Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Basic Homemade White Bread

I love bread. I absolutely love it. And I simply cannot resist warm bread straight out of the oven! Luckily, it's super easy to make! You just need a few basic ingredients and a couple of hours to allow the bread to rise.

I'll go ahead and warn you now, this post is going to be pretty picture-heavy. I've always been a visual learner, and apparently I'm a visual teacher as well. I can't just explain to you how to do something - I have some deep-seated need to SHOW you. Just go with it.

Ok, first gather your ingredients. You will need:
1 packet active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
5 tsp sugar
1.5 tbs butter, melted
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup milk
approx 2 cups flour

Step 0: It's not completely necessary, but I like to warm my metal bowl by holding it under hot running water before I start. Yeast likes things to be warm, not cold.

Step 1: Combine the packet of yeast, 1/3 cup warm water, and 1 tsp sugar in the bowl and stir until the yeast is completely dissolved. Then walk away for 10 minutes. If your yeast is active, it will form a foamy layer on top of the liquid. If you see that, yell "It's alive!" in your best Dr. Frankenstein voice and continue to the next step.

Foamy top - might be a little hard to see in the picture, but it's there!
Step 2: Add the milk, melted butter, salt, and remaining 4 tsp of sugar and stir well. Now it's time for the flour, which can be a little tricky. For some reason, I never use the exact same amount twice so it's hard to give an exact measurement. I start with 1 2/3 cups, mix well, and then add the rest slowly until the dough is the right consistency.

You want the dough to be just slightly sticky. It should form a ball as you stir - if it sticks to the bowl, you should add a bit more flour. If you add to much and it gets dry and no longer sticks to itself to form a nice ball, you can add just a very small amount of water to moisten things up again. It's trial and error at this point, but eventually, you'll get a ball of dough you can hold without it sticking to your hands.

Step 3: Plop that ball of dough down on a floured surface.

 Step 4: Knead the dough for 10 minutes. Punch it, smash it, take out all your stress on it. Yes, your arms will get tired. Yes, you will want to quit early. Don't do it. Sometimes I just carry the dough around and squeeze it and stretch it for a while. Occasionally I enlist the help of some really cute buddies who LOVE to smash the dough.

After several minutes, you will notice that the consistency of the dough is changing. It will become smooth and kind of elastic-ish.

See, doesn't that look different than before?
Step 5: Yay...the hard part is done! Spray a bowl with non-stick spray. I put the dough in the bowl and then flip it over so there is a thin layer of non-stick spray on both sides...I have found that this keeps the dough from getting dry on top.

Then find a warm place for your dough to hang out while it rises. Some people use the light in their oven to generate a bit of heat and put the dough in there. I have a different method. I get the best results when I fill a bowl with hot water, put a rack over it, and put my dough on the rack. Wherever you decide to put your bowl, cover it with a towel and leave it alone for an hour. It should double in size.

From this... this.

Step 6: Move the dough back to a floured surface. Punch it down (it will return to its original size) and knead it a few times. Then flatten it out into a rectangle that's about the same length, but wider.

Step 7: Start at one of the short sides and roll up the dough. Try to roll as tightly as you can.

Step 8: Fold the sizes of your dough under and put it into your greased loaf pan.

Step 9: Put the loaf pan back in the warm place, cover with a towel, and leave it to rise for another hour. Before your hour is up, make sure you preheat your oven to 375.

Step 10: After it rises, move your bread to your preheated oven and bake at 375 for 30 minutes. Take it out of the oven and immediately move the bread from the pan to a rack to cool.

If you are anything like me, you'll probably start eating it before it ever gets a chance to cool. Enjoy!

* This bread is just a very basic recipe. You can alter it by using different types of flour or adding things such as cinnamon and raisins. You can even branch out a little and start making your own pizza dough, bread sticks, and hamburger/hotdog buns! The possibilities are endless!

