We have a cheesecake WINNER!

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I was happy to see a total of 70 entries for my Chubby Girl Cheesecake giveaway! So, I put numbers 1-70 into random.org and I got...

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Our winner is our very last commenter, number 70!

I want a vanilla bean!!!

Posted by Liane | November 25, 2010 12:06 AM

Thanks for playing, everyone!

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Small Business Saturday: Get Your Etsy On

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In honor of the American Express Company's Small Business Saturday (which I didn't get asked to promote like some of my favorite bloggers did, but I'll give a shout out to anyway), I thought now might be a good time to introduce you to the Etsy shops I currently have my eye on. I'm not including gifts for babies or little kids in this post, because they're a whole separate Etsy animal, to my mind. These are just things I would like or I think would make great gifts for the adults on your list.

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Cash Budget Pouches, $35

I have no desire to to actually do cash based budgeting, but I love the fabric cash envelopes at Beauty that Moves. They can be customized with any labels you'd like, or left without labels, so I'm sure they could be used for something else as well. There's free shipping right now, and the fabric choices are awesome.

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Oregon (from Blooms and Birds of the 50 States), $15

Dutch Door Press makes the most amazingly cool letterpressed art, including my favorite set, the "Birds and Blooms of the 50 States." The Oregon (above), Virginia, and Texas prints are all on my Christmas list, and they're a very reasonable $15 each, or $40 for a set of three.

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Super Bike Party screen printed glasses, $31 for 4

Aren't these screen printed glasses from Vital Industries the cutest thing? I'm a total sucker for pint glasses in general, and I love the clean-yet-quirky look of these.

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Coffee lover flour sack tea towels, 2 for $20

I love tea towels. LOVE. They're one of those great gifts are both useful and fun.These illustrated ones from Girls Can Tell, showing all the parts of four different types of coffee makers, are so perfect. And for those who prefer a different hot drink? The tea version!

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Personalized cosmetic bag, $22.99

JuJu Baju bills itself as "best bridesmaids gifts ever," and it may well be, but I can tell you they make ADORABLE custom bags. My favorite are the cosmetic bags, which can be personalized with the recipient's name.

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Atomic Apron half apron, $25

Those who remember my Happy Housewife project know I love aprons. Right now, my favorite ones are made by Atomic Aprons. The $25 half aprons are just lovely--I love every single fabric they are offered in. I think there's someone on my list getting one!

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Original insect framed paper cuts, $80 each

Paper cuts are just so cool, and these ones of insects, in their old-school oval frames, are awesome. They're made by Tina Tarnoff, who also translates her work into great pendants and cards.

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Custom tea dresses in vintage fabric, $130

I love vintage dresses, especially the ethereal 50s kind. But they so rarely come in my size. The answer? Clearly custom made vintage-esque dresses, like these beautiful ones from Sohomode. I'm not the marrying kind, as you know, but I have to admit, the idea of a herd of bridesmaids in these (like so?). Makes me consider it for a minute.

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Magnetic sea salt kit, $35

Another thing I am always a chump for it things that come in sets or kits. Just seeing several of something together makes me want to buy it. That said, the herb, spice, and tea kits sold by Cook Outside the Box would make incredibly good gifts for a foodie. There is everything available from an "everything" spice kit with 24 spices (for $84) to small "make a meal" spice kits with recipes (from $14). The packaging is perfect, too, with the spices individually sealed in little glass topped magnetic containers. I just love these.

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Darwin Origin of Species Butterfly Art, $97.17

I probably wouldn't buy art for a present for someone I didn't know well, but were I going to, I'd definitely consider the pieces at Terrordome's Extractionarium. They are so lovely--cut paper pieces, mostly butterflies, made from maps and classic books. As a bonus, they're sold already framed, so you don't have to deal with that hassle.

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Unlucky - Gyotaku Fish Rubbing - Limited Edition Print, $55

Another Etsy artist with whom I am completed enamored is Fred Fisher. Fisher's prints are made using the traditional Japanese Gyotaku fish rubbing process, in which paint is applied to a fish and then cloth or handmade paper is pressed into the surface to create the print. Fisher's pieces are gorgeous, and at $45-$85, really reasonably priced for original art.

