Okay, to be truthful, since that birthday 8 years ago when I was 3 weeks postpartum, sleep-deprived, and nursing for 45 minutes every two hours, I’ve been fairly content to let the whole thing slide by. And after making my husband SWEAR that he wouldn’t make a big deal out of my turning 40 a couple of years ago (after bringing belly dancers to his 40th the previous year–no, he actually did want a kinda big-deal party), I’ve tried to downplay the whole thing as much as possible. And yet people keep remembering…and honestly, I’m sort of digging it.
But what is so cool, especially on the gift front, is how much the people who care about me “get” what I’m about and what I love and need and want and don’t need/want…My coolest gift from husband and kids, and the one I knew about in advance because I helped pick it out and had been harping on it since summer when my mom got one, is a new SodaStream seltzer-maker. This will get its own blog post later–it’s so cool; I am a huge fizzy-water drinker, and I can’t stand all the seltzer bottles that generates…now I’ll be able to make it at home, which will cut our monthly grocery bills by probably the cost of a babysitter for one evening, and dramatically reduce the amount of recycling I add to the system.
My parents sent me a beautiful glass bead lariat necklace, handmade by an artist on one of the islands near where they live. And a purse/backpack made of repurposed old jeans from OldBagzz.com, with a vintage Wonder Woman cartoon on the side–beautiful craftsmanship, making my feeble efforts at jeans-purses feel really clumsy. I will totally use this, ALL the time. (The outer zipper pocket just fits my oversize Kindle, too.) And some goodies from an organic artisan chocolatier from another island near where they live, Black Dinah Chocolatiers, (Ahem…cough cough…yes, as of 9:00 this morning I had already broken into the semisweet bar with ground lavender flowers. Oh. My. God.), which are to die for. Dinah also has a cafe…and a blog…with recipes.
As usual, the best gifts are the intangibles–like my kids and husband making pancakes for me on a school morning, and two handmade cards, one with a picture of my son and me–with HUGE hands–standing together, and another of my daughter and I in a field of flowers at sunset (pictured above). And more Facebook happy wishes than I ever would have hoped for or expected.
It’s a good day.
Do a Google search for “best granola recipe ever” and you’ll get an insane number of hits. They all look pretty good, too…
So I figure, why not throw my hat into the ring too? I’ll probably be making up a batch or two of my favorite granola recipe for a few more gifts this year; what doesn’t get given will easily be eaten, so it’s hard to go wrong.
I cobbled this recipe together from a whole bunch of others and a lot of trial and error, so I think it probably counts as “mine” without needing to credit anyone else…even if I should, I’ve had this in my computer for about 4 years, and I have no idea where I cobbled it from, so oh well!
JENN’S GRANOLA RECIPE (doubles easily!)
4 cups regular oats
1-1 ½ cups nuts (pecans and/or almonds and/or whatever you like)
1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. Nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp salt
(mix in bowl)
Boil in small saucepan:
1/3 cup orange juice
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup honey
2 tbs brown sugar
2 tbs vegetable oil
Pour over dry stuff, mix well.
Spread on foil-covered, greased baking sheet. Bake 30-35 minutes at 325, stirring every 10 minutes, till golden brown. (possible will “clump” better if one waits 20 minutes for the first stir?)
When completely cooled, mix in ¾ – 1 cup each dried cranberries, golden raisins, and currants or blueberries. Makes about 8 cups.
(Update: okay, I made this as gifts for several people, and I have to admit this is FABULOUS granola. Low in fat, sweet, flavorful, crunchy, and just plain YUM. And thinking back, I developed this recipe during a period when I was obsessed with making my own granola, so I tried literally about a dozen different recipes before settling on this one. I honestly feel safe calling this “the best granola I’ve ever had.”)
My “day job,” though it’s as much about evenings as days, is as a full time church musician. (I work in a church big enough to pay me a living wage at it. (However, if you check out this article on CNNmoney.com, at number 4, that should tell you something…) This time of year is incredibly intense, and everyone is overworked and a little crabby, and there’s generally very little time for pleasant little holiday family rituals. For that matter, there’s very little time for family, period. Every year somewhere in the first week of December, my husband and I give each other a kiss and say, only semi-jokingly, ”good night, honey, see you on the 26th or so.”
