Use What You Got

What kind of a meal do we have when we get home at 6:45 and realize we never thought about what to make before then and it’s like a million degrees outside so you don’t want to turn on your stove?
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Yep, that is sliced hot dog on a hambuger bun. It’s what we had in the fridge. 

We had the corn too, and it was probably about a day or two from going bad, so yay us for eating it in time.

We have a great way of grilling it. Take the cob out of the husk and wrap it in tin foil with a pat of butter and an ice cube.
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Grill it up and it comes out super moist and flavorful. We add salt and pepper and call it a day.

Only a few days later, we found ourselves in a similar predicament – lazy, and needing to use up what’s in the fridge. This time, we went with pizza bagels.
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I should note we had pizza bagels that day for both lunch and dinner. Not sure if that makes it better or worse.

Have you ever had a weird quick meal, like these?

I’m Sorry, I Have to Go Home and Make a Clafoutti

Do you know what a clafoutti is? OK, It might actually be called a clafoutis, but that’s not nearly as fun to say. It’s my dessert, so I’m going with clafoutti. In any case, it’s a crustless, tart-like dessert that can be made with just about any fruit and has a custard base.
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Immediately after I got home from Lauren’s last Friday night, I set out to making the clafoutti for my in laws’ birthday celebration. Much to my surprise, and delight, Dan was already hard at work making custard and chopping fruit. So very nice, since it was already quite late and we would be up and at ’em early the next morning.

This is another recipe Dan found and brought to me (like the grilled nectarine and bleu cheese crostini).

He started by gathering together these ingredients for the custard:

1/2 cup sugar (use 1 tbsp. of it to dust the pan)
3/4 cup milk (we used soy because it’s all we had and it turned out fine)
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup flour
pinch salt

How easy it this? Put all of that into a blender and blend away on high for about a minute, stopping once to scrape the sides.
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While that’s blending, get a glass pie pan ready by buttering the dish and sprinkling a thin layer of sugar in it.
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Add half the custard to the pie plate.

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Then put all of the fruit in.

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Finish pouring the custard out on top of the fruit.

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Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes. You may need more time. The top should fluff up a bit and get a little brown.
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I really like that this dish is so versatile – you just need three cups of any type of fruit. The custard serves as the neutral medium for the fruit flavors to come out. I really liked that except for the heavy cream, we had everything we needed already in the house.

We went with a pretty basic mix of peaches and blueberries, since that’s what we had around, but I’d really like to try this with more exotic fruits, like mango, kiwi, or pineapple to see what happens.

I would suggest letting the clafoutti sit out for about 10-15 minutes before it is served. When we ate it, the second piece tastes better than the first, because it was not as cold, and it was a little softer.

Just Call Me the Dessert Lady

Whenever there is a party happening, and people are asked to bring something, I always volunteer to bring the dessert. Even better, people are starting to ask me to bring the dessert – either with a specific request or letting me choose. Guess I must make some tasty treats.

This past weekend, I had two events where I shared some of me baked goods.

The first was my friend Lauren’s birthday dinner. You remember Lauren, right?
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It was her birthday and she cooked us dinner. How nice of her!

I knew the other three lovely ladies that would be with me that evening are chocolate eaters. It’s weird, I love to bake, I love sweets, but I’m just not a huge fan of chocolate. That means I don’t tend to bake chocolate very often, much to all of my friends’ dismay. This time though, I went all out. They wanted chocolate, they got chocolate!
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I made S’mores cake. And it was completely of my own creation.

Usually, I look for and follow recipes when I make desserts. I’m not the most creative of all people, but I can sure follow a recipe and replicate something I see. That’s why I was so proud of this cake – I made it up on my own.

Truth be told, nothing in this cake is from scratch. That’s what happens when the dinner is on a Friday night and you don’t get home early either Thursday or Friday. But,  it was delicious. And easy to make.

I started with chocolate cake mix bought in a box from the store. I used Duncan Hines Devil’s Food Cake, but you can use any kind. I made used two 8-inch round cake pans, one for each layer.
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Once each layer was baked and had time to cool, I got to work. I used some fancy s’mores flavor frosting and smeared that on top of one of the cakes.

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I finely crushed about 2 graham crackers and sprinkled that on top of the frosting.
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Then, I put the other cake on top of the first one. I pressed them together, and tried to make the cake look even.

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I took my store bought frosting and iced the whole cake.
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To finish it off, I arranged a bunch of mini marshmallows and graham cracker pieces on top.