**Keep in mind that this bread doesn't have the preservatives that store bought bread has, so it won't last as long before growing stale. Enjoy it while it's fresh!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Rice Bags - A Tutorial

Rice bags have become a must-have for our house. They can be used to soothe sore muscles, warm cold feet, ice bumps and bruises, and even help relieve headaches. The rice holds both heat and cold, so you can warm these bags in the microwave to turn them into heating pads or keep one in the freezer to use in place of an ice pack if somebody gets injured. The best part about these rice bags is that they are cheap and simple to make!

I use a few different methods to create these bags, but I'll share the one I think looks the best when finished. To make a rice bag like the one above, you need to start with a rectangular piece of fabric. My rectangle for this tutorial measured approximately 11 inches x 17 inches, which made a bag that is approx 5.5 x 16, but you can use whatever size you prefer. We have several sizes and shapes of these bags in the house.

You can also use different types of fabric. Here, I'm using duck fabric. Natural fibers are recommended, since these will be going into the microwave and synthetic fibers can sweat. And PLEASE don't use any fabrics made with metallic threads. Metal and microwaves just don't play nicely together.

Fold your fabric lengthwise, right sides facing together, and pin along the long edge.

Sew along that edge, making a tube of fabric. When making these bags, I like to do a double seam. This way, there's a back up in case one seam fails. Let's face it - nobody wants to clean a floor covered with rice that fought its way out of the bag. I made these seams with 1/4" and 3/8" seam allowances. And since I'm using a fabric that unravels pretty badly, I also used a zig zag stitch along the very edge to help combat that. Fray Stop would have worked, but I ran out several projects ago and just can't seem to remember to pick more up when I'm at the store.

Now adjust your seam so that it's in the center of your fabric tube and press it.

Fold just one end over one inch and press it down.

Time to head back over to your sewing machine. Sew the unfolded end closed. I used the same double seam and zig zag stitch I mentioned above.

Now turn your tube right side out. Use something with a dull point (oxymoron?) to get those corners nice and pointy.

Top stitch a double seam along the closed end of your bag, again at 1/4" and 3/8". This is not needed for functionality, but it will make your bag symmetric when you're finished. You'll see what I mean.

Before I proceeded, I used a zig zag stitch along that last unfinished edge that had been folded over, then tucked that little flap back down inside my bag. You can skip this step if you're not using a fabric that frays so badly (I only do with when using duck fabric).

Now it's time to add the rice. Don't use instant rice for this. You can use corn (not popcorn!), beans, or any other grain to fill these bags, too. I've heard that barley works great, but I haven't tried it yet.

You don't want to fill the bag too full. I only fill the bags about halfway. This leaves the rice plenty of room to move around and form to whatever part of your body you are applying it to. For a bag this size, I used about 4 cups of rice.

Now it's time to pin those folded under ends of your tube together.

Sew a double seam here, with the same allowances you've used throughout the project. This end will look just like the other end and you are done!

 As I mentioned before, these can be made in all different sizes and shapes. Below are a few of them that we use here at my house. The long one is almost 2 feet long and is great for applying heat to sore backs or necks. The medium sized ones are my daughter's favorites. She heats them before bed and puts them under the blanket down by her feet. Nice toasty toes! The little denim one are the perfect size to heat up and put in your coat pockets if you need to go out for a while on a cold day. All of them can double as cold compresses, too. Since I run a daycare, I can never have too many of those around! No matter what you use them for most often, I can almost guarantee that once you start using these rice bags you'll never want to be without one again!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Random Rambling: I Took Me on a Date

The other night was a big night for me. I dropped my daughter off at a party and made arrangements for my friend to go pick her up later. I got myself all dressed up. I put on makeup and styled my hair. And then I took myself on a date.

A dear friend of mine was performing in a play at a local theater Saturday night, and I really wanted to attend. I was pretty hesitant to go alone, though, since I was convinced I would feel awkward. I mean...everyone goes out to things like that in couples or groups, right? Okay maybe not everyone, but that's how it seemed inside my head. The only places I go when I'm alone are the store or for a run at a park or bike trail. Going out strictly for entertainment has never been an option when I'm not with someone else.

