Handmade Christmas Ornaments

Mike and I bought and decorated our Christmas tree this weekend! I've gotten into the habit of making ornaments by hand whenever I can, though our tree is still covered in traditional globe ornaments. Nonetheless, my favorite of the less-conventional ornaments are these origami peace cranes (keep reading to learn more) and my red-glitter-covered pine cones. For these, I simply grabbed some pinecones outside, coated them with a spray-adhesive in a well-ventilated room, and then poured the glitter over top, being sure to shake the excess off into a cup. Then I twist green floral wire around the top and fashioned a little hook for hanging. So simple and really festive! As for the origami cranes, they're a bit more involved, but still so worth the effort once they make it onto the tree!

One of the great things about origami is that it's not an art which requires the cultivation of a skill over many years, so much as an art that requires the ability to follow good instructions. When I was young I remember folding little paper squares into flowers, frogs, and hearts, but few of those patterns have stayed fresh in my mind over the years. Luckily, even though I hadn't touched a sheet of origami paper for over a decade, I was able to easily get back into this form of folk art after having found a really good origami pattern online.

One of my favorite origami sculptures is also probably the most popular of all, the peace crane. I hang them in windows and around the house all year long (see the photo below), but they make for a simple and inexpensive DIY ornament during the holiday season.

The easiest pattern for the peace crane that I've ever come across can be found here, but any origami form can work as decoration so long as you can stick a needle and a piece of string through it for hanging. There are even some more complex patterns out there for things like Christmas angels, Santa in his Sleigh, Santa Claus, and Christmas stars.

And if you need a last minute gift for someone, keep money origami in mind as a creative way to personalize the simple gift of cash.

Here are some of my favorite origami cranes from this year's tree. I used some traditional origami paper (it's the easiest to fold), as well as some magazine images (also fairly easy to fold), and then some patterned holiday craft and scrapbooking paper (not so easy to fold). They make a great addition to the tree and are easy to incorporate into any decorating scheme. My tree has mostly gold and red ornaments, so I stuck with these colors for my cranes. If you're tree is bright jewel-tones or icy blues and silvers, keep your eye out for paper in those color families.


Good luck origami-ing and happy holiday decorating!


A Greener Christmas

I absolutely love Christmas. It is truly the most wonderful time of the year, which is part of why I rush the season so much. In the heat of July, I'm aching for temperatures in the 40s, sweaters, tea, and the warmth of the holiday season.

But it's not just the presents that make this day so special to me, as it may have been when I was younger. In fact, the actual day of isn't so much what I love, but rather the anticipation, the feeling surrounding the holiday season, from the music to the decorations, food, shopping, planning, and the undeniable joviality that infects everyone you meet. These are the things I love about Christmas and these are things that, I believe, you should start channeling as soon as Halloween is over, although I usually begin even earlier than that.

I love finding new ways to give my home that holiday feel, cooking up new recipes using the best ingredients of the season, and thinking of unique and personal gifts to make for my friends and family. I recently came across a wonderful book entitled A Greener Christmas, edited by Sheherazade Goldsmith, which is full of great ideas for Christmas to save money, reduce negative environmental impact, and remember what the season is really all about. Goldsmith urges you to avoid the pull of consumerism by demonstrating the ease of creating a healthy and happy Christmas for all the people you love and the environment around you as well.

Just a few of the fabulous ideas and tips include:
  • Wreaths made of dried leaves
  • Fragrant ornaments made of dried fruits and aromatics
  • DIY fabric and paper ornaments
  • Homemade gift ideas personalized for anyone of your Christmas list
  • Recipes galore!
  • Instructions for making mulled wine
  • Recycled card and gift wrap options
  • Table setting decorations
For any Christmas, DIY, or decorating fanatics, I highly recommend picking up this book. Though these ideas are all centered around Christmas, the projects and methods can easily serve as inspiration for other seasons and celebrations. Keep an eye out for future posts featuring projects from this very book!


It Isn't Like Dylan Going Electric Or Anything...

I originally intended to have a blog where I could put my recipes, my craft adventures, my personal book reviews. But I've really grown to love writing and be passionate about what I have to say, saying it the right way, and making valid and important points that will hopefully challenge others. I've written a few essays inspired largely by Barbara Kingsolver about things from consumerism, to homelessness, to our food culture (some of these have yet to be published). I've also taken to writing more anecdotes from my own life, inspired both by the narratives accompanying all the recipes found on Molly's Wizenerg's blog Orangette and the beautiful photos and stories Olivia Rae posts on her picturesque blog Everyday Musings.

From this smorgasbord of sources, I've decided to alter the course of this blog a bit. Instead of sticking to the rather impersonal, instructional posts I originally set out to do, I've come to expand my horizons. This is my space for me to use to express myself however I please. Though I do want to expand my readership, it's not so much because I have hopes of making money of this blog with ads or because I think that having followers in the triple-digits will improve my self esteem. I guess above all else I want to share and to connect. Sometimes I read other posts around the blogosphere and feel like their author would completely understand me, that he or she would be a close friend of mine were we placed in the same city. I find recipes, craft projects, book reviews, essays, photographs, images, thoughts that others put out into the blogosphere that I find inspiring or relatable or important or funny or beautiful and I want more. I'm hoping that RadiatorTunes can become less of a useful or practical blog and more of a place for thoughts and stories to share with others in the hope that meaningful virtual connections can be made.

I often worry that having a blog at all is a self-important move on my part - to assume that there are people out there who don't even know me but want to read what I have to say or hear about the happenings of my life. But I'm learning that the blogging community isn't full of such self-centered, cocky people. Instead it is mostly people that decide to create their own sites to pursue or further a certain passion, to connect and network, to indulge in what they love. And, though at first my intentions took on a slightly different form, I'm now recognizing my love of writing and my power to take that wherever I want. I don't want to confine myself, for my interests are wide and varied and constantly in flux. But whatever I'm raving or ranting about for the moment, I can most immerse myself in this thing in this moment by writing about it. And rather than filing those writings away in a folder on my computer's desktop, never to be retrieved or re-visited again, I figure I'll put it out there, fight off the fear or embarrassment that originally accompanied the thought of putting my name on anything I've publicly written, and hopefully share it with someone who appreciates it.

So that's just my current rant or rave, I'm not sure which. I was all excited when Mike came home from the gym because I had just completed a four and a half page essay on food - cooking, our food culture, the Western diet, the disgusting excuse we have for an agricultural system, etc. - and his first response was a huge smile and "Are you going to post it?" That thought terrified me a bit at first. I had so much to say, I was probably rambling on and on, and besides, who would want to read what I've written when Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver can say it so much better? And my readers, would I alienate with my long diatribe about all things food culture when they're used to Christmas cookies and new novels from the library? But then Mike made me realize how silly my worries were when he convinced me that using this blog as a space to write about anything I desired, no matter the topic or length, rather than my original limited intentions "isn't like Dylan going electric or anything..." I do love a good Bob Dylan reference I guess.