It was delicious and a hit at the party.

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Happy birthday, Lauren!

Check back Wednesday to find out about the other treat I made over the weekend.

A Perfectly Personalized Wedding

Last weekend, the nicest, sweetest girl I know tied the knot in a beautiful outdoor ceremony.
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She married her best friend, and truly her other half in every way.

I absolutely adored every detail of the big soiree, and I loved how personal every last touch was. How did they accomplish this?

For instance, the overarching theme was flying/aircraft. Kelly and Tim met and work at Boeing, in Seattle, so it was a perfect fit.  

They made yellow paper airplanes to throw as they walked down the aisle after having just been married. Such a cute idea! And way easier to clean up than rice!

Next, the place card table was full of yellow airplanes. They folded a mini paper airplane as guest cards, with your name and the table you were sitting at printed on the body of the plane. Here’s mine next to their adorable menu card.
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Perhaps the coolest thing they did was the table identifiers. They didn’t do table numbers, or even name each table after a place they had been to together (they are quite the travelers). No, each table was named after an airport!
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Even cooler – each table had a boarding pass as its identifier. We sat at YSE, which is the airport in Canada near Whistler, which is a very special place to the couple. They met while on a long weekend at Whistler with mutual friends. Tim proposed there, and they have taken many trips there since then.

To me, the neat part was the scan code websites they created! Each “boarding pass” table identifier had a code you could scan with your phone, which brought up information on the airport, a photo of the couple in that city, and a some words on why that city is special to the couple. I was blown away by both the creativeness and the sheer ability to create such a thing! I was honored when Kelly told me that our University of Illinois locations themed tables inspired her. She clearly took that idea even further, and created something so truly unique! You can check out their airport codes for yourself here.

Of course, the bride and groom sat at LUV. Awwww.
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As one final airplane touch, at the bar, they had small packs of Southwest roasted peanuts. So cute and totally fitting the theme!
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Just for funsies, she also had a photo booth, which was so cool, and the filmstrips printed became her guest book. The photo booth attendant glued them into a book with blank pages, and you wrote your good wishes to the couple next to your strip of photos! I wish I took a picture of it. Instead, here’s some friends and I with the bride.
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Finally, Kelly and Tim had fourth-meal! Sliders and corn dogs – you can’t go wrong!
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Congratulations, Kelly and Tim! I’m so happy for you!

Progressive Dinner with a Twist

Have you ever heard of a progressive dinner party? I hadn’t until last year. Apparently, it was big in the ’70s. The basic idea is that a group of people eat dinner together, with each course being at a different house, meaning each house prepares only one course of the meal.

Last October, some of my friends and I thought it would be fun to do. We all live within about a two mile radius, so the logistics worked in our favor.

We switched up the rules a bit and sort of did an “Around the World” theme, with each house preparing a few small dishes from a country and pairing it with a drink.

Here’s how it broke down:
First stop: Italian.
Food: Toasted ravioli, caprese salad, and traditional lemon cookies (anginetti).
Drink: Peroni and prosecco.

Second stop: College American.
Food: Homemade pokey sticks.
Drink: Bud Light.

Third stop: Mediterranean.
Food: Proscuitto-wrapped apples, goat cheese dip, and paella.
Drink: Sangria.

Final stop: French
Food: Chocolate crepes with nutella, strawberries, bananas, and powdered sugar.
Drink: Pink champagne.

Of course, I have no pictures. Boo.

We learned a lot from our progressive dinner. First of all, we had way too much food. By the time we got to the last house, I was way past full. We knew we needed to prepare less food the next time around. Second, we really liked the food-drink pairing and thought that worked well. We’ll keep that. It also worked well the pattern of houses we used, starting with the west-most house (ours), and heading east the whole night. We’ll do that again for sure.

Fast forward to last weekend, and we had yet another successful progressive dinner. We were looser with the themes this time, and everybody just sort of picked what they wanted to make on their own, without having an overarching theme for the night.

We again started at our house. Our little mini theme was “When We Were Kids.” We made upscale, adult versions of food and a drink that we loved as kids. On the menu: mini grilled cheese sandwiches made with goat and colby cheeses, Lunchables (made with Wheat Thins, oven roasted turkey, and sharp cheddar cheese), and mini natural peanut butter and sangria jelly rolls (tastes like PB&J, looks like Maki).

