Ad Hoc Cake Mix Bash

I find I enjoy cooking and baking the most when it’s on the fly. I’d rather open the pantry, see what I have to work with, and try to make do than follow a recipe. It’s exploratory cooking, and I find it extremely satisfying.

That’s exactly what happened yesterday. I had a name brand, boxed yellow cake mix in the pantry. When I bought it for $1 I assumed I would just make some homemade chocolate frosting to smear on it, but I wasn’t feeling “that sort” of cake at the moment, and I also remembered we had these (please excuse the lousy photography. Our kitchen has no natural light, and I was doing this on a whim):

Mr. Awesome’s uncle has a small farm and orchard. After a trip visiting family, Mr. Awesome brought back a jar of apple sauce and juice from his very generous uncle. To be honest, I had no idea what I would do with them when Mr. Awesome presented them to me, but looking at the box of cake mix yesterday, it all came together.

So I grabbed the cake mix, the two jars you saw above, and some raisins and dried cranberries (one cup of each). You can substitute oil in baking recipes with an equal amount of apple sauce, so that’s what I did. Instead of the water the box called for, I used an equal amount of the apple juice. I also threw in four eggs instead of the three the box called for.

I mixed it as the box said to, two minutes.

I stirred in the dried fruit and divided the batter between two 8 in round pans. I would have preferred a bunt pan, but we don’t have one that’s bird friendly.

Into the oven they went and I baked them as the box directed.

Since it will just be Mr. Awesome and I eating on this thing, I decided to freeze one of the cake layers for later. It tasted great, praise God, and Mr. Awesome was pleased. It may not look like much, but you could spiff it up with some powdered sugar, a simple glaze made with powdered sugar and lemon juice, or maybe even go for the “naked cake” look and throw something between the layers. And, big bonus, you can add whatever you want to to this: nuts, coconut, dates, chocolate chips, etc.

Happy cake mix bashing!

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Dreaming of A Potted Paradise: A Garden of Containers

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A few months ago I had an epiphany.

Since the craziness of getting married and our first holidays as a married couple had passed, I finally realized something: I’m the woman of this house and I can, so long as Mr. Awesome doesn’t hate it, make improvements to/decorate our condo.

Bam.

Now, this may not seem like much of a revelation to some, but it hit me upside the head, blindsiding me and chasing me over to Pinterest where I glutted myself with several hundred interesting (and hopefully frugal) ideas of changes I could bring about in our love nest. Weeks later, something else occurred to me, or rather re-occurred to me, as I’d thought about it last summer: We have a large deck, a good sized porch, and a balcony off the master bedroom. Flowers. We need flowers. Lots and lots of flowers.

After waiting for the weather to warm up and putting the idea on the back burner for a couple of weeks, my mother and grandmother came for a visit, bringing with them some plant stands the folks were no longer using. We made a trip to the local home improvement store, and I did not return empty handed.

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I must confess that I cheated. I didn’t buy pots, soil, and cleverly design these aesthetically pleasing mixed containers myself.

They came that way.

They were on sale.

I hope to plant some large containers myself in the future, as my vision for our deck contains even more flowers than these beauties (think opening credits of My Fair Lady). Our porch is still bare and unwelcoming, and I’m fantasizing about our balcony looking like one of those European balconies you see in travel photos. But what we have is an excellent start, and I am thankful to get to look out our windows and see these colorful ambassadors of the beauty of God’s creation.

And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.

And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:11-12 (KJV)

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Anniversary Trip Find: Vintage Noritake China

Purchasing fine china was never high on my to do list when Mr. Awesome and I got married. Acquiring a nice, sturdy set of Corelle dishes I was unlikely to break and wouldn’t take up much room in our kitchen cabinets was much more prominent on the list, and something my mother very kindly checked off last Christmas. That said, I found myself somewhat befuddled as Mr. Awesome and I speed walked back to our car from one of the many lovely antique shops in Marshall, Michigan to pick up a blue plastic tub of vintage china.

