Thursday, June 30

Quick cleaning tips

I'll be honest here. I wish my house were cleaner. I love a clean house, but with three boys and two dogs, things just seem to get dirty awfully fast. Oh, well. I'd rather have a dirty house full of boys and dogs than an clean empty house. Still, I love to find cleaning tips that make my job as homemaker a little easier, don't you?

For little mopping jobs, did you know you can simply dampen a rag an tuck it firmly into a Swiffer-type mop? Those little grippers are made to hold disposable electrostatic dust cloths, of course, but any rag will be held firmly in place by the grippers. Simply center the rag under the mop head

and push the sides firmly into the grippers.

Now you can easily clean up little messes on your floor, and you can simply throw the rag into the wash when you're finished.

You probably already know that microfiber cloths are great for cleaning granite countertops. They leave far fewer streaks than regular dish cloths. Every now and then, though, you might want to make your granite countertops extra-shiny. Did you know that you can use aerosol furniture polish to accomplish this? Just look at the counter on my kitchen island:

I achieved that shine almost effortlessly by spraying on furniture polish and wiping it off with a clean cloth. Worked like a charm!

Do you have any household cleaning tricks? Please leave a comment and share your good ideas with me!

*I'm linking to Beckie's "Great Ideas" party!


**Disclosure: I have no affiliation with Swiffer or any other household cleaning products. I am simply passing on a couple of techniques that have served me well in cleaning my own house.**

Wednesday, June 29

Easy holiday craft

Inspired by the "LOVE" posters from the 1960's and 1970's, I set out to create a LOVE piece of art for myself.

I started by buying wooden letters "L," "V," and "E" for $1.69 each and spray-painting them black. I then glued those to a magnetic sheet I had tucked into a black frame I had in my stash.

You may recall that the old LOVE posters included a lopsided "O." I was seeking to create a holiday decoration, so I thought to substitute a holiday-themed element in place of the "O." I found these wooden cut-outs at A.C. Moore. You can see that I started making this decoration for Easter. I had painted the wooden egg a pretty blue and was all set to add more decorations when I put this project aside for the spring. Still, these cut-outs give you an idea of all the holiday themes you could use:

I missed the spring holidays, but I'm just in time for Independence Day:

I glued the "L," "V," and "E" to the magnetic sheet. I added a strong magnet to the back of the star so that I could include it for July 4. It'll be simple to substitute other elements for other holidays. And I like the black-and-white look for now, but I'm thinking it might also be cute to change the background from time to time. Perhaps I'll tuck a piece of burlap on top of the white magnetic sheet and re-glue the letters to that.

I like the way this simple project looks with my July 4 vignette:

My LOVE sign plus tins from Target's One Spot

Chalkboard plate, fun candles, and some sparkly sticks from Target's One Spot in a vase

My mother's dough cabinet is one of my favorite spots to decorate for different holidays. It's great fun to come up with simple holiday vignettes for this space.

And there you have it! A super-easy craft for July 4 and beyond!

**I'm joining these fun parties:

Saturday, June 25

World's best cookies and cream dessert

Okay, that's quite a claim, isn't it? But dozens of people have told me that my sort-of-homemade cookies and cream ice cream is the best they've ever eaten. Along with being the world's best, it's one of the world's easiest desserts to make. Here's the recipe so that you can make it for yourself!

Cookies and Cream Ice Cream
  • half gallon of low-fat vanilla ice cream (or whatever size these are now--1.75 quarts?)
  • 8 oz. container Cool Whip
  • 1 package chocolate sandwich cookies
Crush cookies. Soften ice cream slightly. Thaw Cool Whip. Mix all three ingredients together thoroughly. Spread in pan and freeze. Cut into squares to serve.

My sons and their friends love this dessert. And I love it when there are lots of boys here to eat it; otherwise I eat too much of it!


Tuesday, June 21

Dinner for Real: Barbecue Chicken Pizza

Last week I made a dinner for my family that was so simple, it seemed almost too good to be true. But it was true, and it was delicious. Here's how I made super-simple Barbecue Chicken Pizzas.

Early in the day, place boneless skinless chicken breasts (or whatever chicken you like) in the crock-pot. Stir together a sauce made of half barbecue sauce and half vinegar (I use apple cider vinegar; use whatever you like). Cook for several hours, until chicken is very tender.

Remove chicken from crock pot. Pull meat apart using two forks. Stop at this point and taste your chicken--you'll be amazed at how tender, juicy, and flavorful it is. The yummy barbecue flavor will be completely infused throughout the meat.

Just before dinnertime, preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Place whatever you'd like to use for pizza crust on a lightly greased baking sheet. I used naan (Indian flatbread). You could use flour tortillas, crusty bread, or whatever you like. The naan worked very well, and we made one pizza for each family member. Next time I might make an extra pizza or two, just because everyone liked them so much!