Anyway those are my thoughts and revised intentions. I hope that, if nothing else, I can continue to share my writing with the 15 or so lovely and wonderful people who already follow what I've got to say here. Thanks for reading and thank you my fellow bloggers for sharing!

Christmas Cookie Countdown #5: Italian Iced "Shortbread" Cookies

Okay, so the name for these guys is a little bit misleading. Not quite a shortbread, not quite iced, these cookies are actually an Italian classic and taste delicious with a simple confectioner's sugar and water mixture on top. I can't be sure where this recipe came from - it was cut out of a newspaper or magazine by my mother and was simply titled "Italian Cookies." But it makes some delicious cookies that, especially when dressed with a sugary frosting, are quite irresistible!

The original recipe suggests forming the dough into small wreaths. I find this unnecessarily laborious and tiresome. When you're putting 6 cups of flour into a dough, you're bound to come out with a whole lot of cookie and I don't want to spend all my time rolling small wreath forms out. So I resort to a much simpler method, invented by my ingenious mother - a pizza cutter. She simply rolls the dough out to an even thinness and then runs a series of parallel and perpendicular lines all the way through using a pizza cutter. Though this makes for a much less work-intensive recipe, the cookies still are festive with their diamond shapes and colorful icings.

These aren't the sweetest of cookies on their own, but they have their own addictive qualities nonetheless and are the perfect backdrop for all variety of icings and toppings. Just be forewarned that this recipe turns out a huge batch of cookies - I had somewhere upwards of 6 dozen!

Italian Iced "Shortbread" Cookies


For the cookies:

  • 6 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
For the icing:
  • 2 cups confectioner's sugar
  • 3 Tbsp water
  • Food coloring, optional
  • Sanding sugar, optional


1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Combine flour, sugar, and baking powder and whisk to mix.
3. Add room temperature butter and shortening and knead the mixture by hand (the dough won't come together quite yet but everything should be thoroughly mixed before proceeding to the next step).
4. Whisk together milk, egg whites, and vanilla extract. Pour liquid mixture over the flour and butter mixture, and further knead with your hands (at this point, I find it easier to remove the dough from a mixing bowl and knead on a flat tabletop). If too dry, add more milk as necessary to achieve a cohesive dough (I can pretty much guarantee that you'll need extra milk, so make sure you've got at least 1/2 cup on hand!).
5. Divide the dough in half and roll each half out to 1/4 inch thickness. Using a pizza cutter, cut parallel lines through the dough on a diagonal. Then cut another set of parallel lines intersecting the first set at a 60 degree angle to create diamond-shaped cookies.
6. Arrange cookies on prepared baking sheets leaving about 1/2 to 1 inch space between each. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until bottom of cookies just begin to brown.
7. Remove cookies to wire racks to cool.
8. Once completely cool, prepare icing. Combine confectioner's sugar, water, and a few drops of food coloring. Whisk until all ingredients are fully incorporated and drizzle icing over cookies (add more water incrementally if icing is not drizzling well).
9. Sprinkle with sanding sugar just after icing. Enjoy!


A Few Thoughts on Thanksgiving's Eve... and some Brussels Sprouts!

Though I recently posted some of my most favorite Thanksgiving dishes of the past, now it's time to get ready for Thanksgiving 2010. My extended family gathers for a large potluck dinner on the evening of Thanksgiving each year and everyone comes armed with a delicious dish, some old and some new. This year I've decided to make brussels sprouts. I know, that probably doesn't sound like the most appetizing choice of side dishes but trust me, the recipe I used is phenomenal and sure to please even the most staunch anti-vegetable eater at your Thanksgiving table. You'll find the full instructions at the end of this post!

Anyway, back to tomorrow. I love this holiday because it really is all about a few of my most favorite things - family, food, and gratitude. My family members are truly my very best friends and we're big foodies, so Thanksgiving is a great holiday for us to experiment with new recipes and indulge our gastronomic desires. And to me, there is no better way to express my gratitude than to spend this day with my family, for they're the ones who have provided me with so many of things for which I am thankful. I'm so grateful to have such an entertaining, supportive, and loving family to spend time with during the holidays and throughout the whole year.

Obviously, I would not even be here if it weren't for my parents, but they have always gone above and beyond when it came to raising me and my two sisters and providing us with every opportunity imaginable. The things that are most meaningful and important to me all stem back to family, and so many of the advantages I have been fortunate enough to receive are all a result of the hard work of my parents. Thus, it is only fitting that I plan to spend the day of thanks with those who have given me so much for which to be grateful. With my family, gathered around a table, feasting on the harvests of this wonderful season - those are at the very core of my Thanksgiving plans for 2010 (and every Thanksgiving thereafter). Here are just a few of the faces that will be seen around my Thanksgiving table:

Me, my lovely fiance Mike, and my wonderful mother

My little sister Leanne, the tree climber/hugger

My sister Katie and her brand-spanking-new husband Matt

My father (and my dog Maggie who, unfortunately, won't be at our Thanksgiving table)

Though it may not sound like an exciting or unconventional way to spend November 25, 2010, I wouldn't have it any other way (and that includes preparing the brussels sprouts - healthy and delicious and so much easier than sweet potato pie!). What are your Thanksgiving plans? Any favorite dishes from the past or highly anticipated ones for tomorrow?

I also wanted to take a moment to thank all of my readers and followers, both new and old. Reading all of your comments and knowing that you're even occasionally checking in means so much to me. I tend to write about a random assortment of things that I find interesting and entertaining, and it's nice to know that all of this isn't in vain - somewhere there are people that appreciate what I've got to say, even if it's a recipe one day and an unsuccessful crafting venture the next. So thank you for reading and here's my way of saying thanks: a delicious brussels sprouts recipe!

I know what you might be thinking - brussels sprouts are really your way of saying thanks? Before I made this dish, I would have probably been thinking the same thing. But this is an amazingly simple dish with a huge payoff and I encourage you to give it a shot! I've never actually had brussels sprouts before the other night. I'm not sure if it's one of those things my mom served me once when I was young and then never attempted to force down our throats again, or if it was just her aversion to all things green that kept these off our plates. But I'm not trying to blame my mom either - brussels sprouts never tempted me and the very idea of them has always been met by my nose scrunched up in disgust.

But as of late, my horizons have expanded. Brussels sprouts are one of if not the most healthy plant food you can eat, which was part of why I came around. I was also seeing tons of recipes in magazines and on blogs that tempted me to give these guys a try.

