Snowflake Specimens

This is just about the easiest project you can make. I think it took me all of 15 minutes!

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The key was having this handy dandy punch in the shape of a snowflake.

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I’m not sure if it’s still available because I got it at Michael’s last year around the holidays. I didn’t get a chance to use it until now.

I started by cutting a piece of plain old electric blue scrapbook paper into an 8.5 x 11 piece. I taped it to the back of my framing mat.

Next, I punched out a bunch of snowflakes. I liked that the punch gave them each a little curl to make them more 3D.

Then, I just arranged the snowflakes until they looked nice. I went for straight rows and columns.

Finally, I glued each flake on by the middle, and fluffed each one up a bit.

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What I got was a cute, cheap winter decoration that will stay up until it’s time to decorate for Valentine’s Day.

Good spot if you noticed those are the same hurricanes as from my Winter Brunch tablescape. I thought all the white looked great with the pop of blue.

Winter Brunch

This past weekend, Dan and I hosted a brunch for his parents.

I thought about tablescape ideas, and as much as I wanted bright, poppy colors for a springtime theme, the harsh reality is it’s the middle of a Chicago winter consisting of grey skies and snow. I decided to work with the season instead of against it, so I focused on a glimmering, snow time decor. Here’s the table I set:

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I went with a silver-toned tablecloth and simple, porcelain white hurricanes with snowflake cutouts.

The white plates with grey dots went well.

As for the menu, we started out with some banana pancake stack appetizers.

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Those are banana pancakes with a little banana slice as a garnish, held together by a toothpick, and drizzled in maple syrup.

We were glad to have them, as we munched on those while we make the main dish of egg cups and house potatoes. Unless you’re making a casserole or something else coming out of the oven, you’ll want to make your egg dishes very close to the time of serving, so they don’t get cold. Because of this, we felt appetizers would work well in getting the timing correct.

Along with the appetizers, we also had a constant supply of mimosas. For a fun twist, we bought orange juice mixed with mango juice. I loved this new type of mimosa and won’t go back to using just plan OJ anymore.

To finish, we served skinny mini chocolate chip scones.

Of course, I took no other photos during the brunch, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

And there went the first event we hosted in the new year. Here’s to many more great gatherings to come!

A Solution to My Cleaning Procrastination

Way back last September (it seems ages ago), I put together a cleaning schedule.

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For the most part, I’ve been sticking to it and our apartment has been (mostly) clean.

The bad part is that sometimes I find myself trying to get through all my chores in one day, usually at the end of the week, so I can get everything done. That wasn’t making things easier on me at all. I would think just tell myself that dusting didn’t take that long, so I can wait until the next day to do it. Well, when you tell yourself that every day, you’re left wit ha messy house, and a long session of power cleaning to get all your chores done. If you remember, those long cleaning sprees are precisely what I was trying to avoid in the first place.

So, I decided to take my cleaning schedule a step farther and create a day to day weekly chore list for both Dan and I.

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It hits all the important tasks that must be done each week.

The monthly and seasonally to do’s aren’t accounted for in the weekly chart, but I’m not too concerned. Those bigger tasks often are done on weekends, so I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing there.

I found this new method really seems to help in getting the chores done throughout the week, and not having them all left to do on Friday anymore. Let’s hope this keeps up!

I created a blank schedule too, in case anyone wants to print it out and make their own.

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I’d say this is certainly a win in my quest to be more organized this January.

Skinny Chocolate Chip Tea Party Scones

I know this is a bit late, but better late than never.

Sunday afternoon, my friend Lauren hosted a High Tea at her place, complete with a variety of tea options, baked goods, and of course, fancy jams.

I volunteered to make the scones, but changed it up from last time, when I made cranberry ones. This time, I made chocolate chip scones, and I made them skinny.

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I started out with this recipe from skinnytaste, but made a few of my own edits.

For starters, I substituted skim milk for buttermilk. I know, crazy. Dan got me all worried they wouldn’t fluff up (usually the buttermilk will react with the baking powder to give scones their fluffy texture), but fluff they did.

Another change is that I added a pinch of cinnamon. Cinnamon magically makes everything tastier.

I also used mini chocolate chips instead of the regular sized ones. They’re just so cute!

Finally, instead of forming a large circle of dough and cutting it into twelfths, I used my handy scone pan. The recipe made eight of the scones for me, which filled the pan exactly.

I think with my modifications, each scone ended up around 175 calories.

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Worth the indulgence, if you ask me.

