31 October 2007

happy halloween...

...from those lovable Schmidt boys.

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30 October 2007

let's hope i'm the only loser in the family

Anyone who's ever played a game of chance with me or competed against me in any way knows that I have terrible luck. Terrible, horrible luck that keeps me from ever winning anything, including a Nintendo Wii, an iPod (from a contest held on the same site) or a free Dyson vacuum cleaner (from a contest at Rocks in My Dryer).

Amusingly, the only cool things I can recall winning are Bryan Adams concert tickets from a radio station when I was 12, and a Caribbean cruise from the county fair when I was 16. Unfortunately, due to the fact that I was under 18 in both instances, I was unable to collect. Once I hit 18, I never won anything again. (...Well, that's not entirely true. My friends and I won a trivia contest at a local pub, but that was a team effort. Though I did win the tie-breaker myself, and I came home with an enormous, but lovely, Saranac t-shirt. One of the proudest moments of my life.)

But Greg -- if you know Greg, you know that he is one of the luckiest people who has ever lived. He has more luck in his pinkie toe his pinkie toenail a single cell of his body than I have in my entire body. If I didn't love him so much I'd hate him sometimes. But he and James have entered a contest at Geekdad to win a Lego Star Destroyer. (A three-hundred-dollar Lego Star Destroyer, I might add.) To enter, they had to build a car that was powered only by a mousetrap and create a video showing them building and testing the car. Keeping that prize in mind, they came up with a really cute, creative video. You can go to YouTube and check out their competition, but I think they've got a really good shot. Especially considering the deadline is today and there aren't many entries yet.


video

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29 October 2007

better late than never -- especially when chocolate is involved

Somehow, I missed out on National Chocolate Day yesterday. But let's not let love of chocolate be limited by the calendar. If you know me at all you know I'm a total chocoholic (I've written a little about it before) so I don't really need much of an excuse to talk about chocolate. Slashfood had a few more articles on chocolate yesterday in honor of the occasion (including a recipe for these brownies that I'm dying to try -- maybe I'll make these for myself instead of a birthday cake this year), and I thought I'd post a few of my own favorite chocolate recipes as well.

Because I am so savvy, I learned how to make expandable posts, courtesy of Hackosphere. So you'll find some recipes after the jump -- just click on Read More.


Disclaimer: None of my recipes are my own. I steal them from all kinds of places and rarely write down where I got them, so please don't think I'm inventive enough to have created these. I just can't remember who to credit.

Swirled Peanut Butter Brownies

(One of my all-time favorites.)

Peanut Butter Layer:
6 ounces cream cheese, softened
2/3 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
2 Tablespoons milk
Brownies:
1 cup melted butter
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 eggs
3/4 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips

1. Combine all ingredients for the peanut butter layer; beat until smooth. Set aside.
2. Combine butter, sugar and eggs; mix well.
3. In a separate bowl combine cocoa, flour, baking powder and salt.
4. Combine mixtures from steps 2 and 3. Stir in chocolate chips. Scoop out 1 cup of batter and set aside.
5. Spread remaining batter into a greased 9x13" baking pan.
6. Spread peanut butter batter over brownie batter.
7. Drop spoonfuls of reserved brownie batter from step 4 over the peanut butter layer. Use a knife to swirl through the layers for a marbled effect.
8. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35-40 minutes.

Chocolate Zucchini Cupcakes

(You can pretend this one's healthy because it has a vegetable in it. You can't really taste the zucchini -- you might notice it texturally, but it also keeps the cupcakes nice and moist.)

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
3 eggs
1 3/4 cups brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups flour
2 cups grated zucchini
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Beat eggs and brown sugar together with a mixer for 10 minutes or until thick and pale. (Note: I almost never beat them this long -- in fact, I've been known to casually mix them with a wooden spoon instead -- and the cupcakes still turn out fine.)
2. Add oil and melted chocolate; stir well.
3. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
4. Combine flour mixture and chocolate mixture; stir. Stir in zucchini.
5. Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins, filling each cup 2/3 full.
6. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before removing from pan.

The original recipe suggests frosting these with chocolate frosting, but I've never bothered. They're good as is.

Mexican Chocolate Crinkles

(I hesitate to post a recipe using corn syrup -- I'm really anti-corn syrup -- but these cookies are so good. SO good. I guess that makes me a hypocrite.)