The recipe that I chose was found in an issue of Real Simple Magazine. My dish came out absolutely delicious, even though I didn't have fresh brussels sprouts and instead used a frozen package, draining off the butter sauce while defrosting the sprouts. I was actually worried that the trace of butter or the recent freezing of my core ingredient would have made my dish sub-par but in fact I was delighted with the result. Alongside some simple pan-fried chicken and sauteed sweet potato rounds with cinnamon and sage, this was the perfect November meal - one that encouraged me to enthusiastically jump aboard the brussels sprouts bandwagon (and hopefully I'll be bringing my family aboard tomorrow!).

I prefer roasting any and all of my vegetables with olive oil and seasonings - I think it's the best way to maximize their flavor and retain their vital nutritional power. This dish provides the perfect method to simply and quickly get your fix of these super healthy little guys, and it is a useful way to finish up any grapes that no longer retain their crispy crunch quite as much as you'd like to snack on solo.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Grapes
adapted from Real Simple Magazine

  • 1 1/2 pounds brussels sprouts, halved
  • 1 pound red seedless grapes
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Cover baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread brussels sprouts, grapes, and garlic over sheet.
3. Drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with chopped thyme, salt, and pepper.
4. Toss to coat.
5. Cook 20-25 minutes. Enjoy!

*I didn't have super high hopes when I first prepared this recipe (and I didn't use the prettiest or freshest of brussels sprouts), so I refrained from taking my own photos... this one comes from the Real Simple website!

**This Thanksgiving's Eve post is also an entry for the Plan It, Blog It! 2010 Thanksgiving Blog Writing Contest from www.UPrinting.com. If you like what you saw here, please comment! The more comments I get, the closer I come to winning this contest! Thanks!


A Few Thanksgiving Dishes

With all the Christmas crafts and cookies and decorations going on around here, I feel like I've neglected what might be my favorite holiday of all - Thanksgiving. True, I love Christmas and look forward to with the same excitement and anticipation as young children (though probably for different reasons), but the thing I love about Thanksgiving is that all of these Christmasy preparations are in full swing and once Thanksgiving is over, you've still got another holiday right around the corner to look forward to. Once December 26th hits, maybe you've got a New Year's Party but then it's just another three months of winter with no holiday lights, Christmas cheer, presents, or family get togethers to warm up the cold. Thanksgiving is in the midst of all the holidays, but doesn't signal the end. And of course, there is no better holiday for food or for appreciating all that you've got.

I just wanted to take a few minutes to, first, recognize Thanksgiving in all it's glory, and, second, to share a few recipes that have become true classics in my family. These are the tried and true recipes that we've made over the years to winning smiles and satisfied stomachs. They actually all originally come from various faces over at The Food Network and are sure to be loved by all. Another thing I love about Thanksgiving is that so many recipes abound at this time of year, and they are becoming increasingly accessible every year. There are so many flavors to use, so many ingredients in their prime, and an infinite number of ways to prepare them for your grand meal. And now more than ever, everyone can share and access all these different methods.

I wish I had the time (or the metabolism!) to make all of these dishes at home and post them complete with pictures and my various notes and adaptations. Since the season is in full swing and I'm not the mastermind behind this year's Thanksgiving meal, but rather, one of the many who bring a dish to our family's pot-luck celebration, I've resigned myself to recipe links. Nonetheless, each and every recipe listed here is one I've tried again and again. They're all delicious and delightful winters for Thanksgiving and the whole entire holiday season. Here's to good food, giving thanks, and sharing recipes all across the blogosphere!

My Favorite Thanksgiving Recipes
  • Stuffed Sweet Potatoes with Pecan and Marshmallow Streusel - This recipe comes from the talented Tyler Florence. My cousin Kristin made this dish one year right around the time when I started cooking. I was new to the sweet potato, largely because I didn't like potatoes much growing up, and this bright orange thing masquerading as a potato had never looked any more appealing than its counterparts. It wasn't until she brought out these enticing potatoes covered in gooey marshmallows, fragrant cinnamon, and crunch pecans that I really got on the sweet potato bandwagon, and I've stuck it out ever since. These are great for getting kids to try sweet potatoes, and maybe when they get a little more used to the idea, you can wean them off the sugary topping. A truly delightful and decadent side dish that you just have to try!
  • Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle - A good ole Paula Dean dish, this delicious trifle defeated a Thanksgiving dinner party of nearly 30. True, we had all just gorged ourselves on turkey and stuffing and potatoes and cranberry sauce and countless other treats were competing for dessert face time. And there is a whole lot of trifle in this dish, more than a group of 30 could probably eat on empty stomachs. But that's one of the great things about this trifle - there are sure to be left overs! Combining two of the greatest flavors of the season, pumpkin and gingerbread, in an innovative form, this trifle holds layers of goodness with multiple consistencies and flavors coming together perfectly in every bite. A true treat, I loved this trifle and loved feasting on leftovers for weeks after Thanksgiving.
  • Best Ever Green Bean Casserole - Alton Brown's Best Ever Green Bean Casserole really is the best - the best tasting and the best for you. Rather than relying on the classic canned cream of mushroom soup, Brown's recipe makes his casserole entirely from scratch. Though you'll get all the goodness and flavor of the mushroom soup by using fresh mushrooms, you save yourself all the added salt and unnatural flavors that those cans contain. This is a bit more labor intensive than your traditional casserole, but all that effort is totally worth it in the end - both for your health and for the resulting dish you'll have the pride of making by your own two hands. He even makes fresh the crispy onion topping!
  • Apple and Onion Stuffin' Muffins - I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again. Though she gets a lot of bad press for not being trained as a chef, I think Rachael Ray knows her stuff and is a force to be reckoned with. She has a whole bunch of shows all over network and cable TV and still manages to come up with new and innovative recipes on a regular basis while developing cookbooks, kitchen gadgets, and hosting a talk show. But what I'm really impressed by, apart from her busy lifestyle and multi-tasking talent, is her creativity with food. She always manages to come up with something new, whether it be presenting an old classic in a new form, or drawing up something entirely out of the blue. That's why I love these stuffin' muffins. Stuffing is by far one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving. These muffins help ensure that everyone gets their fill since it's already portioned out. And they're fun and delicious too. Somedays I just want to eat stuffing all on it's own, and these muffins make it so much easier to do that. I love the apple in them as well - it's one of my favorite things to use to update traditional stuffings. You've got to give these a try and hand it to Rachael Ray - she knows what she's doing in the kitchen even if she didn't have to go to school to learn it.


A Rant about Oprah's Favorite Things

In case you haven't noticed, I'm crazy for the holidays. There are plenty of traditions I love to return to annually come November and December and, though I'm not a huge TV fan, one of those is indulging myself in cheesy made-for-TV holiday films and Christmas commercials. I recognize how commercialized the holiday season has become, but I love the whole spirit of Christmas and being so completely surrounded by it at this time of year, so I'm never one to complain.