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Noritake “Althea” pattern c. 1933

It became apparent over our anniversary trip that I can actually take Mr. Awesome into antique shops. We weren’t in the above mentioned shop long before he found some small figurines that might work well for some of his games. While he looked through the little bags of soldiers and wizards, I browsed the rest of the store, not finding much that caught my eye. We both went to the lower level of the store and looked around, but nothing there either.

As we came back up the stairs I happened to glance into a large plastic tub with some plates in it.

“That’s pretty…”

The shop’s owner came over, and before I knew it I was agreeing to buy a fair amount of “vintage” plates made by a Japanese company. I knew nothing about the company and nothing about china, just what the tag in the tub said:

ViNTAge

NoRiTAKe ChiNA

“1933” ALTheA

$100.00 SET

We didn’t pay $100 for the set, which turned out to include twelve dinner plates, eleven dessert/salad plates, twelve saucers, seven cups, a serving bowl, a “casserole dish” (as the shop keeper called it), and a large serving platter.

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After getting back to our room at the bed & breakfast, I looked up Noritake China on my phone, and was pleasantly surprised at what I discovered. Far from having just bought cheap, low grade china from some unknown company, Noritake is still very much in business and, from what I could tell, well respected for their products with their vintage pieces sought after by collectors. I was also very happy to discover that the 1933 date seemed to be correct.

After Mr. Awesome and I got home, I washed the china as gently as I could and stacked it in a kitchen cabinet, which seemed sad and a bit of a waste. What a pity to hide something so pretty. Still, we hardly have room for the traditional china cupboard. Nothing to do but wait, I suppose.

Next day I started rooting around the internet for plate display ideas and came across some very appealing wall arrangements. Inspired, I went and grabbed the three scrolly iron plate holders Mr. Awesome and I used at our wedding reception. I took down the framed wall art and two candle sconces that were hanging in our dining room and hung the three plate holders in the nail holes that were left behind. I put two dinner plates on either side and the serving platter in the middle. It looked good, but needed more.

After a trip to Hobby Lobby, some praying (Please, Lord, help me make this look good), measuring, and a few screws, I stood back and saw this:

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I ended up purchasing two more of the scrolly iron holders, and some of the cheap wire hangers to hang the smaller plates. The cup holders were actually candle sconces I’ve had for years that were laying around in the garage.

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All in all, I’m super pleased with how it turned out, and I’m so glad that I can gawk at my anniversary souvenirs as much as I like without having to pull them out of a kitchen cabinet.

Then There Were Four: New Budgies

Mr. Awesome: “Do you think you’ll want another bird?”

Me: “Eventually.”

Thus began our conversation that afternoon after losing Giacomo. I have to admit, my “eventually” could have simply been a solid yes, and I could see in Mr. Awesome’s face that he felt the same way. Over the past six months we adapted our lives to accommodating a bird, and neither of us were ready to give that up.

Mr. Awesome: “Have you thought about two birds?”

Yes, I had thought about two birds. I’d been thinking about two birds since before we got Giacomo. I liked the idea of having even more activity in the house, and even though I am a stay at home wife, there were some days when I felt I just couldn’t give Giacomo the interaction he demanded (whether rightly or not). And of course, there were times when neither of us were at home. Two birds could be good.

Or it could be bad.

Two birds meant more noise, more poop, and more little feathers floating around our hard wood floors. Two birds probably wouldn’t learn to talk. Two birds might bond strictly with each other and not give a hoot about us. Having relayed what I thought were the benefits and downsides to both options (and remaining fretfully indecisive), Mr. Awesome pointed out that if we didn’t try two birds, we would never know what it was like and always wonder.

We were getting two birds. The end.

But what species? Should we go bigger? Or should we just stick with what worked the last time? In a week we would be going on vacation for five days, and it would probably be a bad idea to bring birds home before we got back. So we had time to look. No need to rush.

That Saturday we made a two hour drive to attend a bird fair and stopped by a bird specific store. After looking around, talking to some people, and both of us getting chomped on by a couple of green cheeked conures, I announced on our drive home that I thought we should just stick with budgies.