To drink we had adult chocolate milk. Here’s the simple recipe that Dan concocted through some tasty trial and error:

1 ounce chocolate syrup
1 ounce Kahlua
2 ounces vodka
4 ounces skim milk, or more to taste
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We labeled each item with a crayon-written sign.
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And I used my big tub to display the milk bottles.
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I got many complements on how well the bottles worked. The secret? They are Starbucks Frappuchino individual serving bottles that I kept, knowing I would need them for some party or craft down the road.

The only change we made were the bottle caps. Dan sprayed those babies silver.

The next house featured some great food – sangria, goat cheese dip (you can never have too much goat cheese in one night), and this wonderful crab mixture in an avocado. Yum!

House #3 had a sort of Mexican theme going on. We had churros y chocolate made for us from scratch! I had emailed her this recipe from Joy the Baker, which she used in making them. Apparently, it’s a good tutorial with pictures for the steps along the way.

Even though we missed House #4 (Dan had to fly to NYC), I’m sure it was delicious. Homemade cherry pie with, get this, homemade red wine! Yep, Colleen has been wine making with her uncle, and the day of the progressive dinner was the day the wine was bottled. I’ll have to make sure to ask her to taste some at her next event.

I hope we can have one more progressive dinner this year, before it gets too cold and no one wants to go from house to house anymore. Thanks for the fun time, friends!

The Ways I Save (And You Can Too)

I’ve gotten such a great response to my couponing post that I decided to share with you the small ways I save. It’s easier than it may seem.

When I first started, I was a thinking that my savings ways wouldn’t last. I mean, who wants to clip coupons all the time? But, I was seeing how big an impact it was having, so I kept going.

Start with a goal. Any goal. You may want to save up for a vacation. Maybe you want a new pair of shoes. Perhaps there’s a new bedspread you’re dying to have. Having a small, but reachable goal motivates you. It’s easier to pass up a Starbucks coffee if you realize that you’re then $4 closer to that item you want. If you’re thinking about it in the grand scheme of life like retirement and savings, you’ll think that $4 cup of coffee isn’t a big deal. By starting with smaller goals, you’re teaching yourself good spending habits. Eventually, you’ll be able to look toward those long-term goals, like buying a house, and know the few dollars you’re saving each day will add up and your goal will be attainable.

Here are the top money suckers that I have found. Cutting them out can save you a ton.

1. Going out to lunch.
Just bring a lunch. It will cost so much less. You can get a frozen meal for less than $1.50 (with a sale and coupon). Buying bread and deli meat will last you all week and run you about $5. Bring your lunch.

2. Getting take out most nights.
This goes along with #1. Make dinners yourself. They will most likely be healthier, and there are a ton of meals you can make in 20 minutes or less.

3. Not using a coupon when you do go out to eat.
There are tons and tons of deals out there for many restaurants. From all of the deal sites like groupon to restaurant.com, many of the places you go will likely have a deal associated with it, and some of the deals can be quite good. For example, last Friday, Dan and I went out for dinner where we had bought a $25 gift certificate for only $2. Our bill was about $40, so after all was said and done, we ended up paying about $25 for a nice dinner. Yes, it can be done.

4. Going shopping “just because.”
Shop for specific items – this goes for a grocery store or any other kind of store. Browsing will lead you to seeing more things you want. I find having a shopping list helps, though I still have problems with this since I am definitely a browser.

5. Not taking advantage of all of the free things to do.
I live in Chicago, and there is always a ton of free or nearly free stuff going on around the city. Between street festivals, museum free days, park district pools, movies in the park, Summerdance, beaches, the lake path, Lincoln Park zoo, and concerts in the park, you can hardly say everything to do in the city is expensive.

Don’t forget to do your research ahead of time if you’re traveling to learn about some great free things to do too. When Dan and I went to San Francisco, we saved about $72 by scheduling our museum visits on their free days.

6. Ignoring services deals.
Part of saving involves cutting out the frivolous ways you spend your money. That likely includes facials, mani/pedis, and massages. But, if you find discounts, indulging in these items once in a while is OK. Case in point: I bought a mani/pedi deal for $10. I’ll be meeting a friend there who also bought the deal. We’ll have fun chatting and catching up, something we would likely do over dinner. The $10 we spent for spa services is about the same we’d spend per person on dinner anyways. And this way, we have pretty nails too. It’s all about finding the right deals you know you will use. And not buying too many deals.