One thing I have always loved to do every year is watch Oprah's "My Favorite Things" episode where she bestows upon her audience an unbelievable number of luxury items that she swears by. It's a generous move on Oprah's part and an awesome marketing move on that of the companies who put out these products, so I guess it's a mutually beneficial thing. Plus, a deserving group of people (for instance, a few years ago all members of Oprah's audience on that day were teachers) are surprised with plenty of new things they probably would never have otherwise treated themselves to. And the Oprah set is decked out in festive colors, twinkling lights, and holiday decorations (which is probably the biggest reason why I've watched year after year).

Maybe it's the fact that I'm more mature with age, or that I take an overly critical eye to things, or it could be my immersion into the real world has me a bit bitter. Whatever the reason, this year I found myself more disgusted than jolly while watching Oprah's holiday giveaway episodes (she actually had two "My Favorite Things" episodes this year rather than just the usual single one). Yeah, it's great that Oprah is so generous to her most deserving viewers and fans. And I love to give, it's one of my favorite things about the holiday season, so I can relate to the joy that this scale of gifting can bring to the giver. But the excess of the whole endeavor turns me off. I understand that it's Oprah's last year so she wants to go out with a bang, but who really needs a $3500 3D TV or the promise of a 2012 VW Beetle that no one other than VW employees in Germany and Oprah herself have even seen? A panini maker and 4 pairs of Nikes? Sweat pants and jeans that lift your butt, squeeze your thighs, and keep everything in place?

I don't deny that Oprah is an extremely generous person and I think her intentions are entirely understandable and mostly pure for a person with her wealth and power. To better explain my position, I'll explain the context in which it became fully realized - in the reactions of her audience. Hysteric screams, tears of joy, jumping in place, wide-eyed disbelief. It's important to feel, and demonstrate, gratitude when treated with such generosity. But the audience was reacting as though Ty Pennington from ABC's Extreme Home Makeover just revealed to them their new home, complete with free utilities, all the furnishings, and a lifetime's worth of food from a major grocery chain. Maybe I'm just a more subtle, less-excitable person than the majority of Oprah fans, or maybe I'm entirely too cynical, but these people were in hysterics over a new brownie pan designed so that each and every brownie was an edge rather than a middle. I couldn't help thinking of how these products were largely unnecessary and fairly limited in their usefulness. We're only made to think that they're the answer to our prayers because skilled advertisers have the know-how to trick us into spending money on things we think we need.

To think of how much money Oprah shelled out to outfit her guests with all of these gifts just makes me despair over how that money could have been so much better spent. Sure, it's nice to receive a few luxuries every now and then, but this was especially excessive. If these people were so deserving of a generous break, why not help them out with the expenses that make normal, everyday life so stressful? Give them the financial assistance to pay off their homes, send their kids to college, stock their kitchens, and ensure adequate healthcare. Or better yet, divide the money even further to reach more people - the people who are the most destitute, the most in need of a dollar or two every day of the year. I know Oprah does plenty of charity work and has devoted herself to a slew of important causes, but I can't help thinking that, no matter how small the expense of this show may be in her grand financial scheme of things, every dollar of it could have been put to greater use if directed to someone in true need. I don't want to downplay the individuals in the audience and their potential need, but I believe that if they were really destitute, they wouldn't want an expensive TV, body lotion, loungewear, and over-priced exercise shoes so much as the essentials - shelter, clothing, and food.

I'm not here to condemn anyone, because I ultimately view Oprah's show as merely one example of a trend that I can be traced in plenty of other venues - money is being spent on unnecessary luxuries, oftentimes for people who aren't in need of much, especially not another expendable gadget, when true and dire need is crippling others nearby. I work two part time jobs and so have to keep my finances under close watch. I worry about money all the time, am as thrifty a shopper as can be, and avoid the mall like the plague to completely remove the temptation to make gratuitous expenses. But I still don't guard my savings enough that I can't find a few dollars to donate here and there, or to buy an item or two off the McDonald's Dollar Menu to give the skin and bones woman begging for change on the street corner. I'm far from perfect and there are innumerable other decisions I could make that would minimize my negative impact on the world at large and maximize my potential to do good. But I still recognize the importance and potential of those small decisions I can make about how to use my limited resources.

My plea isn't to boycott luxury items, to defile Oprah, or even to save spare change to give to homeless strangers. Rather, I just want to increase awareness and generate a more thoughtful and critical outlook on the way money is spent, as an individual, a family member, all the way up to the corporations. Part of this has been spurred, I think, by what I'm currently reading, a biography of Harry Chapin. Chapin was a singer-songwriter most well-known for his tune "Cat's in the Cradle" whose most important legacy should be his dedication to eradicating world hunger. Chapin wasn't always an admirable philanthropist, but once he recognized the scope of need and his potential, even as a mid-level artist, to make widespread change, he never once strayed from his commitment. Unlike the majority of artists, Chapin didn't do a benefit concert merely once or twice a year when presented with the opportunity, but rather, made those very charitable opportunities out of thin air. A good two-thirds of his shows benefitted various charities, most concerning hunger issues. And all the proceeds from his merchandise went straight to his organization World Hunger Year (WHY). Chapin recognized (and was willing to admit) that, despite the occasional efforts made by big name celebrities to combat hunger, change wasn't happening. Disenchanted with lackluster charitable efforts and ineffectual strategies, Chapin learned as much as possible about the hunger issue, connected himself with the most well-versed and respected of world hunger experts, and made a plea to his fans, any audience he found himself in front of, and finally then-President Jimmy Carter. Eventually Chapin's efforts led to a Presidential Commission to fight world hunger on which he served as a board member. It was only through his unparalleled commitment to this issue and his conviction that he had the power to instill change, that a commission on hunger came into being, much less that Chapin found himself a member of it.

But I digress. I want anyone who reads this post to recognize the power of their potential, to be inspired to display generosity to others who truly need it in the course of their daily life, and to rethink their monetary decisions and their definition of need. Don't feel guilty for treating yourself to a new item of clothing or an indulgent dinner out every now and again. But don't forget that the very fact that you can sit before a computer, access the internet, read this blog post, and will probably have three (or more) square meals before you go to sleep tonight places you among the most fortunate group of people in the world. And with great fortune comes an increased ability to share that fortune with others.


Muffin Tin Advent Calendar

I few weeks ago I posted about the online holiday magazines I've been raving over, primarily Gifted and Inspire Co. The latter provided me with the best idea I've seen yet for an advent calendar - a 24 count muffin tin! I've been looking for an idea for quite some time and this was perfect. It allowed me to do some paper crafting and collaging while integrating some of my own personal style into the final product. And the muffin tins are the perfect size for hiding my favorite candy - mini Reese's cups!