Today is sort of the last hurrah. It’s a Saturday, I have no morning meetings, I have no weddings to play, I just have to show up at about 4pm and I have nothing on the calendar prior to that. So even though it is nearly 11:00am, the kids and I are still in our jammies. We are watching “The Nutcracker” while the second batch of melt-and-pour soap is melting over the double boiler. This morning is the last shot at regaining any sense of serenity and holiday peace before the insanity hits full force on Monday, when the final shove of choir rehearsals and booklet printing and making sure the cast of thousands knows what it’s supposed to be up to…
I discovered melt-and-pour soaps a couple Christmases ago at teacher gift time; there was a bit of a learning curve, but we’re much better at it now. And both kids have different teachers from last year, so I feel okay about doing it again. Since the early experiments I’ve bought soap molds and experienced a lot of trial and error, and I have something like six pounds of unmelted soap block sitting in the closet. It’s a great project for kids, as long as the adult does the melting, because they can pour and stir and color and blend themselves.
So…off we go.
This is a really good site for basic instructions, and here’s my own experiences:
Melt and pour soap base is available in a lot of places, but if you get it from, say, Michaels, it is a lot more expensive. (I’m still glad I did that for my first pound–it was a good way to ease into the process.) I think I paid about $10 for a pound-size soap block, which makes maybe 4 bars of soap depending on the size you use, which isn’t that much less than buying nice glycerin soap somewhere else.
I honestly can’t remember where I bought the 6 lbs I have in my closet, but any internet search for “melt and pour soap” will give more hits than anyone can possibly need. www.goplanetearth.com/index.html has some good-looking prices and products; I’ll probably try them next.
Just a few hints, after one has read the basic falling-off-a-log instructions:
Color: I bought three little bottles of soap coloring from Michaels, in the three primary colors, and I’ve managed to work within that palette so far. One would think there’s a whole lot of variety to be found from mixing red, blue, and yellow, but somehow in practice…not so much. Probably with better colors I could get better results, but our first few bars of soap looked a bit like radioactive waste…
This batch, for 12 ounces of soap, we used 3 drops of red and 4 drops of yellow, which gave a fairly nice coral-pink. The next batch Bear wants to be green, which unfortunately was the hue we never managed last time and wound up with the radioactive waste look, but we’ll give it a try…
Fragrance: Some websites have suggested about 1.5 tsp of essential oil per pound of soap, but in reality that’s going to depend a lot on what oils you use. Peppermint overpowers almost anything, as does Tea tree…Lavender blends too quickly into the background, as does Clary, but Geranium Rose leaps to the forefront. They seem, to me, to be behaving differently in soaps than they do in ordinary aromatherapy blends, but that could be just my own impression. Also, as nice as the spices and citruses may smell, it’s not a good idea to use them in skin care products, because they are sensitizing. (Sweet Orange in small amounts I admit i do use…but I also want to be clear when I say that that I know I’m going against other advice, and no way would I advise anyone else in that direction.)
For this batch, I went the easy route and am trying to use up some of a much too old bottle of “Peace and Calming” from Young Living Oils. (Note: the Young Living company has been at the center of a lot of controversy in the aromatherapy community, regarding questionable business practices and irresponsible medical advice that flies in the face of the research of the aromatherapy community at large–advice which, incidentally, involves the use of way larger amounts of the oils than is widely deemed safe. Every shopper must make his or her own choice, but I have chosen not to continue purchasing their oils and once what I have is gone I won’t be buying any more.) I don’t know about its theraputic value, but this blend does smell very nice and ought to make a lovely soap.
Molds: Pretty much anywhere you can get soap base, you can probably also get molds. but molds aren’t absolutely necessary, especially if you want to really go for the “natural handmade” look. A loaf pan or square baking dish can work just as well, although you’ll want to test out quantity to make sure you have the right container for whatever amount of soap you’re using. (If you melt your soap in a Pyrex measuring container, you can then use a different cup to measure that same amount of water into the container you want to use and find out exactly how high your soap will come and thus how thick your bars will be.)