But this time, I really wanted to try English budgies.

I had two American/Australian/wild type budgies as a kid (at different times). I remember the owner of the pet shop my mother used to work at gave me a book about budgies. Looking through it, I was surprised to learn that there were two different types of budgerigars. At one of the bird club meetings, I won a box of old American Budgerigar Society newsletters in a raffle and poured through them.  When we were looking for Giacomo, I wanted an English budgie, but didn’t find what I considered a decent prospect. And, I believe we were meant to have Giacomo when we did.

After a whole lot of praying, Googling, emailing, a few phone calls, and a Saturday spent driving two and a half hours each way, Mr. Awesome and I are happy to announce that our nest is no longer empty and have welcomed Robin (the green bird) and Tuck (the grey/blue pied) into our home.

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For Those Who Are Still Waiting On Valentine’s Day

When Valentine’s feels like “Congratulations You’re Still Single” Day,

I waited patiently for the LORD to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry.

~ Psalm 40:1 (NLT)

and that pit of loneliness inside of you begins to rumble

He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire.

~ Psalm 40:2a (NLT)

you wonder if you will ever be happy,

He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the LORD.

~ Psalm 40:3 (NLT)

and if God really cares about how miserable you are.

You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.

~ Psalm 56:8 (NLT)

You feel like giving up

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again- my Savior and my God!

~ Psalm 42:5 (NLT)

and you’re tired of waiting.

For since the world began, no ear has heard, and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!

~Isaiah 64:4 (NLT)

You question whether or not God cares about this part of your life

The LORD directs the steps of the godly. He delights in every detail of their lives.

~ Psalm 37:23 (NLT)

and wonder if He will answer your prayers.

You faithfully answer our prayers with awesome deeds, O God our savior.

~ Psalm 65:5 (NLT)

You are not alone while you wait,

Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.”

~ Deuteronomy 31:8 (NLT)
He will take care of you,
Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.
~ Psalm 23:4 (NLT)
and even if you think your situation is impossible,
But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

~ Matthew 19:26 (KJV)
don’t give up, don’t give in.

Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you your heart’s desires.

~ Psalm 37:4 (NLT)

Don’t sell out, don’t settle. Wait on God’s timing.

Promise me, O women of Jerusalem, by the gazelles and wild deer, not to awaken love until the time is right.

~ Song of Solomon 3:5 (NLT)

One way or another, you will be so glad you did.

Coat Closet Turned Pantry

It’s wonderful how big of a difference a small change can make in your life.

No, I’m not talking about getting your hair cut (even though I did yesterday) or taking up Pilates (though I’m sure that’s good for you too). I’m talking about storage. Beautiful, amazing storage. The kind that helps you breathe a bit easier because you don’t feel the weight of a multitude of rampant housewares on your shoulders.

The idea wormed itself into my brain after reading another blog. After all, there’s only the two of us. Why do we need a nice big coat closet when we can just install a few hooks in the laundry room and set the boot tray in there? But that would require cleaning out cabinets in the laundry room in order to store hats and gloves in there as well.

That’s how I spent my Friday afternoon, pulling out boxes from the great mount o’cardboard in our garage and stuffing them with the eclectic mix that found its way into the laundry room because we could find no other place to put it. I emptied out all but one cabinet. It can wait until later.

That finished, I could start moving things out of the coat closet.

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It was cleaned out easily enough. The next step was to fill that nice sturdy top shelf with all of my cook books. This was significant because it not only cleaned out one of the laundry room cabinets, but one of my kitchen cabinets as well. I now have all of my cookbooks in one convenient place.

Mr. Awesome got home early Friday evening so I was able to run out (we are a one car couple) and pick up this handy kit. Saturday my folks were in town for a visit. Mr. Awesome and my father installed the shelves that afternoon (after I removed the big metal bar) and my mother helped me empty out some more things from the laundry room to put on the floor of the pantry.