Spread barbecue sauce evenly over your flatbread.

Top the barbecue sauce with as much of the barbecue chicken as you like. Sprinkle cheese atop the meat (I used half smoked gouda and half mozzarella). Then add any other toppings you'd like, such as red onion or scallions. Most of my family members just wanted meat and cheese

Bake for a few minutes, just long enough to melt the cheeses.

If you like, sprinkle with chopped fresh cilantro.

Here's how it looks just before you gobble it up:


Monday, June 20

The cake that will make you famous

Okay, to say this cake will make you famous might be a slight exaggeration, but you will be hailed as a marvelous baker. And you're the only one who needs to know how very simple it is to make this scrumptious four-layer coconut cake.

Here are the ingredients you'll need:

You'll also need eggs, oil, and water. Mix up the white cake according to package directions. You can use any cake mix that makes you happy (or, if you're like me, you'll use the one that was on sale).  If you don't care for cake mixes, simply mix up a white cake from your favorite recipe.

Prepare two round cake pans; divide batter evenly between the pans. HINT: If you have a food scale, use it to make sure your batter is divided evenly. Otherwise, just eyeball it.

Bake layers according to package directions. Allow the two cake rounds to cool thoroughly.

Meanwhile, make your filling/frosting by combining

1 lb. powdered sugar, sifted
8 oz. sour cream
2 6 oz. packages frozen coconut (find it in the frozen fruit section of your grocery store), thawed

Mix thoroughly.

When cake layers are completely cooled, cut them in half horizontally. You'll be creating four layers. I use a long serrated knife for this process. Don't worry if the layers aren't perfect.

Place one layer, cut side up, on a cake plate. It's best to use a plate with a lip, since your filling/frosting will be fairly runny.

Spread 1/4 of your filling/icing on the first layer. HINT: Again, if you have a food scale, use it to make sure you're using 1/4 of your filling for each layer. You'll have 36 oz. of frosting, so use about 9 oz. per layer. If you don't have a food scale, just eyeball it. . . but if you do have a food scale, it's useful for making this cake just right!

Continue stacking each layer, cut side up, on top of one another, topping each layer with 1/4 of the filling.

When you've stacked the last layer and spread the last bit of filling on top, you may want to sprinkle a bit of flaked coconut (I like Baker's Angel Flake) on top just because it looks pretty.

Now here's the most important part. Cover the cake well (I cover it with plastic wrap first, then also with foil) and refrigerate it for at least TWO DAYS before serving. Three days would be fine, too. But it needs to sit for at least two days to give plenty of time for the yummy filling to sink down into every crevice of the layers--the layers that you placed CUT SIDE UP, remember? After two days the cake will be moist and cold and absolutely irresistible.

If you're lucky, your 18-year-old will ask you to bake one for his birthday. If you're really lucky, he might be a handsome redhead who is more than foot taller than his mom.

And if you're really, really lucky, your 18-year-old will have a bunch of friends who will now think of you as the mom who makes that wonderful coconut cake:

Here's a close-up of this ooey-gooey coconut goodness:

Try it! You'll like it!
**I'm joining Beth for her marvelous Tutorials and Tips party!**

Friday, June 17

I should have known. . .

This day in 1993 started off rather oddly. I should have known that something big was going to happen.

But I had just seen my obstetrician a couple of days earlier. He was headed out of town and assured me that the baby wouldn't be coming until at least a week later.

Still, I felt funny enough that I figured I should pop over to the hospital and get checked out. Now, we lived in tiny little Hillsdale, Michigan, and the hospital was just one block away from our house. My husband Jack and our 25-month-old, Will, were still fast asleep. I gently shook Jack awake and told him that I felt funny and was going to the hospital. "Is the baby coming?" he asked groggily. I told him I didn't know what was happening but that I'd either be right back home or would call him from the hospital.

The hospital admissions clerk could tell that I was expecting a baby any day--it was pretty obvious, you know? She let me go up to the third floor to talk to the nurses there. On the third floor, the nurses gave me a quick check and phoned the obstetrician on call. I was in labor, all right. I distinctly remember one of the nurses weighing me and asking, "Do you not have anyone to be with you?" "Oh, great," I thought to myself. "She thinks I'm an unwed mother."

Finally I called Jack. He took Will to a friend's house and came to the hospital properly equipped with my things. And a few hours later, Preston was born: a second red-headed boy.

I should have known that day would be special.

How could I have known, though, that this boy would wow the preschool teachers with his proper use of the term "reticulated python"?

How could I have known that this boy would have open-heart surgery at age 14 and, less than four weeks later, give the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V?

How could I have known that this boy would, at age 16, prepare the best Thanksgiving turkey I'd ever eaten?