I swear by silicone baking dishes, and using silicone for soap molds is just as easy and wonderful. Sometimes in hard containers the soap gets stuck and is hard to unmold (though usually a quick immersion of the mold part into hot water loosens it enough to get it out), but silicone is really easy.
Additives: One word; beware. I had this lovely idea of bars of soap with lavender blossoms scattered through it, or oatmeal, or whatever…but unless one gets the soap base that’s designed to suspend things in it, it all falls to the bottom of the mold. Which, actually, gives a very nice exfoliating thing on one side, but not the effect I was looking for.
My oval mold holds 3 4oz bars, so we made 4 different batches:
1. coral-colored shea butter soap base with “Peace and Calming”
2. green goats-milk soap base (sort of a nice green this time!) with lavender and roman chamomile
3. lavender goats-milk soap base with lavender and just a touch of sweet orange
4. yellow clear glycerin with lemongrass and a teeny bit of lemon and orange (I know, the citrus thing, but I couldn’t resist)
5. orange clear glycerin with bergamot mint and sweet orange
Our final experiment, made in a loaf pan, is single layers of the 6 (okay, yes, I know there are seven, but whatever) colors of the rainbow each with a different scent; you put in one layer, let it harden, then go to the second layer, and so forth. Takes a while, but it should be very cool…
This makes for a really fun kid project–I love giving teachers things that the kids can actually participate in. Plus we always make a couple extra bars for us, and the kids like washing with the soap they helped make. So it’s a win-win all around.
Last week I posted an entry about creative gift wrap ideas; sometime a couple of days later I happened upon the actual name of the Japanese tradition whereby one wraps gifts in big fabric squares: Furoshiki. Armed with a new Google search word, I went after more information…
My highly educated and researched conclusion: this is WAY COOL!
I’ve found several sites with basic info and easy to follow video tutorials for using a fabric square to wrap a box, or two bottles, or two books, or to make a simple purse or grocery-type bag–this site has all of the above on one page. And here you can find a simple diagram (saveable as a pdf file) with the largest number of different wraps I’ve seen anywhere…(That diagram is below, but the source site is the one I’ve linked to above.) Sites that sell furoshiki also often have instructions on the sites–not as sexy as the videos, but perfectly good as far as I can tell. (The one I’ve linked to above has a whole lot of different options…)
I mean, think about it…how much money have I spent on those ridiculous overpriced gift bags over the years? Buying a yard of sale fabric and taking the time to hem it (and, though this hardly fits the Japanese model, finding a nice knit or something that won’t even need hemming would save even more time) would save a good bit of money over time and also mean the recipient would gain a nice piece of fabric; especially for children gifts; it’s amazing to me what my kids can do with a piece of cloth and how much mileage they get out of it.
So: gift wrap and gift bags out: Furoshiki fabric squares in. Easy trade, in my opinion.
Okay, the blog posts will probably start getting more and more sporadic as the weeks go on, since more of my former computer time is apt to become crafting-gifting-making time between now and the 25th.
So here’s what I’ve got going (plus the things in the hopper for folks who I know stop by here every now and again!):
For my daughter, I did finally bid for and win on ebay several yards of 100% wool flannel at a really good price. It’s in the washer fulling as we speak. (Fulling or felting is when you intentionally wash wool in hot water and shrink it down so it’s tighter and softer…in this case, also less itchy.) I actually got enough flannel for two nighties, so I’m making one for me too. This will be seriously warm–maybe too warm, but what the hey. So that’s two nightgowns.