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That evening Mr. Awesome got some much needed game time in on the computer while I very happily  ecstatically transferred our dry food stuffs from the kitchen, clearing out a large upper cabinet and corner lazy Susan. But it didn’t stop there.

With the new space in the kitchen I was able to rearrange most of my cabinets, making them not nearly as cramped and more accessible. My place mats and cloth napkins are laying flat in a pull out drawer, no longer bunched in a heap in a shallow upper cabinet. The nice new glasses my mother-in-law got us for Christmas are in a more convenient spot, along with the reusable bottles Mr. Awesome takes to work in the mornings.

I could continue to bore you with a long list of everything I moved and how wonderful it is to have them in their new places, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, I am a very happy woman, and very thankful for this unexpected blessing. Having the kitchen and pantry organized has simplified life immensely for me. Thank you, Lord, for a few wire shelves.

Ad Hoc Chili

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My father-in-law makes a crazy good sweet chili.

The man is pretty much a wizard with beans in general. I think I will forever associate visiting his house with the smell of baked beans, brown sugar, and sausage. Good stuff.

Mr. Awesome (my husband) loves his dad’s chili. Not only is it supremely tasty, but he grew up with it. Probably tastes like home.

My father-in-law hosts an annual chili cook off at his house with each of his kids and their spouses bringing their own version of chili and everyone voting to see who’s is the best. From what I understand, father-in-law’s epic concoction usually wins.

If the weather feels like cooperating the big event will be tomorrow and as a full fledged member of the family now (not to mention the wife of a very competitive husband) I needed to come up with my own chili that could potentially rival the perennial champion’s. Having never really made chili before, I drew upon three sources: my mother, the internet, and (most frighteningly of all) my own imagination.

My original goal was to make a sweet chili with a little kick. However, after grossly underestimating the effects of a teaspoon of ground red pepper, I ended up with a sweet chili with a kickback. Mr. Awesome and I do not, as a general rule, like our food spicy. Still, I don’t mind a little spice from time to time, so I have a feeling I may end up eating more of this chili than he does.

For the spice mix, I decided not to go with the traditional store-bought packet that graced the chilis of my childhood. Thanks to Pinterest, I discovered that you could in fact DIY it. The link I found was helpful, though the language in it is …intense in an adult sort of way. You can see the recipe for “2AM Chili”  here, but it is R rated. Not something I would normally link to in a post, but I’d feel bad if I didn’t source it. That said, I adapted it for my own purposes and made some changes:

Spice Mix

4 tsp chili powder

4 tsp cumin

1 tsp ground red pepper

1 tsp basil

2 tsp white granulated sugar

1 Tbs onion powder

1 Tbs garlic powder

2 Tbs unsweetened coco powder

2 Tbs all purpose flour

I combined all of the above spices in a small container with a lid and mixed it up. Then, in a big pot, I mixed the following:

1 lb browned ground beef, drained and rinsed to remove grease

2  x 30 1/2 oz. cans of mild chili beans in sauce (do not drain)

2 x 15 oz. cans of tomato sauce

1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar

1/4 – 1/2 cup maple syrup

I added the spice mix and stirred it up. It took a couple of taste tests before I came to the right amount of brown sugar and cumin, but you get the idea. The pot is on the stove and will be cooking on low for the day. I’m sure a Crock Pot would work just as well, but ours is not big enough for this batch of chili.

So, will my first attempt at the great art of chili making beat out the father-in-laws? Going to have to wait and see. After testing it, Mr. Awesome thinks we might have a chance with the bit of extra spiciness. Still, I hold no delusions of besting a chili that has been well loved for decades. Perhaps I can hope for a close second.

****Update****

As I suspected, we were not able to make the chili cook off this weekend due to nasty weather. However, my husband and I have been eating on the chili all weekend and to our mouths it tastes pretty amazing. I have a feeling I will be sticking with this recipe for a while, though the next time I make it for just myself and hubby, I plan on cutting the red pepper by at least half.

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