3/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 3/4 cups flour
2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
additional sugar

1. Cream shortening, sugar and egg. Add corn syrup and melted chocolate; mix well.
2. In a separate bowl combine flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon; add to chocolate mixture and combine.
3. Roll dough into walnut-sized balls and roll in the additional sugar.
4. Place cookies 3 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets (they will spread).
5. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10-12 minutes. Cookies will be soft when done. Cool 2-3 minutes before removing from pan.

I've also added a bit of cayenne pepper to these cookies -- a nice addition, but be conservative. Unless you really like spice; then knock yourself out.

Creamy Hot Cocoa

(Okay, this one I can credit -- I found it at AllRecipes. I made this over the weekend and it knocked my socks off -- homemade hot cocoa is immeasurably superior to the packaged store-bought stuff. It's amazing.)

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup white sugar
1 pinch salt
1/3 cup boiling water
3 1/2 cups milk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup half-and-half cream

1. Combine the cocoa, sugar and pinch of salt in a saucepan.
2. Blend in the boiling water.
3. Bring this mixture to an easy boil while you stir. Simmer and stir for about 2 minutes. Watch that it doesn't scorch.
4. Stir in 3 1/2 cups of milk and heat until very hot, but do not boil!
5. Remove from heat and add vanilla.
6. Divide between 4 mugs. Add the cream to the mugs of cocoa to cool it to drinking temperature.

I made this with less sugar (about 1/2 cup -- based on reviews at AllRecipes) and replaced some of the milk with more half-and-half and it was delicious.

Okay, I could go on and on about chocolate, but I'll stop at 4 recipes. Got any favorite chocolate recipes you'd like to share?

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28 October 2007

kids are funny

Tonight I made split pea soup for dinner. The last time I made it (last winter, I think) everyone really liked it. Tonight, Evan climbs into his booster seat, takes one look at the soup and exclaims indignantly, "I don't want that garbage!"

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26 October 2007

friday photos: vintage halloween edition

We are gearing up for Halloween here. We have a costume for Evan, which he was indifferent to when we bought it, but which he is now excited about, and James tells me he's going to choose between two costumes (one too big, one too small) the day before Halloween. Evan is practicing zombie faces in the mirror, and James is begging us to read him scary stories. We've had little success finding kids' stories that are scary enough for him, but we're reluctant to try out anything really scary. We had a serious conversation about what to do if you should find a dead body, thanks to a story from this book. This weekend will involve getting pumpkins and making Halloween cookies, though I haven't decided what kind yet.

So in honor of one of our favorite holidays, I present a Halloween retrospective, in photos. I couldn't find a photo of James' first Halloween, so we start with #2. This, sadly, is the best photo we've got of James in his Tigger costume:


2004 was the Year of the Monster:


The following year we had a cute, fat baby chili pepper, nearly too fat for the costume at all:


James had two costumes that year. Buzz Lightyear for the preschool Halloween party:


And a scary skeleton (with no arm bones) for trick-or-treating:


Last year Evan was sick on Halloween and instead of trick-or-treating in James' old Tigger costume, stayed home in his Tigger pajamas, tended to by Mama Cat:


This isn't actually a Halloween photo, but considering how under-represented Evan is in these photos, I thought I'd include it. This was taken at Pottery Barn Kids, actually, shortly before Halloween:

Our older boys had impressive costumes last year, though -- a pirate and Superboyman.


Next Friday you can expect the current Halloween photos. And hopefully no one will be sick this year.

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25 October 2007

these are a few of my favorite things

It's a books and music post!

Hopefully you've noticed my fancy new sidebar. I love talking about books and music, recommending things to people, and getting recommendations, but this isn't a books-and-music-blog* so I don't want to bore you all by constantly gushing about this really cool book on migratory birds which would bore most of you to tears. I'm aware of my eclectic (and sometimes questionable) tastes, so for your sake, I keep that sort of thing to a minimum.

So my new sidebar is a way of letting you know what I'm currently into, and you can feel free to comment on it, or ignore it, or criticize it, or whatever. I'm mostly mentioning it because I feel pretty proud of myself for managing to figure out the HTML to post those pretty little linked pictures.