Here's my brief how-to, but for the full and official instructions, check out Inspire Co.'s Christmas edition.

Muffin Tin Advent Calendar

  • 24-count muffin tin
  • Magnet backing
  • Christmas paper, stickers, and other decorative materials
  • Circular item to trace magnets
  • Exacto knife or scissors
  • White primer spray paint
  • Clear sealer spray paint

1. I first found a circular item that was slightly larger than the muffin tin holes. I used the base of a plastic cup and experimented with spray paint bottles, candles, glasses, mugs, and all sorts of household items, so be creative. Then I simply placed the cup on the papers I was going to cut and traced with the Exacto knife to cut out my circles. (If you don't have an Exacto knife, simply trace the circle with a pencil and then cut out. If you have a CriCut machine, the circular cut on that should work as well, eliminating the need for a circular tracing object and Exacto knife.)
2. Then I got my tin ready. I spread out newspaper in a well-ventilated area and sprayed my primer. It was white and made for an even and thick finish, so I didn't bother with another color over top. After letting the primer dry (I did two coats), I sprayed the clear sealer over the whole thing.

3. Now comes the fun part - decorating the circles. Each circle will represent one day in the month of December, prior to December 25th. I used different types of craft and scrapbooking paper as well as magazine cut-outs, stickers, and rub-on transfers to decorate my circles. Each one has a saying or Christmas-y greeting and the number somewhere on the front.

4. After all the decorating was done, I cut out small squares of magnet and stuck two pieces on each circle - one on the top of the back and one on the bottom. This way I'll be sure my circles will stay in place.
5. Then I just waited for my sealer to dry completely before putting everything together. The candy or small item of your choice fits in the muffin tin behind the magnetic circles, and each day you can pull off the corresponding circle to see what lies underneath (for me, it'll be Reese's cups all month!).

In the original instructions, they drilled holes through the top of the muffin tin for hanging. This is definitely do-able, just make sure to wear all the proper protection and to use a bit that works on metal. I just leaned mine against the wall so there was no need for power tools. Happy Holidays and enjoy!


127 Hours

Last night I had the pleasure (and temporary agony) of watching James Franco's latest film 127 Hours. Based on true events, Franco portrays Aron Ralston, an adventurous mountain biker and climber who finds himself stranded in a Utah canyon gap with his right arm pinned between a fallen boulder and the canyon wall. For 127 hours, Ralston was trapped with only the meager provisions he had allotted for a single day's trip. We're taken along on Ralston's fast-paced psychological journey over five days marked by pain, regret, innovation, and a surprising degree of mental clarity.

The film begins by establishing Ralston's fearless independence and charisma. He sets out for a day of canyoneering, and along the way wins over two lost female backpackers, as well as his audience. After parting ways with his new friends, Ralston continues his previous route and comes to a narrow crevice in the trail which requires that he shimmy his way down two walls, just a few feet apart, in order to reach the trail floor. After checking that a boulder lodged between the top of these two walls is secure, he makes his way down. However his initial probing of the boulder proves not thorough enough when that same rock comes down on him, pinning his arm to the wall just feet above the canyon floor.

Armed with a digital camera, video camera, climbing ropes, carabiners, a half-full Nalgene water bottle, an empty Camelback water pack, head lamp, and a thawing burrito, Ralston's supplies are limited and, with time, increasingly discouraging. He provides himself with a variety of tasks to keep busy and stay productive - creating a suspended seat using his ropes and carabiners, making videos to pass on to his parents should he not survive, fashioning a tourniquet to staunch the blood flow to his dying hand, chipping away at the boulder in an attempt to release himself. Despite his physical limitations, Ralston keeps a relatively level head, performing necessary tasks, pacing himself, and thinking analytically about how to remove himself from, or at least improve, his situation.

As director Danny Boyle describes it, 127 Hours is "an action movie with a guy who can't move." It has also been described as a drama and a thriller, but I find it particularly difficult to classify. It was reminiscent in style and topic to Sean Penn's Into the Wild, following a stubborn young outdoorsman on a journey that proves daunting physically, mentally, and emotionally. There were large elements of fear and gore, attributable to Ralston's probable end as well as some of the self-inflicted wounds which he is forced to endure to save himself. I found it to be most consistently a drama as we're taken from high to low, following Ralston's entire journey and sharing in his fears, confessions, and revelations. But you can't help laughing from time to time either, mostly at Ralston's sometimes sarcastic one-liners.

I don't know whether the greatest selling point of this film is the fact that this story is entirely true or if it would go to Franco's phenomenal performance. Boyle has had this film in his sights for years. Though Ralston's autobiographical book about the experience, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, came out in 2004, he wasn't quite ready for his experience to be projected on film until a few years later. Largely because of the incredible, almost unbelievable nature of Ralston's story, the film is extremely factual and actually utilized a lot of input from Ralston as well as the real video tapes from his time in the canyon for reference. But, as remarkable as Ralston's experience is, Franco's winning performance cannot be overlooked. He delivers heartfelt video messages to his character's parents with a poignancy and sincerity that never becomes histrionic or overly felt. Ralston's pain and struggle, both physical and psychological, could not have been better embodied on screen than through Franco. From the adrenaline-highs as he sets out on the morning of April 27th, 2003 to the moments when all hope of surviving is lost, Franco delivers an award-worthy performance that truly makes this movie all that it is. After all, Franco pretty much carries the movie himself since there were so few other people that partook in the experience, save the women he met and the people that most visit his memory.

If you want to see the film or read the book without knowing how it ends, I suggest you stop reading because we're about to get into all the gory details. The conclusion to this story is remarkable but also agonizing and gruesomely told. Still, it speaks to Ralston's clarity of thought and admirable tenacity. In the last hours of his 127 hours, Aron comes to view this struggle as the culmination of all the decisions and trials of his life. He is forced to consider removing himself from this boulder as the one thing he has always been living for, the fight his whole life has been coming to. With this conviction of mind and the knowledge of a seasoned outdoorsman, Ralston commits to amputating his own arm. Though he did stab himself in the arm earlier, it wasn't until his desperation and resolve grew so dire that he followed through. And this is when it becomes almost painful to watch. The scene takes a space of approximately 3 minutes but they are leave little to the imagination and are bolstered by an unnerving soundtrack that makes viewing the amputation a somewhat sickening experience. But the fact that this scene is so difficult to watch speaks to how closely it captures the real experience of Aron's self-amputation. It is nearly impossible for me to imagine having the resolve, wherewithal, stamina, and will to live that is required to cut off one of your own appendages. 127 Hours highlights how one man faced that struggle and made the life-saving decision that ended his solitary confinement.

