to make cream cheese, I had to try it for myself.   And finally, homemade cream cheese is teeming with probiotics, those tiny living organisms that support the digestive system and overall health.

Even better, making homemade cream cheese doesn’t take any special equipment and requires less than five minutes of hands-on work.

Here’s how to get started:

Line a strainer with a clean, lint-free dishcloth and place it inside a bowl.

Pour a 32-ounce container of good-quality yogurt into the strainer, cover with it another towel and leave it on the counter to drain.   When the yogurt stops draining (in about 3 to 4 hours), gather the dishcloth and tie it to a wooden spoon, being careful not to squeeze the mixture.  Suspend the wooden spoon across the top of a deep container, such as a glass pitcher.  Continue draining, until the mixture stops dripping.* (This took about 48 hours for me.)

Voila! You have just made your own cream cheese, which you can store in an airtight container for up to one month.

It spreads beautifully, even when eaten at refrigerated temperatures.  You can sweeten   your cream cheese with pure maple syrup, chopped fresh raspberries, or some honey and vanilla.  Throw in chopped chives and garlic or add fresh dill to create a savory spread.

*You can reserve the yellowish whey to make lacto-fermented foods.  (The whey keeps for up to six months when refrigerated.) Lacto-fermentation is a term for an age-old method of preserving foods, a topic I’ll explore in a future post.

Posted in Budgeting, Food | Leave a comment

A decadent beet cake for your Valentine

It’s almost Valentine’s Day. How about treating your sweetie to a decadent beet cake?

Beets are the star ingredient in one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever eaten. Beets naturally have a lot of sugar, which sweetens the cake. The beets also give the cake a rich, beautiful, slightly reddish color. I first tasted this cake years ago, when a caterer I knew made it. It was frosted with a luscious fudge frosting and topped with chocolate curls. It was so elegant, and so good.

This recipe comes from Alisa Bangerter, the author of “Sweet Surprises for the Holidays.”

Chocolate Beet Cake
This is a very moist and delicious chocolate cake.
1 can (15 oz.) whole beets, drained (save juice)
1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup oil
1/2 cup juice from beets
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 squares (1 oz. each) unsweetened chocolate, melted

Sift together salt, baking soda and flour. Set aside. Place beets in blender jar and puree. Add sugar, oil, and beet juice to beets and blend. Add eggs and vanilla. Blend well. Pour the beet mixture into a mixing bowl and add the dry ingredients. Mix well on medium speed for about 1 minute. Stir in melted chocolate. Pour batter into two greased and floured 8- or 9-inch round cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Let cool. Frost with your favorite chocolate frosting and decorate top with chocolate curls if desired.

To make chocolate curls: Melt semi-sweet chocolate chips or semi-sweet baking squares in the microwave. Invert a baking sheet and spread the chocolate in a thin layer over the sheet. Let set in refrigerator until chocolate is set but not hard. Take a spatula and scrape the chocolate from the pan to create a curl. The curls will be as wide as the spatula used. If the chocolate breaks, let it soften at room temperature. If it is too soft, return to the refrigerator for a few more minutes. When you have the right consistency, you will be able to create beautiful chocolate curls. Place a pile of curls on the cake and lightly dust with powdered sugar.

Posted in Food, Holidays | Tagged , | 8 Comments

The adventures of an occasional thrifter

Have you ever marveled at someone who found a beautiful piece of furniture or a terrific article of clothing at a rummage sale or thrift shop?

I have been convinced for years that, like gardening and most sports, thrift shopping was just not one of my talents. When I went to garage sales and thrift stores, I found nothing but dusty, unappealing relics. Where were the treasures?

Brand-name little-girl sweaters - in like-new condition - are one of my best finds so far from my occasional thrifting.

I’ve learned a lot from Carey, my fellow blogger here at The Inspired Budget, and she’s opened my eyes to the possibilities of thrift shopping. I am not the dedicated thrift-store shopper that Carey is, but thanks to things I’ve learned from her, I now consider myself an occasional thrifter.

Being an occasional thrifter means I’ve shifted my thinking and my shopping strategy a bit. When I need something – especially if the item is some kind of home decor – my first inclination used to be to head to a big-box or department store. Now, I include thrift stores in the mix, and I’ve had some success.