Easy Marinara Sauce Upgrade: Vodka Sauce

My last post talked about New year’s resolutions. One of them, under my workout goal, was to eat good food. This dish is good food, and was definitely worth what I’m sure was a big splurge in calories. Giada’s never steered me wrong before, so I used her vodka sauce recipe here.

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Ingredients:
1 quart Marinara sauce (any kind)
1 cup vodka
1/2 cup room temperature heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

I started with my favorite marinara sauce that I used in both my Spaghetti with Meatballs and Mushroom Ravioli recipes.

From there, I used my new immersion blender (a Christmas gift!) to make the sauce creamy and smooth.

I added the cup of vodka and let the sauce simmer for a while – probably 15-20 minutes. It probably goes without saying, but you don’t need to use the best vodka ever here. It just cooks out anyways.

Once the vodka has dissipated some, stir in the cream and Parmesan cheese.

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I let the sauce cook for a while to make sure all the cheese melted. If not, you’ll end up with a sauce that is kind of a weird grainy-like texture.

When the sauce is getting close to ready, cook 1 pound of penne (I used mini penne, or piccolini penne, as it’s called) as it calls for on the package. Once cooked, add the pasta to the sauce.

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As a quick side, I cut up a baguette, melted about 1 tablespoon of butter, and brushed it onto the bread. I sprinkled some garlic powder, black pepper, and Parmesan cheese on top.

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Bake at about 350 degrees just until the cheese melts, and enjoy an easy side with the pasta.

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I know, carb overload.

There were a ton of leftovers. This recipe makes a ton of sauce, and we only used half of it. We froze the other half to keep it from going bad. I’m thinking I’ll use it for an easy weeknight dinner in a couple weeks.

New Year, New Goals

Like everyone else, I’ve started the new year with some goals of things I’d like to accomplish. Is it to late to blog about? It’s only a week into 2013, so I think I’m good.

At first, the task or coming up with goals was daunting. What do I want to do in a whole year? With my weekends generally jam packed, I couldn’t even wrap my head around all the things I wanted to get done in 2013.

I’m list-centric, almost to a fault, so my gut reaction was to want to create lists upon lists of everything. All the parties I want to throw, all of the crafts I want to make, all of the Chicago activities I want to complete, all of our dream vacation spots to visit (maybe we’ll actually get to one this year!), etc. But what would that do? Yep, just stress me out. It would be February, I’d look at the list, and I’d say, “Dan, we really should think about which weekend we want to visit Lake Geneva this summer.” Yes, I could totally hear those words coming out of my mouth.

Instead, I decided to think about the over-arching goals I want to have, instead of tasks I want to complete. I read a blog post the other day where the blogger recommended thinking of a word as the theme of her year, then living it. I immediately knew what my word would be: SIMPLIFY.

From about last October, I’ve noticed that I often felt on edge, and I was always rushing from place to place, and from one thing to the next. Certainly the fact that it was busy season at work didn’t help. Then the holidays started rolling in and I was spending time baking, cleaning, planning, buying gifts, wrapping them, and not really taking any time to enjoy everything that the holidays are about. The absolute turning point for me, when I noticed how much my busy ways were affecting me, was when I was out running a quick errand to buy a couple Christmas presents..

I was meeting a friend for dinner after a long day of work, but I wanted to do a quick stop to buy some Christmas presents first. I went to the store, gathered my items, and realized they were out of one thing I wanted. No problem, I’ll order it while at the store, and it will ship for free to my house. I got to the ordering kiosk, with my hands full of the other items. I found the item, clicked to buy it and for some reason, the kiosk wouldn’t recognize my email address. Then my cell phone started ringing, but, I was borrowing Dan’s phone for the day, so I didn’t know how to work it very well and couldn’t get the phone to unlock. I missed the call, abandoned the order, and was late to dinner. There was too much going on!

Simplifying to me means going at a slower pace, having free, plan-less weekends, and purging everything excess. It means spending your time doing the things that are important to you, which are the things you really want to do anyways.

With simplifying in my mind, here’s what I came up with as my goals for 2013:

1. Read 52 books.

Impossible? Not for me. I go through books like water. I find the time I spend reading relaxes me, and gives my mind something to focus on that’s not work or everything that needs to be done around the house.

2. Work out at least 3 times a week.

This one is the obligatory “I’m going to get healthier this year” resolution. For me, this is just recalling how much I worked out last year, before the holidays hit. I don’t work out to lose weight (though it is nice), but I do it to be in better health. With this goes the resolution of eating better, which Dan and I have made a priority this year. We named it “Eat good food,” which to us means eating food that better for you, but also making sure that those splurges truly are worth it – like enjoying an amazing risotto instead of a convenient $5 Hot & Ready Pizza from Little Caesar’s.

