Birthday flowers

birthday flowers

Yesterday was my birthday. My husband, who has been sick for several months, could not buy me a gift, but when I got home after nearly an 11-hour day at work, I discovered this little vase of flowers. What a way to refresh my tired spirit.

He found some tissue paper and drinking straws, and what more appropriate “vase” than a pill bottle? It sums up our lives for the past eight months.

He kept telling me he wanted to do more, wished he could have bought me a gift, but I told him this was the best gift I had been given in a really long time.

So I had to share this incredible gesture with you, my friends.

I love you, Bruce.

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Apples, cranberries and orange – oh, my!

Apple Walnut Torta

The chocoholic in me never ceases to be amazed that my palate can go so wild over other, less rich (or rich in other ways) flavors.

This morning it was Giada De Laurentiis’ Apple and Walnut Torta that made my mouth water. I saw her make it on the “Thanksgiving for Two” episode of Everyday Italian, and I promptly got up and started making the cake.

Every ingredient except the orange-flavored liqueur is a staple in my kitchen; I simply substituted a teaspoon of orange extract and some water. But I was out of dried cranberries, so I did have to go to the store. There, I found orange-flavored Craisins – yum! (Side note: For a snack, these are better than plain dried cranberries. The orange gives them an outstanding flavor, and a 1/3-cup serving contains 3 grams of fiber and no fat.)

As with the spice cookies I made two weeks ago, I could have eaten every last crumb of this cake, especially when it was still warm. In fact, because I wanted to share the cake with two sets of friends (a future client and a couple who did something nice for us), I started whipping up a second cake as soon as I tasted the first one. It’s made in an 8-inch pan, so it doesn’t go as far as a 9×13-inch cake. However, I will still have a few extra slices. Millie, if you see this post before Sunday morning, look me up between services and I’ll feed you!

In the next post, I’ll report on the Health-by-Chocolate Cookies I made from The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals. So far I’m the only one who has tasted them. My husband, who is ill, didn’t feel like trying one this afternoon, but I’m sure he will soon.

Apple and Walnut Torta (with a few modifications by Suzy)
Giada De Laurentiis, Everyday Italian

¼ cup orange-flavored liqueur OR 1/4 cup water plus 1 teaspoon orange extract
¼ cup dried cranberries (recommended: Ocean Spray Craisins, orange flavor)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Zest of ½ an orange
1 cup all-purpose flour OR 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
4 eggs
8 tablespoons butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups diced, peeled apples (about 2 apples)
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted
Ice cream, for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In small saucepan, heat orange liquid. Turn off heat and add cranberries, making sure all are submerged in liquid. Set aside.

In a small bowl, mix cinnamon and orange zest. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In large bowl, mix eggs, butter, sugar and vanilla. Add dry ingredients and stir to combine. Add apples, walnuts and drained cranberries. Spoon mixture into lightly buttered 8x8x2-inch glass baking dish or cake pan. Bake about 30 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean.

To serve, while still warm cut into squares or wedges and serve with ice cream.

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Crust-ophobic no more

apple pie

Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook has eliminated my fear of pie crusts.

Before Martha, I was crust-ophobic after only a couple of attempts at making pie crusts, partly because of inferior recipes and partly because I refused to use a food processor (I didn’t want to clean it!). I could have saved myself a lot of frustration if I hadn’t been so lazy.

With the holidays coming up, I had decided to get over my fear of crust. After all, how silly is it to be afraid of pie crust? Pretty dumb, of course. But how important is the “perfect crust”? Ask the 10 or so women who showed up for a recent “technique class” on pie crusts at Williams-Sonoma in Little Rock. Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a big deal.

With Martha’s pate brisee (the French version of classic pie or tart pastry), making a pie is a piece of cake! Using the food processor and following the recipe exactly made for a delicious crust with a nice, light texture. (In September, I made a blueberry pie for my husband’s birthday. Today it was apple [still working on my crimping skills — see photo]. Next time it will be coconut cream or banana cream. All from Martha’s handbook.)