How could I have known that, when his father was in the hospital on Mother's Day weekend, this boy would go to a ladies' clothing shop and buy me a dress?

Jack, Preston, and me at graduation--
I'm wearing the dress Preston bought me for Mother's Day

How could I have known that this boy would be chosen by his classmates to speak at their high school graduation?

How could I have known how much a boy could capture his mom's heart in 18 short years?

**I'm joining Amanda at Serenity Now for Weekend Bloggy Reading party**

Thursday, June 16

Dinner for Real: It's back!

Earlier this year I started a series called "Dinner for Real," wherein I published real-life, tried-and-true recipes that any family cook could prepare on an average Tuesday. I liked it, and many of you liked it, too.

Then I had a big dose of "Life for Real": my husband had to undergo major open-heart surgery, followed three weeks later by a dangerous episode of atrial flutter. So for awhile around here, we were having "Unreal Dinners"--dear friends were bringing us wonderful meals. What a ministry! We were so grateful. That time was followed by a round of celebrations and parties as our middle son graduated from high school.

Now Jack is back at work, the kids are out of school, and I'm back in the kitchen, trying to put together a workable dinner each night. So I'm in need of a Dinner for Real re-start, and I thought you might be, too!

One super-simple dinner I make sometimes is quesadillas. They're tasty and couldn't be easier.
  • flour tortillas
  • shredded cheese (Cheddar, mozzarella, Monterrey Jack, whatever)
  • cooked meat, such as shredded chicken (optional)
Heat a large griddle. Spray with non-stick cooking spray (or use the fat of your choice). Place flour tortillas on the griddle. Sprinkle each tortilla with cheese. Cover with a second tortilla. Cook until bottom is browned, then flip and cook other side. Remove from griddle. Cut into wedges with a pizza cutter.

These are quick, delicious, and almost universally liked. My picky 14-year-old likes his completely plain. The rest of us like to add embellishments to ours, such as sour cream, black beans, etc. And my favorite topping of all is my homemade salsa. You really should give this a try.

Fresh Salsa
  • approximately 2 lb. tomatoes, fresh or canned
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/2 small onion (I like Vidalias)
  • a few slices jalapeno pepper
  • juice of one lime
  • 8 oz. tomato sauce
  • 1/2 to 1 bunch fresh cilantro (I like a lot)
  • salt and pepper 
Using a food processor, chop garlic, onion, and jalapeno very fine, then scrape into a medium-sized bowl. Chop tomatoes as chunky as you like them. (I process the tomatoes a couple at a time, just using the "pulse" button, so that they're pretty chunky.) Add the chopped tomatoes to the bowl. Stir in lime juice and tomato sauce. Chop cilantro and stir into tomato mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste
 **Click here for a printable copy of this recipe.** 

This salsa is absolutely delicious. Because of the lime juice and the fresh cilantro, the salsa is incredibly fresh-tasting, even if you used canned tomatoes (which I usually do!). It's a great topping for quesadillas (or fajitas or enchiladas or just about any other Mexican food). It's also wonderful to serve as a dip for tortilla chips. And if you want killer guacamole, all you have to do is peel and mash an avocado (simply place an avocado in a pie plate and mash using a potato masher) and stir in a heaping spoonful of this salsa. Divine!

Do YOU have a great Dinner for Real recipe? I'm going to start running this series on Tuesdays again, beginning next week. If you have a recipe you'd like to share, please leave me a comment! I'd like to line up guest posters for this series. I want us all to learn from one another!

Monday, June 13

DIY Picnic Supply Kit

My husband and I love to picnic. Around here, our favorite place to picnic is Duke Gardens on the campus of Duke University. But we like to picnic wherever we are. When we travel, we always have at least one meal in the form of a picnic in the park. We simply visit a grocery or gourmet shop, buy some food, and walk to the nearest park.

I especially remember one gorgeous Saturday when we picnicked under some trees in New York's Central Park. We picked up some food at Dean and Deluca and enjoyed a beautiful day. Unbeknownst to me, a tick fell onto my arm. It wasn't much fun back at the hotel to discover that little souvenir. But aside from the natural hazards, picnicking makes for an inexpensive and fun date.

Our anniversary is coming up this month, and I wanted a gift for Jack that wouldn't cost much. I was glad I remembered this cool picnic blanket I'd picked up on clearance at the end of summer last year and stashed away in the gift closet:

Aside from the cool fact that it rolls into this nifty, easy-to-carry little package, I liked it because it's soft and thick and the back of it is waterproof:

So I decided to make a picnic supply kit to go along with the blanket.

Now, when I picnic, there are a few things I really want to have in the basket:
  • good bread
  • good cheese
  • good beverage
If I can nosh on good bread and cheese and wash it all down with something yummy to drink, I'm a happy girl. But more than once Jack and I have arrived at our picnic destination only to say, "Did we remember a knife?" or "This cap doesn't screw off; do we have a bottle opener?" Well, with our new picnic supply kit, that'll never happen again!