I decided to face my fear of whatever it was that had kept me from enjoying the town on my own. (To be honest, I almost called myself to cancel because I was so afraid of....of....of I don't know what!) But then I made the conscious decision that I would go out and enjoy myself. Call me vain, but I didn't want to go out looking like the pitiful girl who couldn't get a date, so I made sure I was looking and feeling good before I left the house.

I went to a little sandwich shop to get something to eat and made small talk with the cashier while I was there. I ate my meal and headed to the theater. I got there a little early and the doors hadn't opened yet, so I was standing in the lobby with a few other people. And of course, those people were in groups of 2 or more. I spent the next couple of minutes fighting the urge to pull out my phone and entertain myself with facebook or by texting or calling a friend.

After a few minutes, though, I noticed a woman who looked to be in her 60's and who was standing alone. I assumed her husband must be in the restroom and would join her shortly. I made eye contact and smiled at her. She smiled back. Several minutes passed and she was still standing alone, so I walked over to her and struck up a conversation. Turns out she was solo that night, too.

WHAT?!? You mean I'm not the only one who came to this play alone? Who would've thought? (Yes, I know...many people would have thought. But I wasn't one of them.)

After talking with this sweet woman (whose name was Linda) for about five minutes, the doors to the theater opened. Linda asked if she could sit with me. I smiled and said, "Of course!" We sat ourselves in the front row and continued to chat about our children, our jobs, and a multitude of other topics right up until the performance began. She had shared with me that her husband passed away a few years back and that it had taken her a while to be okay with going out alone. I shared with her that my ex-husband had left over 4 years ago and this was the first time I had treated myself to a night out alone. She encouraged me to continue doing so.

I truly believe that I was supposed to meet Linda that night. Even though she was a complete stranger and I will most likely never see her again, she made my entire evening comfortable and enjoyable.

Oh...I have to add that the play itself made my evening enjoyable, too. I wouldn't want my friend thinking otherwise!  (Hi were great!) Of course, the most entertaining part of the play was when one poor actress had a wardrobe malfunction and her skirt fell to the floor! She was brilliant, though....she laughed and remained completely in character while fixing her clothes and covering herself again. I had been worried that dating myself would be awkward, but she most DEFINITELY had a more awkward night than I did!

Since Saturday night, I've been thinking about what I can take away from my date with myself. At first I was wondering if I had failed at my self-date since it had pretty much turned into a date with Linda. But then I realized that's exactly what should happen when I go out alone. After all, I didn't go out with the purpose of isolating myself. I went out for the sake of having a good time without needing a friend by my side. I chatted with a few different people, and I connected well with one in particular. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Before I had headed to the theater, I had updated my facebook status to say that I was taking myself on a date. I logged in later to find a couple of cute responses about calling myself back in the morning and single female friends offering to go on dates with me. Then one person made the following comment: "Aww, you'll find somebody special one day." That struck a nerve with me, since the point of my post hadn't been to whine that I was single. I may meet someone one day...I truly hope to marry again and have more kids. But I don't want anyone pitying me simply because I went out alone. For now, I am my somebody special.

My experience with dating myself taught me 2 things:

1. I need to do that again....regularly!


2.  I like me enough to want to hang out with me. That realization gives me confidence like never before!

I definitely plan to make dating myself a regular part of my life. I'll be sure to let you know if anything interesting happens the next time I date me!

And now that you made it to the end of this rather long ramble, check out this AMAZING spoken word video interpretation about being alone:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Whole Chicken in the Crock Pot: Part 2

The other day, I posted about cooking a whole chicken in the crock pot. Today I'm going to show you what I do after the chicken is finished.

First things first, we eat whichever pieces of the chicken we like best. I usually go for breast meat, while my 12 year old eats the dark meat. Since there are only 2 of us in the house, we don't even eat half of the chicken. So after we eat I remove the rest of the chicken from the bone (it falls right off) and shred it.