1. Shop with purpose, and take your time whenever possible. Have a clear idea of what you’re looking for. At Christmas, I was shopping for a toddler’s gift.  I decided to stop at a thrift store, and I browsed until I was satisfied that I’d seen all the clothing that was the right size. I ended up buying two pairs of pants, two adorable name-brand sweaters and a pair of pajamas for $7. All the clothing was in good condition, and because it was so affordable, I was able to buy more clothing than I would have if I’d gone elsewhere.

2. Use your imagination. When you find an item that catches your eye, look beyond its obvious uses. Last summer, I needed a container for a flower arrangement. I found an interesting – but plastic-lined and tape-covered – black wire holder that had three empty spaces where votive candle holders had been. After I cleaned it up and filled the empty spaces with miniature flower arrangements, a neglected-looking item was a charming summer centerpiece.

3. Know when to move on. I’ve needed a basic, clear glass pitcher for months, so I opted to check my local thrift stores for one. I found pitchers that were too big, too small, the wrong color, or plastic.  After it seemed that I’d looked at all the options, I decided to cut short my hunt and go to a big-box store. I found a heavy, clear glass pitcher for $15. With the investment of a couple more hours of time, I might have found something similar at other thrift stores. But sometimes, saving yourself time and stress is worth paying full price.

What about you? Are you an occasional thrifter, or an avid thrifter? Have you ever gotten a great deal or really good treasure when you were thrift shopping?

Posted in Budgeting, Choices, Living with purpose | Tagged | 2 Comments

Tackle that nagging to-do list

For the past few weeks, my husband and I have been purging our household of unnecessary or unwanted items. We’ve generally been tidying up our home.   We’ve culled toys, cleaned out closets, and started the process of sorting through all of our remaining baby items.  If it isn’t fabulous, and if we don’t need it, we’re sending it out the door.

It’s felt incredibly good to de-clutter. We feel like we’ve got more space, and we generally feel less burdened by our stuff.  We’re not done yet, though. The next thing on our agenda is to tackle a nagging list of minor household projects.  Though none of these projects is significant, we want to accomplish them before spring comes and our focus shifts to working outside.

The list consists mostly of mending/fixing items in our home, though a few projects relate to general house maintenance.  The beauty of this list is that almost everything is no or low-cost.   So in the process of completing these projects, we won’t spend much, but things will look and function better for us.

Here’s a snapshot of our list:

  • Re-glue the wooden high chair.  (We’ve got an antique high chair that all four of our children have used.  It’s held up beautifully, but it needs to have some small repair work so that our youngest daughter can continue using it.)
  • Repair the porch of the girls’ dollhouse.  (My mother and father-in-law made a sweet wooden dollhouse that is a miniature version of our own home.  It’s seen some abuse from our sometimes rambunctious sons, and it needs some minor repair.)
  • Rewire my green glass lamp.  (I bought a lovely green lamp at a thrift store, but it turned out that the wiring was faulty.  Once rewired, we’ll use it to light up our favorite reading spot.)
  • Caulk the mudroom sink.  (Our mop sink sees heavy use—and lots of dirty boots.  Ten minutes spent caulking around the sink will make sure the water and mud will stay where they’re supposed to be.)
  • Put away the lingering Christmas decorations.  (Every year, no matter how hard we try, we inevitably end up leaving one or two things out.  Because our decorations are in the crawlspace, it takes some effort to return them where they go.)
  • Strip/wax tile floors (We installed commercial-grade tile floors—like the kind in grocery stores—in our home.  They’ve worn well, but they do require occasional maintenance to keep them looking good.  It’s a big project, but it will only cost us our time.)

Chances are you have a nagging list of your own.  Maybe you need to drop off a box of items to donate, paint the staircase, clean out the freezer or hang the stack of frames that have been waiting behind your closet door.  Make a master list of all those little projects and prioritize them based on what your time and budget will allow.  If you’ve got so many that you feel overwhelmed, start with five things you can do right now, using the resources and materials you already have on hand.

Little things have a way of making a big difference in our lives.  When you finish something from your list, you’ll probably wonder why it took you so long to do it in the first place. And you’ll enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes from finally crossing those nagging items off your to-do list.

Posted in Goals, Home and garden | Tagged | 2 Comments

Spice up your meals with easy-to-make seasoning

Freshly ground pepper makes House Seasoning even more delicious.

Carey, my fellow blogger here at The Inspired Budget, has inspired me to try a more homemade/less fast food lifestyle.