First I bought a zippered book case to serve as the holder. You've probably seen these at Bible bookstores:

Here's how it looks inside:

I distinctly remember giving a couple of these to Goodwill a few years ago. Oh, well. This brown one matched my blanket and only cost $10.

Then I gathered some essential supplies:

a small cutting board, a small sharp knife, a bottle opener/corkscrew, and two sets of silverware. Most of these things I had in my kitchen stash already. The brown-handled flatware I bought on super-clearance at a department store. If I hadn't found flatware on sale, I would have picked some up at Goodwill; they always have a large bin of utensils. Or I might have just taken a couple of place settings from my everyday flatware.

The cutting board and bottle opener fit neatly on one side of the Bible case; I simply slid them in. I taped together a cardstock sheath for the knife and slipped it into the pen holder.

On the other side, I laid out my flatware, then simply glued 1/2" elastic snugly around the utensil handles to hold the pieces in place.

Voila! A picnic supply kit, ready and waiting for a pretty day!

I think I'll fold a couple of fabric napkins and tuck them into the kit, too. Then we can just throw our bread and cheese and drinks into a basket or cooler and set off for the park. Who knows? Maybe I'll even tuck the kit into my luggage the next time Jack and I go on a trip.

What's your favorite picnic food? What would go in your picnic essentials kit?

Thursday, June 9

Practical packaging

I want to ask your opinion about something. I want to know if you are a practical, do-what-works-best kind of homemaker or if you are a look-good-first-and-foremost kind of homemaker.

Here's why I'm asking. I've noticed lately that pantry, linen closet, and bookshelf makeovers in the blogosphere almost always involve taking products out of their containers and putting them into pretty jars and baskets and bins. It's almost as if there were an unwritten rule that an attractive pantry or storage cupboard cannot include original packaging.

And there's something else. When I read some blog posts, I feel as if I don't quite measure up because I don't have vintage locker baskets or antique crates or apothecary jars for my closet shelves. As if there were storage police who might show up and issue me a citation for my practical-not-pretty ways.

But you know what? I know this may sound rebellious, but I want to make a statement.

I like to store things in the original packaging.

a photo from my real-life organized pantry

Yes, I know--shocking, isn't it? But I really like food to stay in its packaging, which is complete with the nutrition facts and expiration dates right on the label. I like paper goods to stay in the protective packages, just like at the store. I even--gasp!--like to keep DVD's in their original packages. Then I put them on shelves, just like books at a library.

Now, I will admit that some packaging is large and cumbersome and should be tossed. But for me, most of it is useful. I even like the way things look in their colorful packages.

Now, I want to know. . . is it just me? What about you?

Tuesday, June 7

How to make fresh flowers last

I love having fresh flowers in my house; don't you? Something about it makes me feel special.

But if I've gone to the trouble or expense of arranging flowers for my home, I like them to last awhile. And I've discovered a simple way to make that happen. Let me show you.

These are hydrangeas that I picked on Thursday, May 26 and arranged for my son's graduation party. I took this photo on Saturday, May 28, during the party:

And here's a picture of those very same hydrangeas taken yesterday, June 6:

Can you believe it? 12 days and still going strong! As you can see, some of the greenery is turning yellow, but the blooms are still beautiful.

Of course you know to pick flowers in the cool of the morning while they're perky, to cut their stems at an angle, to remove most of the leaves, and to place them in water immediately. But here's a tip for really making them last:

**Add a few drops of household bleach to the water.**

That's it! It doesn't take much--I plop in just about 3-4 drops per quart of water. The flowers pictured here are held in six vases of water, and one capful of Clorox bleach was plenty for all six vases.

Need some pointers on DIY flower arranging? Click here.

Do you have any flower power secrets to share? Please do!

Sunday, June 5

Easy table setting for a fun party

Preston's high school graduation took place at 10:00 A.M. last Saturday morning. He asked to have an open-house luncheon following graduation, and my mind started spinning. . . what could I serve to hungry guests after having been away from home all morning? Luckily, I thought to ask Preston what he'd like to have. His answer? "Barbecue. I want it to be casual and Southern." That's my boy!

For a simple and fun table setting, I raided my hydrangea bushes.

I layered a colorful antique tablecloth on top of a plain white tablecloth and made a simple centerpiece of hydrangeas.

Preston's school colors are blue and gold, so I bought graduation napkins in those colors. Chinet plates made for easy serving and clean-up. And to hold flatware, I used Coke bottle cartons.

We had about 20 guests for lunch, and everything was delicious, affordable, and stress-free. That makes it a successful party in my book!