That's a lot of leftover meat!

I put the chicken into freezer bags in 1-2 cup portions, and then freeze it. I use shredded chicken in a lot of different dishes and it's wonderful to just go to the freezer and grab a bag of chicken that has already been cooked...definitely a time saver on busy evenings!

Even after getting all the meat off the bones, I'm not finished. I put all the bones back into the crock pot, along with coarsely chopped onions, carrots, and celery (the juices are still in there from when the chicken was cooking, too). I then fill the crock pot with water, turn it on low, and let it simmer overnight and into the next day. After 12-24 hours, you will have the most flavorful broth ever...and it has far less sodium than canned broth you buy at the grocery store!

Strain out the bones, veggies, etc. and pour the broth into containers to cool. DO NOT put the very hot broth straight into your fridge, as that will throw off the temperature of the rest of the food in there. Let it cool on the counter first, then transfer it to the fridge.

Once the broth has chilled, the fat in the broth will form a thin layer across the top. Just use a spoon to remove that. I then pour the broth into quart-size freezer bags and freeze them. Now instead of buying and using canned broth in recipes, I can just grab a bag of my homemade broth from the freezer whenever I need some. Easy AND fugal!

One more tip - lay the baggies flat as they freeze. Once they're frozen solid, you can stack them up or you can stand them on end like books on a bookshelf. It's just easier to make them fit into a crowded freezer when they're frozen this way.

Stay tuned....I'll be sharing some of my shredded chicken recipes in the near future!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Whole Chicken in the Crock Pot: Part 1

I used to be afraid of whole chickens.

Okay, so I wasn't afraid of the chicken itself. I was afraid of buying and cooking it. I's a whole bird! Sure, it's a great value, but what the heck was I going to do with a whole bird? It was just so intimidating!

Then one day, I faced my fear. I decided to take a chicken home from the store without having a clue about what I was going to do with it once I got it there. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to cook. Now, a few years and many chickens later, whole chickens are one of my favorite things to prepare. And a crock pot makes cooking them a breeze!

I like to put vegetables in the crock pot with the chicken. That way, I don't have to cook a side dish once my chicken is done. (You could call this laziness, but I like to think of it as efficiency). Anyway, on to the cooking!

First, I cut up about 4 red potatoes, a few carrots, and an onion. I put half of the onion off to the side, and put the other half in the bottom of the crock pot with the potatoes and carrots.

Now, get your chicken out of the fridge, take it out of the package, and remove the yucky parts that are stuffed inside. You can save the innards for another recipe, if you choose, but I usually throw them straight into the trash.

Now it's time to give your chicken a bath! No, really. Rinse him thoroughly and then pat him dry with a paper towel.

For seasoning, I used a combination of garlic, oregano, basil, paprika, and salt this time around, but there have been times when I've only used salt and pepper. Still yummy. Use what you like.

Whatever you choose, rub it all over your chicken. Don't just sprinkle it on...massage it in. Be sure to get all over the outside of the bird and inside the cavity. I even lift the skin off the breast and reach in to rub the seasoning into the breast meat, too.

Once you're finished seasoning your chicken, put the remaining half of your onion into the cavity and place the chicken directly on top of the vegetables in your crock pot.

Now replace the lid, set your crock pot to low, and walk away. There is no need to add any liquid because the chicken will make its own juices as it cooks.

Bonus: by the time your chicken is done, your house will smell phenomenal!

I cooked this chicken for 7 hours. It was a larger chicken, though...just over 5 lbs. I know not everyone has a crock pot big enough to hold a 5 pound chicken, so be mindful that different size chickens and different types of crock pots will make cooking times slightly different.

If you're unsure whether or not your chicken is thoroughly cooked, use a meat thermometer. White meat is done when it reaches a temp of 165 and dark meat is done at 180 degrees. Be sure not to touch the bone with the thermometer when you're checking because the bone will be hotter than the meat.