The baking handbook has solved many of my recipe dilemmas, not just crust-ophobia. Say what you want about Martha Stewart, but when she puts her name on a recipe, you can rest assured that it will be foolproof.

Last week, my former co-worker paid me to make a cheesecake. Thinking of fall flavors, I told her I had recipes for pumpkin cheesecake, cheesecake with cranberry topping, and chocolate marble cheesecake (a flavor for every season!), but she said her husband wanted “plain cheesecake.” Again, Martha to the rescue. This time I turned to her Web site. My friend declared the cheesecake “awesome.”

Also last week, I made Martha’s ricotta cheesecake (from the book), and it was a big hit at Girls’ Night Out at church. My husband loved it, too.

The good thing about the baking handbook is that it contains more than just recipes and beautiful photographs. It explains techniques, equipment and terminology. (Perhaps it’s something only a devoted baker would appreciate.)

On her TV show recently, Martha talked to a caller who was “baking her way through” the baking handbook, determined to make every one of its 200-plus recipes.

What a great idea!

Stay tuned …

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Debt-free Christmas

As a volunteer budget coach, I encounter many people who have lived beyond their means and fallen into desperate straits. One of my goals in life is to teach people how to avoid the debt trap – or to climb out if they’ve already fallen into it. I don’t want to get too preachy, but this subject will come up over and over in my blog.

Now that Halloween is over, shoppers will begin hitting the stores with visions of Christmas bargains dancing in their heads.

Many of us will spend more money than we have, figuring that we must use plastic to finance our family’s happy holiday. We’ll worry about the bills in January, when we’re not so busy trying to make things sparkly and special, we tell ourselves.

Then January (or perhaps even December) rolls around, and we open the first bill. We had no idea we spent that much! And for what? A toy that gets shoved under the bed after two weeks (or less), a sweater that the recipient hates, decorations that will spend most of the year in the closet …

The Christmas season: The retailers love it. The credit card companies love it. And we love it … until the spending hangover.

No one enjoys the aftermath of a spending binge.

The problem, in my view, is twofold: too-high expectations and too little planning.

Great Expectations

Most of us have unrealistic expectations. We want our holiday celebrations to be perfect … or at least as close to those in our memories as possible. But those memories don’t have to include extravagant spending.

The best gifts I have received were homemade. I will never forget the tiny red wooden firetruck my brother made for me in the 1970s, when the TV show Emergency! was popular. Granted, my brother and I fought like cats and dogs most of the time, but that Christmas he gave me a priceless gift – the gift of his time, his effort and his heart – the only gift he could give on a kid’s salary of $0 (we had chores but not allowances). I don’t have the firetruck anymore, but I still cherish the memory of my brother’s gift.

Three or four Christmases ago, I (and my little sewing machine) made most of the gifts I gave my family (my in-laws received store-bought gifts); my friends and co-workers got homemade candy or cookies. Money was tight that year, and I chose not to worry that I wasn’t giving fancy or expensive gifts and to rely on my family to understand and love me anyway.

Lack of Planning

Giving homemade gifts required me to plan ahead (although I was still sewing at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve). But avoiding overspending requires planning, too.

You may think it’s too late this year to shop within your means for Christmas. After all, if you haven’t been funding the holiday budget all year, there is little you can do now that it’s November.

If you haven’t budgeted for it (decided on the amount you won’t exceed and saving for it all year), the alternative is to adjust your expectations – and those of your family.

Yes, this is difficult. But it’s so worth it. The payoff is in less stress. Stress over having to make sure everything on everyone’s list is bought (and presented beautifully), having to have the perfectly decorated house, and thinking you have to buy each and every acquaintance and co-worker a gift.

And stress over having credit card bills that have no end. That, in itself, is incentive enough for me.

Stay tuned for ways to give that don’t require money (feel free to submit your own tips). Meanwhile, visit my favorite Web site about the art of living below your means: Debt-Proof Living (formerly Cheapskate Monthly).

Check out Mary Hunt’s book Debt-Proof the Holidays: How to Have an All-Cash Christmas.

Debt-Proof the Holidays book

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