I don't have anything important to say about the things I'm reading or listening to -- the books are still in progress, but are obviously interesting enough to keep me reading, and the CDs are all my style, which may not be your style, so maybe you'd like them and maybe you wouldn't. I have to say that my favorite of the 3 CDs at right is the Scissor Sisters, who are poppy and funky and fun, though I can recognize that they are certainly not for everyone**. If you think you can handle Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" set to a synthesized, BeeGee-esque beat, then check them out. If that idea abhors you, then maybe you should not listen to my musical recommendations.

Wait, I do have one important thing to say: John Lennon is magic. The CD I'm listening to is a collection of covers of John Lennon songs, made by Amnesty International to raise money for the Darfur crisis. I noticed when looking at the track list that there are two covers of "Imagine" -- one by Jack Johnson and one by Avril Lavigne. Seeing Avril's name made me roll my eyes. Obviously Jack Johnson would do a better "Imagine". I'm not a fan of Avril's music, and I've loathed her on priciple ever since I heard that she mispronounced David Bowie's name at an awards ceremony. DAVID BOWIE, people. Come on! But "Imagine" came on and... I like it. Avril can actually sound good when she has good music to work with. In fact, I prefer her simple piano arrangement to Jack Johnson's version. That, my friends, is the magic of John Lennon.

On to books, in general. A bookworm like me is always looking for good new books, or to talk about books, and now that my once-infrequent book club is officially disbanded, I'm desperate for book talk. But I've found a really cool site that is helping me out in that regard. A few months ago, Dawn invited me to GoodReads, and I've finally gotten around to checking it out. And I immediately joined and then invited some friends who are just as bookish as I am. You can rate books, see what other people are reading and see what your friends think of the books they've read. My profile is here; if you're interested, sign up and add me. We can talk books!

So what are you reading and listening to?

______________________________________________________
*So what kind of blog is this then? I'm not sure, but I think I just don't want to give in to having a label.

**Update: I forgot to add that the Scissor Sisters can be kind of dirty, and this is probably not a good disc to play around the kiddos (if you have kiddos). Just so you know.

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19 October 2007

friday photos: home decorating edition

Now that we've been in the new apartment for almost three months, I'm finally getting around to framing and hanging some photos on the walls. And poor baby Evan, who (thanks to digital cameras) for over two years has had almost no photos of him on display, is finally getting included. Here are some family favorites that are now decorating our living room:








Happy weekend, everyone!

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17 October 2007

raising a family on one income

Get Rich Slowly, a personal finance blog that I read regularly for sensible, practical money-saving tips and advice, is holding a contest -- to win a Nintendo Wii. Since the requirement for entry is a blog post about your personal financial success, I'd be a fool not to enter. Not that I've had a lot of personal financial success in my life (yet), but I do have a few things I can share. My biggest financial success so far in life is raising a family on one (small) income, without resorting to taking out loans or going into debt. Most of what I write will not be news to many of my readers, who all know a thing or two about being frugal, but maybe I can impart a small bit of knowledge about things that have worked for our family.

First, a word about our circumstances. Greg is a graduate student, nearly finished with his Phd, and I'm a stay-at-home mother to two little boys. I think our level of frugality is tolerable to us in part because we know that it's temporary. We know that within a year Greg will find a job that will push us into the middle class, and within a few more years, once both kids are in school full-time, I'll be able to get a job and further increase our income. If Greg didn't have the career prospects he has, if we were going to have to live on our income indefinitely, I don't think we would continue things this way. But we have a future in front of us to look forward to.

So how do we do it? How do we live on one income? Well, the short answer is that we don't spend money. We have a cushion in our savings account that we don't touch. Greg's paycheck goes to rent, utilities, food, gas, and paying back my student loans. We rarely use our credit cards, and don't keep a balance on them. We have only one car, which is sometimes inconvenient, but usually not an issues. Greg rides his bike to and from school whenever possible. We don't go out much-- to restaurants, bars, concerts, the movies. (This has been a bit of a sacrifice, but considering that having kids significantly curtails your social life anyway, it hasn't been unbearable for us.) We rarely buy new clothes (the exceptions being shoes, socks and underwear). We rarely vacation anywhere that requires us to pay for lodging (either we stay with family or friends, or we camp). We've never paid for a babysitter (thanks to the generosity of family and friends, or through making babysitting trades with other stay-at-home parents).