Once your chicken is done, gently remove it from the crock pot. Be careful - the meat will likely be falling off the bone and the chicken might try to fall apart on you!

If you want to crisp the skin, you can put the chicken under the broiler for a few minutes. I don't usually do that, since I don't eat the skin, but it does make the finished chicken much prettier.

Now, remove the potatoes, onions, and carrots from the crock pot. They should be insanely flavorful after cooking in the chicken's juices all day.

Now, go enjoy your dinner!

(Don't forget to thoroughly clean your sink and any other surfaces you prepared your raw chicken on!)

Come back tomorrow and I'll tell you what I usually do with the leftover chicken....both the meat and the bones. Nothing goes to waste around here!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cheeseburger Cupcakes

I made these cute little cupcakes a few times this past summer. Once for my birthday, which fell on Memorial Day, and again for my 8 year old niece's birthday party a month later. They were a huge hit and I had a ton of people ask me how I did it, so I just have to pass it along!

To start, you'll need 24 yellow cupcakes and 24 little round brownies, and some red, yellow, and green cake decorating icing with decorative tips. I just used box mixes for the cupcakes and the brownies. The cupcakes were made exactly like the box says. For the brownies, I mixed up the batter according to the directions on the box. Instead of pouring the batter into a pan, though, I lined a couple of cupcake tins with paper liners and added about a half inch of batter into each of those. I only baked them for about 10 minutes or so...they cook fast when you're making brownies this small. Keep a close eye on them!

Remove the papers and cut the cupcake in half horizontally. This is your bun.

Put the brownie on your bun.

Now it's time for the icing. To start, use the flat tip to add your yellow icing. I didn't want a huge glob of icing on these, so I just made a square around the edges. If you're an icing lover, you can totally cover the whole brownie! (Hint: if you make a square, it really looks a lot like a slice of cheese.)

Next, put a small tip on the red icing and add some ketchup to your burger. Try to get close to the edges so you can still see it once you put the top on.

Time to add some lettuce! I used the flower icing tip and added a few dollops of green icing around the edges.

Replace the cupcake top and you're done!

And, since I seem to enjoy overdoing things, I took these little burgers one step further. When I made them for my niece's birthday party, I made sugar cookie fries to go with them. After all, what's a burger with no fries? They weren't hard to make at all. Just cut sugar cookie dough into square shaped cookies to bake them, then cut the finished cookies into strips. Put it all on a little paper tray with a scoop of ice cream, and you have a fun alternative to traditional cake and ice cream!

Random Rambling: Scary Scarecrow

The day after Thanksgiving is always the day we put away the autumn decorations and break out everything related to Christmas. This year, I was more excited than ever to take down the scarecrows and pumpkins. That excitement doesn't have anything to do with Christmas, though. That extra bit of excitement exists because, frankly, the scarecrow on my front door scares the bejeezies out of me.

See? Isn't he scary? Sure, he's got a cute hat, rosy cheeks, and a crooked little grin. But this little guy has been creeping me out since we first hung him up in mid-October. He's cute enough during the daytime, but he transforms into something else overnight.

Don't believe me? Look...

SEE??? This photo was taken from my living room. First thing in the morning, every morning for weeks, this is what I saw. When it was still dark in the house and the sun was coming up outside, that scarecrow was nothing more than a creepy silhouette that peeks through the window on my front door in an effort to make me pee my pants.

You would think I'd get used to it after a while, but that didn't happen. You would also think that if it bothered me that much, I would have taken it down. That didn't happen, either. In my twisted way of thinking, that would have been letting the scarecrow win. Yes, I know that's ridiculous...I embrace my inner crazy. But I refuse to do ANYTHING out of fear. So I left it up. And I kept getting scared.

But now it's time to celebrate! The scarecrow is tucked away nicely in a box down in the basement where I don't have to look at him, and this cute little snowman is now in his place.

Snowmen aren't nearly as scary as scarecrows.