(The only drawback is that the wool flannel felted a little better than I expected it to–I’d done a swatch as well, but that didn’t do as well–and it’s almost too heavy for a nightgown now…so I may instead learn how to make bathrobes. I’m even thinking of adapting the flannel nightgown pattern I have to make a big flowy robe that ties just at the front top; I know I’d wear it, I have to think about whether my daughter would. This is good fabric, I love it. I know I could have left it un-fulled, but honestly with nightgowns for these two mess-prone women, I don’t want something that’s going to be high maintenance on the laundry front, and once you’ve done everything you can to a piece of wool, it’s fairly indestructible. Look at Braveheart.) (By the way, historical costumers laugh in derision at that movie…but the whole kilt thing is fairly ingenious, when you think about it…)
I’m also working on a little patchwork blanket for each of the kids–one made out of cut up jeans for my son and one made out of felted sweater squares for my daughter. I’m currently experiencing a little two-birds-with-one-stone goodness; I was looking for wool sweaters in the thrift stores in different shades of red and pink, but mostly what I found was white and cream ones. Only one pink sweater, in a very pale shade. (And I had a few red ones from last year, three different shades.) So just for the hell of it, I washed one of the white sweaters in the machine with the bright red brand new wool flannel, and now I have a lovely bright pink sweater. (Since I was “dying” to experiment. ) Very cool. So now I have some really nice contrasting colors to make squares out of, hopefully enough for a small throw blanket for her. Jeans will be no problem–I’ve been saving the jeans my son busted the knees out of for a few years now, plus the ones my husband has trashed.
Both blankets will be backed with colorful flannel–my son’s in rockets and planets and stuff, and my daughter in butterflies.
I’m also planning on making cloth napkins for the family, as a gesture of hope that we can start to eliminate some of our daily paper use–if I can make each of us several napkins in a person-specific print–butterflies for my daughter, sunflowers for my son, and who-knows-what for each of the grownups–we can at least use them for meals and toss them in the wash at the end of the week.
I have some jeans bags in the works too–way better than the ones I attempted last year; these should be very cute. But as I said, no photos, since some recipients might read this blog…
Other than that, there are the melt and pour soaps, and some folks will doubtless get jars of applesauce and apple butter, though I haven’t had the chance to make any more since the first batch. I also have more nuts and dried fruit than I know what to do with, so I may make a few batches of granola as well. Nice consumable gift the kids can help with. And mulling spices.
I got to listen to a friend tell of his Macy’s nightmare today, of long lines and incompetent and/or rude sales people, and I felt only slightly smug but deeply relieved that I just don’t. go. to. the. mall.
Does everyone know about The Hunger Site?
Each time you click on the “free food” button, up to once a day, a cup of food is donated to the hungry. You can just go there, or you can arrange for reminder emails to be sent each day so you don’t, like me, forget. The food is paid for by sponsors; this is a legitimate Real Deal thing–check out their About page for more info. If you work from multiple computers, you can click on it once per computer per day. (It doesn’t give you extra spam or messages unless you ask for them.)
What a lot of people aren’t aware of is the online store attached to the site, full of fair trade goods and just generally really nice stuff–clothes, jewelry, home goods, and stuff like that. I do a really large amount of my Christmas shopping there, and I’ve never been disappointed in a purchase. (Note: I don’t think it’s all fair trade; there’s a button to click for that.)
Take a look…
(p.s.–there are tabs across the top for other causes–breast cancer, children’s health, literacy, rainforest, and animal rescue–you can click on each tab once a day to contribute to these various organizations…)
I could pretend this is about recipes for children, but the truth is that I love hot cocoa and drink it almost daily, especially since I’m trying to at least sporadically get off of coffee.
Powdered pre-made cocoa=bleech. In my obviously fairly biased opinion. It’s too sweet, sorta fake, and I don’t really know what’s in there besides lots and lots of sugar and a comparatively small amount of actual chocolate. Thing is, once I discovered how unbelievably easy it is to make “real” hot cocoa, I’ve effectively stopped drinking it except in a pinch at chorus rehearsals when I need a little sugar hit during a break. (okay, it’s not that bad. But it doesn’t compare to the real stuff.)