7. Going to the movie theater.
I will start by saying I’m not a big movie buff. I usually have no problem waiting for the DVD to come out and then seeing it through Netflix at home. I realize this may be going too far for some people, but if you can wait until a movie’s been out for six months or so to see it, I highly recommend waiting. Netflix costs us about $10 a month, which is about the cost of one movie ticket. Beware though, I did hear Netflix is changing their pricing structure, so I’ll need to see if staying on with Netflix will continue to bring us savings.

An added layer of savings would come if you gave up cable all together and relied on Netflix. I know a few people who have done that, and it works for them, but I’m too much of a TV junkie to give up cable. How would I watch Teen Mom, Jersey Shore, and Supernatural? Yes, I know I watch bad TV, no need to comment on it.

Oh, and sometimes you can get deals to movies. Look for groupons or livingsocial deals. I think I was able to get a fandango gift certificate for 2 tickets for $9. Not bad.

8. Buying items on credit, and not paying it off at the end of the month.
Interest charges are so high. If it is at all possible, wait until you have enough money to pay for it outright. Making the minimum payment on your credit card each month is a sure way not only to not save any money, but also to get deeper and deeper into debt.

9. Doing a girls’ night out.
Cab fare and expensive drinks add up, but no need to cut out fun time with friends. Instead, alternate hosts and plan girls’ nights in. Be creative with it, and it won’t feel like you are all just sitting around watching TV. Have a wine and cheese night. Host a tea party. Have a spa day. Hold a cookie exchange. Start a monthly book club. The key is that if everyone brings something to share, it costs each individual very little.

Doing these things will save you money. I started being cost conscious around the time I got married last year, and I am truly amazed at the amount we have been able to save by these cost cutting measures.

I do have to admit, the couponing has led to a lifestyle change for Dan and I. We’re smarter about how we spend our money, and it has definitely made us more creative in planning nights out and in choosing birthday/holiday/anniversary presents for one another. I am so glad that Dan is so supportive of the changes we’ve made that allow us to save. He’s more careful to bring lunch to work instead of going out. Before planning a date night, he checks to see which restaurants we have gift certificates to spend. He waits for movies to come out on DVD. I know he was truly in the thrifty spirit when he told me he wanted to bring some hot sauce to keep at work, and asked me if I had coupons for hot sauce…any brand. A man after my own heart!

I hope this post can help you reach your goal. I am learning this as I go, and I guarantee you that if I can save, you can save.

Have I missed any great money saving tips? If you have one, comment below.

Say It, Don’t Spray It

Once you’re living together, every couple finds that certain jobs begin falling to one of them or the other. They’re assigned according to gender roles, or your schedules, or because one person (Christina) has decided it’s “gross”. Spider removal. Bathroom cleaning. Spray painting. She doesn’t always give me credit (I’m fine with it), but if something needs to be spray painted, it’s on me. So I’m starting to become an expert.

We’ve used spray paint on a lot of our projects. It sounds easy. It even sounds fun. But we’ve discovered that it’s not always practical. So if something needs a fresh coat of paint, you’ve got to think about more than just the color and decide how it’s going from the can to the project.

The good:

Smooth finish – Spray paint leaves no brush marks, and if you do it right—repeated light coats—it won’t run either. For this lamp, we needed even, nearly undetectable coverage, so spraying it was the way to go.

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Funky sh apes — Spray paint is a lifesaver for any shape you’ll have a hard time wrapping a brush around. Painting that lamp would have been a big ol’ mess without it. 

Time —  Spray paint dries crazy-fast, so even though you’re laying down several coats, you’ve finished a dresser before Christina can stitch a pillow. Unless, of course, you run out and have to dash to the suburbs to get more.

The bad:

Cost of Coverage — Here’s where spray paint loses a bit of its glossy finish. This dresser took four full cans of spray paint, at about $3.50 a pop. For that cost, you’d have conventional paint left for the rest of the bedroom set, and you could throw your brushes and rollers away when you’re done.

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Space — If, like us, you live in an apartment, finding a place to spray paint can be a pain. We’re lucky to have access to a garage. Otherwise, you could put down enough newspaper to housebreak a racehorse, and you’ll still scrubbing over-spray off your kitchen tile (and the wall, and the dog’s bowl) with a Magic Eraser. Not to mention the fumes.

Even though spray painting sounds easy, and even though cleaning brushes is a drag, take the time to figure out what’s really right for the project. And, if you skip the spray paint, maybe you can even get some help from your better half.