Living frugally isn't all about depriving yourself, though. In some cases, it's simply delaying gratification, rather than getting the instant gratification that our consumerist culture promotes. We may not be seeing blockbusters on opening night at the theater, but we can borrow almost any DVD from our local library. We don't have cable, but most of the good shows are on DVD now, and we don't mind waiting until the season's over to borrow those DVDs from the library. I'm a total bookworm, but again, the library is my best friend. I even borrow CDs from the library, instead of buying music. We are a family that loves video games, but we are happy with our original X-Box (which was paid for through a point-earning system available with a job I worked several years ago) and a borrowed Nintendo Gamecube (though we would really love that Nintendo Wii!). Used games for older systems are easy to find at affordable prices at game stores.

In other cases, living frugally is about looking for cheaper alternatives. One way in which we've managed to save a lot of money is by frequenting thrift stores. Our living room and dining room furniture have all come from thrift stores. Much of our other furniture was given to us by friends who were upgrading. We're happy to use used furniture -- it still serves the same purpose, and may look a little more worn than new items, but we're not picky.

Thrift stores can be a godsend for parents, especially. Kids can be incredibly expensive. I've had so many conversations with other mothers on variations of "I can't believe how expensive kids' shoes are!" For kids, who grow out of clothing, shoes and jackets so quickly, especially when they're very young, it makes no sense to pay $20 for a pair of new jeans when you can find a gently-used (or sometimes, if you're lucky, brand-new) pair at a thrift store or consignment shop for $5-10. Luckily, kids (especially young kids) don't care where their clothes come from, as long as you don't. If you feel weird about wearing other people's clothes, I'd recommend consignment stores over places like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Consignment stores generally don't accept merchandise that's not in very good, almost-new condition. Garage sales are also a good option for kids' stuff -- not only clothing, but toys, games, bikes, or furniture too. Look for garage sales in the wealthier neighborhoods in your area and you'll find good-quality, name-brand items at a fraction of their retail price. These are also good places to look for expensive items that are rarely used, such as Halloween costumes or dress clothes.

We also manage to save a lot of money by cooking at home most of the time. It's easier for us than it might be for other families who don't have a stay-at-home parent who loves to cook, but it's still easy. I make a lot of things from scratch. My mom found me a used breadmaker at a church rummage sale, and after replacing a missing mixing blade ($9 online), I make my own bread, pizza dough and biscuits. I never knew how easy it was to make soup until I tried it. All you have to do is throw a bunch of ingredients in a pot and cook it for a few hours, and voila! Soup's on. I've started making large quantities and freezing leftovers to reheat for another dinner on another day. We've also cut our meat consumption over the last year, mostly for environmental reasons, but that small step has managed to further reduce our food costs.

By saving money on the little things, we're able to splurge occasionally and still (mostly) stay in our budget. We have high-speed internet instead of cable or cell phones -- we can email or instant message friends and family, and there are plenty of TV shows you can watch online now, so we're not missing out on much (Edit: I should add that we do have an ordinary land-line phone -- that plus the high-speed internet serves our needs quite nicely). We went to Nantucket last weekend, which was expensive for our budget, but cheap for a vacation -- we carpooled with friends, stayed at a friend's cottage, and ate in, splitting the cost of groceries with friends. We visit our parents as much as we can (with Greg's parents living on the opposite coast, however, this is not as often as we wish we could) and though travel expenses can be a lot, we have free lodging and food, as well as good company. We have memberships at our local zoo and children's museum, which require a substantial fee initially, but we can visit those places as often as we like, for free, which for us is a good investment.

Something I've learned from living frugally for the last several years is that it's more than a financial survival strategy, it's a lifestyle. Our income will probably triple within the next year, but aside from buying a new car, upgrading our living arrangements, and spending more on food (we'll finally be able to afford to eat organically!), I don't foresee our expenses increasing significantly. Now that I know that you can find a child's winter coat at a consignment store for $20, why would I pay $60 retail? Even with an increased income, $10 a person is still too expensive for a movie, when you can borrow one for free.

We have plans to buy a new(er) car, we have plans to buy a house, and we have hopes (if not definite plans) of traveling a lot more. By living frugally now, hopefully these goals will all be in our reach sooner rather than later. And, if we're lucky, maybe we'll have a Nintendo Wii to help us pass the time while we're waiting.

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12 October 2007

friday photos

Greg and I spent last weekend relaxing, child-free, with friends on Nantucket. We had a great time, though the weather was not the best we could have hoped for:


But the thick fog, brisk wind and 60-degree temperature didn't stop Greg from swimming:


But Mother Nature redeemed herself for a day of bad weather by giving us this sunset the following night:

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04 October 2007

thursday photos

I'm posting photos a day early this week because I probably won't be able to post tomorrow. (Next week's photos may tell you why!)