I’ve already dabbled with things like homemade syrups, and I have big plans for cooking and baking more from scratch.

One foods-from-scratch trend I already love and use often is homemade mixes. They’re so versatile and inexpensive to make that I seldom buy any kind of pre-made mix anymore. Yesterday, for example, I found a mix for Mediterranean flatbread. I was tempted to buy it because it was priced on clearance at $3.99, but essentially it was flour and spices. Why buy a mix when I’ve already got those ingredients at home in my cupboards?

My very favorite mixes to make are specialty spice blends, such taco mix, enchilada sauce mix, and other seasoning blends.  My all-time favorite homemade spice blend comes from Paula Deen. Her recipe for what she calls “House Seasoning” is just salt, pepper and garlic powder. It’s so simple, and so good. I have used it all kinds of main dishes, breakfast casseroles and my infamous black bean salsa.

You can find the recipe for Deen’s wonderful Baked Spaghetti and her House Seasoning here at The Food Network. Try both (serve the spaghetti with Carey’s wonderful breadsticks), and enjoy a wonderful dinner.

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Homemade cards turn scraps into treasures

I’ve got a box full of neatly organized, absolutely blank cards sitting in my home office, and this is the year I’m actually going to use them.

I love craft projects, and I especially love quick ones, such as making someone a card. I’ve got an arsenal of rubber stamps, ink, markers, beads and imagination at my disposal, along with my stash of blank cards. The trouble is that, when faced with an upcoming birthday or holiday, I frequently resort to buying a card instead of taking time to make one.

Take a fresh look at your craft, sewing and scrapbooking supplies. They could be the inspiration for handmade greeting cards.

I like store-bought cards, but with ample supplies to make my own, my goal this year is to save money by using the materials I have.  Making cards is a terrific way to use up or reuse all kinds of odds and ends I have around the house, including:

  • Buttons, decorative coins and beads
  • Scraps of ribbon
  • Scraps of scrapbooking paper, tissue paper, wrapping paper, wallpaper or paint chips
  • Fabric trims, such as rickrack or couch braid, or small tassels
  • Odd earrings with broken posts or small decorative pins
  • Silk flowers, petals or leaves

For example, I could glue a few inches of wire-edged ribbon, cinched in the center, onto a blank card. In the center of the ribbon, I’d add a button, flower or bit of jewelry. In less time than it takes to drive to the store, I’d have a quick, pretty and one-of-a-kind card.

I’m going to set aside an evening or Saturday afternoon this month to make a few cards so I’ll be ready when the next birthday or special occasion rolls around.  In fact, a few handmade cards, tied with ribbon, twine or tulle, make a useful, thoughtful gift.

Hmm … now my creative juices are flowing. Do you like making homemade cards? I’d love your suggestions for decorating them or making them unique.

Posted in Budgeting, Goals, Holidays, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

New, challenging endeavors can make you happier

I’ve always been comfortable in the kitchen, somehow sensing that the soup will taste better with a bit more thyme or that the beef stew could use a few dashes of Worchestershire sauce.  I’ve learned to use recipes more as guidelines than as a set of hard and fast rules. I fearlessly make substitutions and like winging it while I’m in the kitchen.

I suppose my fearlessness is one of the reasons I enjoy cooking so well.  Another reason is that I sincerely find joy in rolling out dough, stirring a bubbling roux or watching the bagels bob in boiling water. I appreciate the process of cooking, perhaps even more than the result.

According to psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmiahalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high-ee), the ability to focus on the pleasure of the process, rather than on the outcome, is an essential ingredient for a happy life.  This state, when a person is fully engaged in a creative activity, is what he has coined “flow.”

Csikzentmiahalyi’s theory of “flow” explains why it’s easy to lose track of time when you’re absorbed in doing something that you enjoy. (I attain a state of “flow” when I’m engaged in a Scrabble match with my husband, or when I recently made and piped buttercream frosting for the first time, for example.) It also explains why experiences such as attending a new dance class, tying your first fishing fly, or weaving your own scarf can be so satisfying.  When we engage in activities lively enough to challenge—but that don’t overwhelm us—we’ll be happier, according to Csikzentmiahalyi.

So in the spirit of achieving the kind of flow that Csikzentmiahalyi describes, I’ve decided to make a list of creative activities that I want to try this year.   My list stretches my current skill set enough that I think I’ll welcome the challenge—but still enjoy the process, too.   Here they are in no particular order.