I really can't say enough about the respect and awe I have for Aron Ralston, the praise I have for James Franco's sensational performance, and the gratitude I feel for Danny Boyle having made this moving film. No matter how much you're into action movies or outdoor adventures or psycho-thrillers, I feel like this is a must-see film. Above all 127 Hours is a story about triumph and the beyond-human capabilities that lie within each of us. It is inspiring in the most genuine and fundamental of ways and is fully deserving of all the praise it has received insofar.


Christmas Cookie Countdown #4: Magic in the Middles

Even richer than a Peanut Butter Creme Oreo, Magic in the Middles are the perfect peanut butter and chocolate cookie. With a thick, cakey chocolate dough and a smooth, surprising peanut butter center, these cookies are absolutely addicting. You can visit the King Arthur Flour website for this wonderful recipe direct from the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion Cookbook or just follow the instructions below.

I first made these many moons ago and they've been a family favorite ever since. It seems that my sisters and I go on a string of baking up Magic in the Middles - as soon as we finish one batch, someone else bakes up another because they're just that good. I am a huge fan of the classic chocolate and peanut butter combination, but even someone who doesn't always crave the sweetness of chocolate or the creamy nuttiness of peanut butter will fall in love with these cookies - guaranteed!

Though this recipe requires making two doughs - one for the chocolate cookie and one for the peanut butter filling - the actual process is not very labor intensive. Both doughs are quite straightforward and the filling procedure is very simple, plus the cookies themselves are coated in granulated sugar which helps to hide any potential mishaps. As long as you don't eat all the dough before you've assembled your cookies, you'll have a batch of beautiful chocolate-peanut butter goodness, perfect with a tall glass of milk!

Magic in the Middles
from the King Arthur Flour Companion Cookbook


For the chocolate dough:
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
For the peanut butter filling:
  • 3/4 cup peanut butter (smooth or creamy based on your preference)
  • 3/4 cup confectioner's sugar


1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare two baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick cooking spray.
2. Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.
3. In a separate bowl, beat the sugars, butter, and peanut butter until light and fluffy. Then add the egg and vanilla, mixing until fully incorporated.
4. Stir in the dry ingredients, mixing well.
5. In a separate bowl, stir together the peanut butter and confectioner's sugar for the filling until smooth.
6. To assemble the cookies, round out 26 one-inch balls of the peanut butter filling mixture.
7. Shape one-tablespoon-sized balls of the chocolate cookie dough and make a divot in the center. Place one of the peanut butter balls in the divot, then fold the chocolate dough over to cover the peanut butter filling.
8. Using your hands, roll the assembled cookies to smooth them out. Then give them a quick toss in granulated sugar to coat.
9. Arrange cookies on prepared baking sheets with about 2 inches between each. Get a drinking glass and wet the bottom with either water or oil. Press down on each cookie ball with the glass to flatten them.
10. Bake for 7-9 minutes. Remove from baking sheets and set on wire racks to cool. Enjoy!


Christmas Cards To Get You In The Spirit Of The Season!

I truly believe that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Any one who has read even a single one of my blog entries from mid-October through the end of December undoubtedly has caught on to my obsession.

And to get myself (and hopefully you) into the Christmas season, here are a few of my most favorite Christmas cards which I've created in the past few years. If you're interested in purchasing any of these cards or checking out some of my other creations, please stop by my Etsy shop! Enjoy!


The Best American Short Stories 2001

Barbara Kingsolver's collection of essays Small Wonder included a piece she wrote as editor of the 2001 edition of The Best American Short Stories. The introduction to the collection of stories she selected, within this essay Kingsolver attempted to define what it was that made for quality in short fiction. Describing the way that a good short story should reveal some profound truth eloquently in a limited amount of space, I felt as though she was discussing how I, personally and individually, feel about her work. She explained that her selections as editor boiled down to those stories that moved her, that stuck with her, because they so skillfully and intelligently bestowed some knowledge or sense of experience onto the reader through a story woven in a matter of pages, rather than chapters. Though I initially read Kingsolver's introduction entirely independent from the actual stories she chose, her description of the process and guidelines by which she selected the included stories compelled me to get my hands on a copy of this collection as soon as possible. I just had to see what stories had so affected this woman whose writing had always so affected me.

Any collection of The Best American Short Stories is sure to be rife with startling, intelligently written, and important pieces of fiction. The editors, selected annually, are all noteworthy members of the literary community with commendations and honors bolstering their brief yet deserved editorial status. But if you're at all familiar with my taste in books, you have probably noticed a trend - I love Barbara Kingsolver. I admit that I have started one or two of her novels and, unfortunately, failed to find myself immersed or moved enough to delve in past page 50. As a rule of thumb, however, I equate her name with quality, talent, taste, and a shared idealism.

I have, however, frequently had trouble finding myself particularly moved by short fiction. The only other time I have been able to complete a full collection was with Jeffrey Eugenide's My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead (another author whose moving fiction convinced me to take a chance on his editorial skills). So when I wanted to try some short fiction again, needless to say, I was particularly drawn to the 2001 short story collection. These were stories hand selected by Kingsolver and, thus, I knew that they were likely to mean something to me.

Granted, not every story in here hit me over the head with its wisdom or fictional powers. But some definitely did. All topics are covered, all range of emotions evoked. Few stones are left untouched, but there is still a subtle continuity to the collection. From the woman, desperately hoping to conceive, who finds pieces of her imaginary future son's body strewn throughout her house - a story both painfully and beautifully told - to the morbidly obese high school janitor who has never known love until he finds it in the supermarket, met by the hardened woman that lives just a few houses down - a touchingly hopeful piece on love and loneliness. There are tales of politics, such as the capitalist American chicken restaurant landed in socialist China, and those of family saga, like the tale of two twin brothers whose journey from childhood to manhood is tenderly told in just 5 short pages. Stories of competition, such as the two women who rival each other their whole adult lives, become neighbors in their old age and play out their feud among the harvest of their backyard gardens, connected by a shared apple tree. And stories of essential human struggle to overcome deep and enveloping sadness, like that of the couple who fight to maintain their hold on life after a hijacked car and a miscarriage.

This collection provided me with some of those rare stories that have the ability to leave an indelible mark on my mind, with a few authors' work to further explore, and with a greater appreciation for the short story form. I'm finding it difficult to accurately write about this collection because its contents are so vast and varied. However I can undoubtedly state that I finished reading these stories cataloguing a few more thoughts in my head, asking myself some fresh questions, and reflecting upon an impressive new set of those lasting mental impressions that only good fiction can affect.