We spent last weekend with my mom and my sister, and had some fall fun. We bought a million apples at Fly Creek Cider Mill, where we got the unexpected bonus of being able to feed ducks and turkeys as well. You may not know that I really enjoy birds (looking at them, that is; getting too close kind of frightens me) and there's something I really love about turkeys. I mean, look at this guy:

They also had a playground there, so after a scrumptious lunch, we let the boys play for a while. They had a little racetrack for ride-on toys that was situated on a slight hill. When you're two, though, even little hills are challenging, so Evan got a little help from his big brother:


We headed into nearby Cooperstown, and it just happened to be the weekend of Pumpkinfest, where farmers from all around bring their biggest, fattest pumpkins for competition. I saw a special about this festival on PBS a few weeks ago, so I was excited to see it in person. Y'all, when I say big, fat pumpkins, I mean big and fat:


Unfortunately, we missed the lake race, when they hollow out the enormous pumpkins and ride inside of them (really!), but we did see plenty of amazing pumpkins. While we were looking around we heard one weigh in at over 1300 pounds. 1300 pounds of pumpkin! They actually have to life them with a crane to weigh them. And look how many there were:

On Sunday we took my sister to the bus/train station, and while we were waiting for her delayed bus, we took a look around at some old trains they have displayed outside:

Apples and pumpkins and turkeys... it was a perfect fall weekend.

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01 October 2007

i'd rather we had bake sales

Now that we're a month into the kindergarten routine, I'm finally getting to used to it. I'm used to watching my kid climb aboard the bus without looking back, I'm used to checking the kindergarten calender every morning to see whether he needs to bring anything, I'm used to receiving the Friday Folder at the end of the week, filled with correspondence from the teacher, homework assignments, school newsletters, and notices from the PTA.

But some of these notices from the PTA have got me wondering. In the first month of school, I've gotten at least four letters from the PTA about fundraisers. Fundraisers! In kindergarten! I've also had two neighborhood kids come knocking at my door, selling things to raise money for school.

As a high school student involved in pretty much every club, group, or organization my school offered, I certainly did my share of fundraising. Selling candy bars to earn money for a band trip, selling holiday items to raise money to buy track and field sweatshirts, that sort of thing. I raised a lot of money to help fund my extra-curricular activities. But the latest letter from the PTA at James' school informs me that "these programs enable our school to obtain items for our children's use, such as classroom equipment, sports equipment and in some cases, funds for special projects". Sorry, what did you say? Classroom equipment??

What kills me (even more than the fact that our school does not, apparently, have adequate funding for classroom equipment) is that the fundraisers the PTA is urging us to participate in give us so little money back. The PTA letter says that last year, through programs with Campbell's Soup and General Mills, "we collected 7496 Campbell labels and received $706.70 from General Mills". If my math is correct (and it may not be -- my mental math skills are very much out of practice), that means a school earns less than ten cents per label. For every can of soup your family consume, Campbell's will give ten cents back to your school. How much is a can of soup these days? Three dollars? I really don't know, but in any case it doesn't seem that Campbell's is breaking the bank with school charity.

Even worse is the Target program the PTA is promoting. If you specify your school when making a purchase at Target, Target will give 1% of your purchase amount back to your school. ONE percent. If my math is correct (again, quite possibly not), I would have to spend one hundred dollars on worthless Target crap to give a dollar to James' school. Wow, Target, how generous. I can tell you're really concerned with the plight of education in this country.

You know, the ideal situation would be for schools to be adequately funded, from the local government level to the federal level, but if that's not possible, my next choice would be to give money directly to the school, rather than buy a bunch of junk in order to send a few pennies toward the school. And I do understand that there are people who buy a lot of stuff at Target already, or who eat a lot of Campbell's Soup, and that these programs are ways for those people to help out their kids' schools without putting in any extra effort. But it's still ridiculous that one of the primary ways of raising money for equipment and projects at our school is by asking parents to clip labels and UPC codes from our groceries.

Of course, I'm still going to send in the labels from our occasional cans of tomato soup, or the boxtops from our Kix cereal. But I'm going to do it grudgingly, cursing the forces that make this sort of thing necessary in the first place.

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