  1. Make my own lacto-fermented ketchup
  2. Make my own cream cheese
  3. Make a jersey scarf with scripted letters (a poem or favorite saying)
  4. Make homemade vanilla ice cream
  5. Learn to use my digital camera
  6. Embroider a design on a favorite t-shirt
  7. Make “softies” out of felted sweaters for my kids
  8. Make really delicious homemade yogurt
  9. Design and prepare a new garden for our property
  10. Implement more permaculture practices in our gardens and other plantings

How about you?  What will you do this year to find “flow”?  Leave your creative ideas in the comment section so others can read, enjoy and be inspired.





Posted in Goals, Living with purpose | 2 Comments

A pile of good books are calling my name

I love the pleasure of getting lost in a good book, savoring the plot twists, surprises, or characters that make me laugh out loud.

For my entire career, I’ve been a writer and editor. With all that wordsmithing on the job, I seldom write more than a grocery list in my spare time, and I often don’t read for pleasure. Yet any time I do find myself engrossed in another good book, I remember what fun it is.

My goal for 2012 is to read more – for fun, and for personal growth. I love buying books, even if I don’t get around to reading them. At the moment, I’ve got a stack at home that needs attention. So I’m determined this year to tackle the pile of books waiting for me.

I’d like to read a book a month. To get started, I’m going to finish a lighthearted novel about a former spy turned stay-at-home mom that I began reading months ago.

The rest of my unread pile contains a mix of “better living” books, how-to’s for getting organized and eating better, and novels that sounded like too much fun to pass up.  I figure there’s no better budget-friendly pastime than digging into the good reading awaiting me in my own home.

Here’s what’s on my list for 2012; I’ve got enough choices to read more than a book a month. I’d love to hear what you are reading now, or hear what you’ve read lately and loved.

Crunch Time by Diane Mott Davidson
Number 19 (title yet to be released) in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series
She Shoots to Conquer by Dorothy Cannell
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (I want to reread this)
Love in the Time of Taffeta by Eugenie Olson
Illusion by Frank Peretti

A House in Fez: Building A Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco by Suzanna Clarke

Take the U Out of Clutter by Mark Brunetz
Master Your Metabolism by Jillian Michaels

Christian/better living:
Just Give Me Jesus by Anne Graham Lotz
At least two books by Beth Moore, maybe more
Made to Crave by Lysa Terkeurst
Crazy Love by Francis Chan
Making Life Work by Michelle McKinney Hammond

Suggested reading:
One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food and Love by Kristin Kimball
Grace for the Good Girl by Emily P. Freeman

Posted in Choices, Goals, Lifestyle | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Stretch yourself and await good surprises

I vividly remember sitting on a plane, book in hand, completely gripped by an intriguing plot. 

I had picked up this particular book while I was on vacation because I had discovered the author is a cousin whom I’ve never met. Because I enjoyed her book so much, I searched for her online and sent her personal message when I got home. 

You never know when a simple gesture, such a friendly note, will open the door to new friendships and opportunities.

It was just a simple note, and I never expected anything to come of it. She was simply a first-time author who I wanted to encourage. Yet, a year and a half later, I can say my cousin Kris is now a friend I’m grateful for.  We’ve developed a vibrant friendship, despite the great distance between us.  One of my goals for 2012 is getting the opportunity to meet her face to face. 

Life is full of twists, such as my unexpected friendship with Kris.  I’m continually surprised by how the most seemingly simple things can have such profound effects.  You never know when being willing to give of yourself or try something new will steer your life in a wonderfully different direction.

As we stand at the beginning of a new year, I’d encourage you to consider ways you can try something new, or stretch your life in a new direction.  You could start simply, by reading a book on a topic you’re curious about, or a culture that seems intriguing.  You could send a note of encouragement to a neighbor or your child’s teacher.  Try something that’s out of the ordinary for you.

Maybe you want something a little bolder. For example, maybe you’ve wanted to take a pottery class, or learn to make jambalaya, or dye your hair red, or surf in Mexico. Will any of these change your life? Who knows? But you never know when your new friend, or your new career, or your new favorite hobby is right around the corner.

Stretching yourself doesn’t necessarily have to cost money. It does require time, interest, energy, creativity and maybe some courage. So take a deep breath and let yourself imagine the possibilities. How will you stretch yourself and your life this year?

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