Tissue Paper Snowflakes

While digitally flipping through Gifted Magazine, I noticed a fairly familiar holiday craft that was given a whole new look - paper snowflakes. But rather than using standard white paper, the masterminds behind the project used tissue paper, providing their snowflakes with a more subtle, whimsical, and etherial effect. I loved the look and instantly sought out some white tissue paper and a pair of scissors.

Another great plus for using tissue paper - it folds much easier than anything else I've used before. This allows you to fold your circles up tighter and tighter, allowing for more intricate and realistic designs.

The process is simple enough. Use a cup or other round object to trace circles onto white tissue paper. I actually traced with my exacto knife to skip out the extra step of tracing the circles and then cutting them out. Plus, I was able to layer the tissue paper and cut multiple sheets at a time.

Once you have your circles cut, fold them in half as many times as you'd like - the more folds the better. You'll ultimately want a pizza-slice-shaped section of folded tissue paper.

Then cut out your designs! I personally think they look best when the top rounded edge is cut with diagonal lines and triangles. I went to town with my scissors, making curved cut, squares, triangles small and large.

The fun part is carefully unfolding the tissue paper to reveal the entirely unique resulting flakes.

Though this project is in no way a revelation or a brand new idea, I love the look and versatility that using tissue paper provides. Just a few of the ideas from Gifted include using them to spruce up gift wrapping, hanging as a winter mobile, or adorning various household items to add a subtle touch of the holiday spirit. I also love to see these snowflakes hung in sunny windows and even spread over white walls. With a little bit of double-sided tape, I added some of my creations to the white wall of my kitchen and the white-on-white result makes a delicate wintry statement that can easily be removed post-holiday-season. Strung together as garland, these snowflakes can also be hung above doorways, along walls, or even on a Christmas tree.

For a simple and low-cost way to provide a bit of holiday punch to your decor this winter season, I hope you'll consider this new take on an old classic. Ditch the stark white paper snowflakes reminiscent of your elementary school days for these updated tissue paper versions to achieve a more sophisticated and understated holiday decoration.


The Lonely Goatherd

Yesterday Mike and I went up to Fair Hill to go hiking in one of the Maryland Park Service's best kept secrets. Our stop was just down the road from one of my favorite places - Milburn Orchards in Elkton, Maryland. It is an autumnal wonderland for kids and adults alike. With a pumpkin patch, apple picking, and every other kind of pick-your-own fruits and vegetables imaginable available spring through fall, this place is a locavores' dream. There are also tons of games, corn mazes, and other outdoor adventures to be had for the younger ones in your clan. A market sporting fresh-made apple cider donuts, seasonal baked goods, piping hot apple cider, and farm-fresh produce makes this a great stop for pantry essentials after some fall fun.

My favorite part of the whole orchard affair, however, is the petting zoo of sorts. Chickens, pigs, and a calf or two are all available for viewing and/or petting. The best part of all - the goats. This place is like a goat fortress. I have never seen so many of these animals in one place in my life! In all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages, the goats run around, begging for food, play fighting, and traveling around the goat playground where they live. Here are just a few photographs from this most recent visit, as well as a few old ones, to give you a better idea of the wonder and intrigue of this goat paradise!

Ramps, slides, and ladders for the goats to climb

This unbelievably large pig used to be one of the sights to see a Milburn. He is unfortunately no longer there, but he was quite a sight to see in his lifetime.

Begging - typical goat behavior.

One of the most endearing of the little guys.

Standard goat behavior - taking it head to head.

These sweet little things wanted all the corn they could get. We were real cheap and were just picking up spare kernels all over the ground to feed them until a generous orchard patron gave us an ear of corn to use. I don't know if he pitied our efforts or just didn't feel like taking the time to remove all the kernels himself.

The poor little guy kept getting trampled by the older folk whenever we tried to give him a few kernel. Mike and I tried to distract the greedy guys so we could feed this one, but they were smarter than we gave them credit for. 

Goat pen, complete with chicken wire and dog house.

I still can't believe that this contraption is here for goats to walk on at a place of kid's entertainment. I just have this picture in my mind's eye of a goat falling from these ramps 20 feet in the air and the poor little children witnessing the whole thing. Luckily, I haven't heard of any such accident yet.

This place always makes me think of "The Lonely Goatherd" song from The Sound of Music. Yodeelay yodeelay yodeelay heehoo!


Christmas Cookie Countdown #3: Chewy Coconut Macaroons

One of the things I miss most about college is the dining hall macaroons. I know what you're probably thinking, that I must have had a really sorry college experience. It's not so much that college was that bad as that the macaroons were that good. Chewy and moist, no other macaroons have ever been quite as delicious, or addictive. I actually entered college a bit wary of all things coconut but one night the limited dessert options left me no choice but to dare to try a coconut macaroon. I was delighted to find that macaroons, at least the University of Delaware's Dining Services' version, were actually a deliciously creamy and chewy treat!

I've tried various recipes in an attempt to replicate those unbelievably soft and flavorful macaroons, and this is the best one I've found. Try them dipped in chocolate and pop them to the freezer to save for later snacking. Enjoy!

Chewy Coconut Macaroons
from All Recipes' Chewy Coconut Macaroon Recipe
makes approximately 30 macaroons

  • 2 1/2 cups flaked coconut
  • 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 14 oz sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 tsp almond or vanilla extract


1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly coat baking sheets with cooking spray or spread with butter.
2. Mix coconut, flour and salt.
3. Stir in milk and extract until everything is thoroughly wet and sticky.
4. Form into rounded teaspoon-sized balls placed 3 inches apart on prepared baking sheets.
5. Bake for 18-20 minutes.
6. Let cool on wire baking racks, then enjoy!


Homemade Sherpa Slippers

I haven't been particularly crafty on here lately, mostly due to being wrapped up in seasonal food items and books. But with the holidays approaching, more and more craft projects have been popping up... here's one that is pretty simple to do (as long as you're more precise than I was, you'll have great success!) and is wonderful as a gift or a treat to yourself!

When the slippers I've had for the past seven or eight years finally were on their last legs, I decided that, rather than buying some Deerfoams or other unnecessarily comfortable and pricey slippers, I would make my own. I use them primarily for padding around the house and keeping my toes warm, so support requirements were minimal. I was mostly looking for warmth, coziness, and a little bit of character.

There are plenty of patterns for slippers online if you're a bit more diligent and patient than myself. I personally was planning to use Martha Stewart's but decided against it when I watched the woman at the fabric counter release more and more fuzz from the sherpa material I had chosen with each click of her scissors. I opted for a simple band over the top of the slipper so I could utilize the pre-hemmed edge on my material, rather than cutting a fresh line that would only more shed and need to be hemmed again. Some might call it laziness, but I prefer to think of it as being particularly efficient and practical. In the long run, my method is sure to reduce the number of inevitable frustrations with my sewing machine and the cleaning of sherpa sheddings from all over my home. I will admit, this is the most basic of slipper patterns I could have come up with and my methods of measurement were extremely inexact and approximate... however I now have some comfortable, fitting, albeit slightly wonky, slippers to lovingly and adoringly wear around my home!