3. Keep my nails pretty.

I love having fun colored nails. Usually, I’ll wait until my nail polish is so chipped that I’ll just remove it and leave my nails bare for weeks, simply because I feel like I don’t have enough time. In reality, paining your nails doesn’t take very long, so I resolve to just sit down and paint them.

4. Visit museums.

Dan loves museums, though I’m lukewarm about them. I think my issue was that Dan and I look at museum exhibits at different paces. I look at the displays, read whatever seems interesting, and move on. Dan spends a lot of time looking at the displays, and reads almost every little tidbit of information there is. Because of this, going to museums together was not fun. I was always waiting for Dan, and he always felt like I was rushing him. This year, we resolve to go to the museums more frequently, but for shorter visits and focusing only on what we really want to see. For example, we went to the Field Museum a couple weeks ago. Both of us really wanted to see the Egyptian exhibit and the Early Americas exhibit. Had we researched ahead of time and settled on seeing only those exhibits, we would have been fine. Instead, Dan spent 45 minutes looking at taxidermied birds while I sat on a bench and played with my phone. See the problem?

5. Light more candles.

This may sound stupid, but I think this will be a great way to remind me to slow down. We have a ton of candles that I’m always “saving” for something. Why? I’ve just accumulated a bunch of candles. This past weekend, I lit a vanilla bean scented candle on Sunday morning. It burned for most of the day and I enjoyed smelling it. It was especially nice reading a book with the candle going before Dan was up and our day started.

6. Do a trial run of my own Happiness Project.

Last year, I read the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. In the book, Rubin chronicles a year of her life where each month, she focuses on a different facet of her life to work on. For example, in January, Rubin chose to “Boost Energy” and she focused on ways to streamline her family’s life and create more together time because of it. Ambitious, for sure.

Though I didn’t always think that the projects/focus areas she chose particularly useful to me, I did like the concept of choosing one area of your life to focus on each month, with the hopes that getting into good habits for that focus area will last long past the month you’re consciously thinking about it. I’m not sure I would have a whole year’s worth of areas to target, but I thought a three month trial run could work, and we’ll see where to go from there.

As it is January, Dan and I have chosen to go with a theme of organization for this month. We sat down and talked about what areas of the apartment we want organized, and boy did we end up with a long list. Some projects will be small, and take less than 15 minutes, like cleaning out a nightstand, but others will take much longer, like organizing the pantry/closets and cleaning out the spare room/office.

We’ve already tackled a few of the smaller projects over the weekend, and I think we’re off to a great start. I’ll try to remember to share once the big ticket items are completed…that is, if they get done.

What are you hoping to tackle in 2013?

BBQ Beer Pulled Chicken Sandwiches

Happy Friday to all!

I know it’s only been a 3 day work week, but man this week felt long. Perhaps it’s due to my being off of work for 11 days and being unable to wrench myself out of bed at the unholy hour of 6am since I’ve been back to work.

In any case, I plan on catching up on some rest this weekend. The kind of rest where you don’t move from the couch and you wear pajamas all day. This recipe is perfect if you are having one of these days. Or if it’s just cold outside and you don’t want to leave your house.

This was hands down the best pulled chicken I’ve ever had. It was juicy, flavorful, and all around yummy.

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It is based from this recipe, with a few of my own edits.

Here’s what you need:

3 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (these can go in frozen)
2 18 oz bottles of BBQ sauce (I used Sweet Baby Ray’s)
1 cup of beer (I used Bud Light)
1 tbsp minced onion
1 tbsp paprika
2 cloves minced garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste

Start by putting the BBQ sauce, beer, onion, paprika, garlic, salt, pepper, and hot sauce in the crock pot and mix it up. Once it’s mixed well, add the chicken and be sure to coat it with the sauce.

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Cook on low for about 6 hours, and stir a couple times – just whenever you happen to be in the kitchen. When the chicken is tender enough to slice through with a fork, take it out and cut it up.

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Return the chicken to the crockpot for another 15-30 minutes so the chicken can absorb more of the sauce.

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When you’re ready to eat, put some of the pulled chicken on a bun and if you want to, add coleslaw for a delicious extra crunch.

This recipe freezes well, so I would recommend freezing in single portion sizes so you can just thaw some of the chicken the next time you want a quick, easy, and delicious dinner.

I served the sandwich with potatoes, but it will go with anything – chips, pasta salad, veggies, you name it.

Here’s to a lazy weekend ahead! Stay warm!