So: Unbelievably Easy Single Serving Hot Cocoa
- heat 1 cup (8 oz) milk in the microwave; pyrex cup is good for this
- while it’s heating, put 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder and 2 tsp sugar into a mug. (To taste–my kids like less cocoa and more sugar–yeah, big surprise!–but when I make it for myself I’ll often almost double the cocoa. Just for the antioxidants. )
- (optional) if desired, add a sprinkle of cinnamon, a few drops of vanilla, or half a teaspoon of instant coffee powder
- when milk is hot, pour a little–just a couple tbs.–into the cocoa/sugar mixture; mix to form a paste. This will keep it from being lumpy. (Don’t even consider skipping this step; it’s key.)
- Pour the rest of the milk in, stir, and enjoy.
Another way is to use hot tap water to make the paste, pour cold milk into the mug, and heat that in the microwave, but I’ve had too many experiences of the paste rising to the top and forming a big bubble that explodes all over the microwave. The instant pre-made stuff is prone to that too, by the way.
Of course, you can also make your own hot chocolate mix using cocoa, powdered milk, and sugar–this would be in the “cooking in quantity” category, and on a green level (like the above) would have its own positive garbage-reduction impact; take a little reusable container to work to keep in the desk, keep some at home, etc. and you avoid those unrecyclable foil-filled envelopes. (Do they still use those? You can tell it’s been a while since I’ve bought them…) Also, naturally, you have the ability to know exactly what’s going into your drink–organic milk, free trade organic cocoa, and such, if that’s your thing. It certainly is mine. I haven’t done a free trade rant on this blog yet, but one of these days I’ll get to it; in the meantime www.thestoryofstuff.com talks about “externalizing costs” for the things we buy so cheaply, which is another way of saying that I get it cheap because someone else is shouldering the cost, whether it’s people or the planet itself…which is Not Really Fair, when you think of it, ya know? Especially if there’s a bunch of corporate weenies between me and the cacao farmer who are getting filthy rich in the process. (Okay, I guess that was a mini-rant.)
Where was I? Ah yes, instant hot cocoa recipe (and I have to say I’m fairly incensed at how many of the recipes for “make your own instant cocoa” one finds online have Coffee-Mate of all things as their main ingredient.)
This makes a great “teacher gift” for kids to give their teachers at the holidays, by the way. Unless your kids go to the same school as mine, in which case I have dibs.
Instant Hot Cocoa Bulk Recipe (easy to remember)
- 1 part unsweetened cocoa (fair trade and organic!?:-))
- 2 parts sugar
- 3 parts nonfat dry milk
Put 1/3 cup mix into a mug; pour hot water over it.
Could that be any easier? You don’t even exactly have to know what kind of measuring-thing you have, just as long as the ratios are pretty clear. Obviously you can play around with the ratios a bit, depending on how chocolatey you want it, or how sweet (this recipe is pretty sweet–it’s my “kid” version). And you can add cinnamon to the mix if you choose–maybe 2 tsp per cup of actual cocoa powder (reduce or increase as you wish). If you want to get really schmantzy, store a couple of vanilla beans in your sugar for a month or two, and you have vanilla sugar, which is great for almost anything but really shines in hot cocoa.
Note: it’s really important to pour the water over the mix, not the mix into the hot water, especially with your own recipe. Otherwise it lumps and gloops horribly. Some recommend that you blend or food process (or sift or sieve, but who has time for that?) the mix after combining the ingredients, because the powdered milk doesn’t always dissolve well; I have never had any problem at all with that in hot water, but your mileage may vary. Sometimes I put it in a ziploc bag and pound it a bit, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference in my final product.
Those of us watching our calorie counts–well, do the math. 1 cup of nonfat milk is what, 100 calories? 2 tsp sugar is 32, 1 tsp cocoa powder is something like 7. Not bad for a fairly decadent-tasting chocolate fix.
p.s. unsweetened cocoa powder should be very firmly distinguished from what you can now sometimes find under the label of “drinking chocolate”–this stuff is much more expensive, takes much more per cup, has way more calories, and is absolutely to die for. It’s sort of to ordinary hot cocoa what espresso is to coffee, and is usually drunk in espresso-like quantities. At least in public. I don’t generally go near it because it would quickly ruin me for the regular stuff, nor have I explored how to make it myself (same reason), but please feel free to explore your own personal nirvana.