So back to the project - a real simple pattern. I put my foot down on the fuzzy sherpa fabric, giving a generous 2-inches in all directions, and cut an outline. Then I laid that freshly cut footprint out and cut another matching footprint. These two matching footprints will be sewn together to make one sole of one slipper. Then I did the same for the other foot - tracing it with plenty of room to spare and then cutting a duplicate to reinforce the slipper's bottom.

The band over top was simple for me because one edge of my sherpa material was already nicely hemmed, so search for a pre-hemmed fabric if you'd like to make things easier on yourself. I simply laid the fabric down over my sewn-together-soles and used my foot as an informal guess-timation tool (I told you I was extremely imprecise!). I wanted the top band to hit a little more than halfway down from my toes, but used my actual foot for better reference. Then I cut away, using the sole as an outline for where the toe-side of the top band would stop.

Then everything got pinned and sewn together for each slipper. I kept the suede side down for both layers of the soles, so my feet would rest on the sherpa inside and the suede would touch the floor. I then flipped the top band - the sherpa was facedown so it brushed the top of my toes and the neat suede was face-up on the outside of the slipper. To make sure you have enough room to fit your foot in between the soles and the top bands, I suggest stuffing a ball of newspaper or other material inside there while sewing - if you simply lay everything down flat, the slipper will fit really tightly, if it even opens at all to allow your foot inside. As long as you've got something to hold the place where your foot should be while you're sewing away, you should be in good shape.

I worry these directions have been highly informal and embarrassingly imprecise. However, I found that it was much easier for me to wing it than to print out a pattern and such. I simply used my feet to make custom slippers. If you're looking for something a bit more resilient, I don't recommend using a mere two layers of sherpa, but rather finding another idea elsewhere on the web or adding a layer of foam in between the two sherpa layers of the sole. But if you just want something comfy and simple for keeping your toes warm this winter, this project just may be it. Good luck!


Online Holiday Magazines

I came across some online holiday magazines the other day and Gifted Magazine, brought to us by the Creature Comforts blog, has completely stuck with me like no other. It's full of handmade and homemade ideas for celebrating, decorating, and gifting as well as articles on indie crafters, holiday dress, and contributors' Christmas memories. The content is innovative and inspired and the crafts, oh so easy - I can't decide which project to start first! Do yourself a favor and check this magazine out. If nothing else, it will lift your spirits by getting you in the swing of the holidays. At best, you'll come away inspired and full of holiday ideas! I'll be sure to post about all the craft projects I take away from this one!

Another great magazine from Inspire Co. - Amy Powers' Inspired Ideas online magazine's Christmas edition (to access the magazine, look for the icon on the top right side of her blog). Though this magazine is focused more solely on crafts, it is also chock-full of holiday inspiration. I've been looking for a unique homemade advent calendar idea and I think I have found the one in this issue made from a muffin tin! Soon as I get started I will surely post my process and outcome on this one!


White Bean and Turkey Chili... With Tater Tots

When Mike and I went on our epic cross-country road trip adventure in the fall of 2009, we had to make a stop at Sonic since there were, at the time, none of these unique drive-in fast food stops in our area. Now they're popping up everywhere, but at the time it was a real treat.

I'd had the good fortune of being a veteran Sonic customer, but Mike was completely new to the place. And Mike has a great talent for ordering - it seems that whenever we go out to eat, I'm always wishing I had ordered whatever ends up on his plate. And when it came to Sonic, things played out much the same as usual. Mike saw the chili cheese tater tots on the menu and his mind was made up and I was left wishing I had noticed them before.

So chili cheese tater tots - it sounds a little bizarre but it actually is quite sensical. Chili cheese fries are a common enough menu item, tater tots and fries are both made from a form of fried potatoes, and tater tots are, to my mind, more fun than french fries. We actually tried to re-create this meal when en route to the west coast at a small town mid-western dinner. When we ordered just a side of chili and a side of tater tots, we got a strange look from our waitress but I guess she'd just never been to Sonic.

Once we made it home and moved in together, chili cheese tater tots became a staple meal in our place. I love chili and I love to make chili. And it's easy to find huge bags of store-bought tater tots that will keep forever in the freezer. Thus, it's a fun and easy go-to meal for us.

I assume that you can figure out how to do the assembly - just prepare the tater tots however you wish (fried, baked, etc.) and add the warm chili over top, then sprinkle with cheese. But I will provide you with a winning chili-recipe that I use again and again. It comes from one of the best birthday presents I've ever received. My friend Sheela gave me The Bon Appetit Cookbook (which also featured a free 1-year subscription to the magazine!) and I use it all the time. Any ingredient, any type of dish, I just open up to the index and can find something delicious to make that is a sure-fire crowd pleaser. And this chili is no different.

I think what makes this chili so delicious is the 1/4 cup of chili powder. Don't worry - it is not a spicy chili at all! Rather, the abundance of chili powder provides greater depth of flavor and more warmth than spice. This chili is a perfect way to warm up on a cold day or to add a little something to your tater tots! And the recipe is really flexible. It calls for beef broth, but I usually opt for vegetable stock instead. Any type of ground meat will do and I usually lighten up on the beans, using 2 cans instead of 3. Just stick as closely as you can to the major seasonings and flavors and you'll come out with a stellar chili!

White Bean and Turkey Chili Cheese Tater Tots
chili recipe from The Bon Appetit Cookbook

  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 lbs leans ground turkey
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 28-oz can whole tomatoes in juice
  • 3 cups beef broth
  • 1 8-oz can tomato sauce
  • 3 15-oz cans small white beans, rinsed and drained
  • Tater tots (optional)
  • 1/4 cup cheese per serving (optional)

1. Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onions and saute until light brown and tender, about 10 minutes.
2. Add oregano and cumin, stir about 1 minute.
3. Increase heat to medium-high and add ground turkey. Cook until no longer pink, being sure to break up with spoon.
4. Stir in chili powder, bay leaves, cocoa powder, salt, and cinnamon.
5. Add tomatoes with juice, breaking up with spoon.
6. Mix in broth and tomato sauce and bring to a boil.
7. Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes, occasionally stirring.
8. Prepare tater tots according to package directions so that they will be ready a few minutes after the end of the 45 minutes of simmering time.
9. Add beans and simmer an additional 10 minutes. Remove bay leaves.
10. Place tater tots in bottom of bowl and ladle chili overtop. Sprinkle with cheese and enjoy!
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