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10 Wrapped Samples Vegan Cold Processed Soap, $17

There are a ton of soap makers on Etsy, and I can't really recommend one over another. However, I love ">Prunella's packaging, and I think a set of ten little baby soaps in one's choice of scents for $17 is a great deal. Prunella has a ton of scents available, too--all EOs and natural scents, no perfumes. If you prefer full-sized bars, she's got any five bars for $24, or single 5-5.5 oz bars for $5.50 each.

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Unisex dino print underwear, $20

As a kid, I hated getting underwear as a gift, but c'mon, who wouldn't be stoked to receive a handmade, recycled fabric pair of unders from Sheso Designs? Both unisex and women's styles are available in a variety of mostly colorful retro type fabrics, most for $20/pair.

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The Color Study II Locket, $54

I love lockets, and these color study ones by Verabel are amazing. Verabel has tons of other vintage lockets as well, both with and without embellishments, from $24-$78.

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Manly Shave Gift Set with Clove Beer Soap, $30

I'm often told that men are much harder than women when it comes to buying gifts, and I think it's often true, maybe even more so when you're trying to keep your gifts handmade. A shaving set is a wonderful solution. There are a few for sale on Etsy, but I think my favorite is this one by Dirty Deeds Soaps. For $30, it includes a ceramic bug, a beer shaving soap, a badger hair shaving brush, and a set of instructions for an old fashioned shave. It's put together really nicely and I think it would make a wonderful present.

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Dorothy - silk, cotton and barkcloth yo-yo necklace, $21

Everybody is wearing a statement necklace these days, and I still haven't found one I love enough to commit to. If I do find one, though, I think it's probably going to be at cookoorikoo. Her amazing handsewn yoyo necklaces? On sale for $21 right now, in tons of great fabrics. Maybe I can justify an early Christmas gift for myself?

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Pacific Northwest Seed Bombs, $7

These I'm getting for stocking stuffers for sure--they're just too cute not to. Visualingual makes tons of different types of these little bags of "bombs," including herbs and regional wildflowers. They bombs are seeds mixed with red clay and worm casings, so that all you have to do it throw them on the ground and they'll germinate and grow all on their own. The packaging they're in is super cute as well--screenprinted linen sacks that could be easily reused.

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Lot of 25 vintage hankies, $22.99

Honestly, I don't know who I could get vintage hankies for as a gift, but I couldn't not tell you about Nathaniel's shop. Aren't vintage hankerchiefs amazing? And in lots, with themes, for great prices? If you've got a vintage lover on your list, it would be worth considering.

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Journal starting kit #24, $14.59

I think these journal starting kits by Rebecca Horwood would be amazing gifts for teens. For about $15, the kits include a plain basic Moleskine journal 20+ pieces of original ephemera, 4 pieces of craft paper, and instructions/hints on how to start making your own original art journal.

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Modern Animal Clock--Elephant, $68

Finally, I have to show you the amazing wooden animal clocks made by Decoy Lab. The elephant is my favorite, but there is also an owl, a squirrel, and a hedgehog. The clocks are made of maple veneer or bamboo and are so amazingly cute I could have one in every room.

That's probably a good start! Got any favorites of your own? Please share in the comments!

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Holiday shopping advice: don't forget discount stores!

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So I know I've already told you a tale of how much I love discount stores recently (In which I proclaim my love for Big Lots, and tell you why). But I'm going to do it again. In particular, I am nuts about Marshall's and TJ Maxx. Both are ubiquitous here (really--there are 12 TJ Maxx stores and 18 Marshall's stores within 20 miles of my house), so, second only to thrift stores, they are my go-to places to shop. I buy everything there--clothes, housewares, pet stuff, occasionally food, and bath and body products.

I recently had an online friend tell me she'd never been to a Marshall's or a TJ Maxx. This astounded me. I guess they aren't common in some places? Anyway, that got me to thinking about all the things I love to buy at these stores, so I decided I'd show you a few recent favorites.

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Both Marshall's and TJ Maxx have recently been stocking these great travel sets from EO. Containing a 1.5 oz container each of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, and lotion, they'd be great for just tossing into a plastic bag to take a short trip. I'm a big fan of the EO line in general, so I was happy to scoop a whole bunch of these up. I got one each in French Lavender, Grapefruit & Mint, Sweet Orange, Tea Tree and Lemon, and Cranberry Hibiscus, and am planning to either give a couple of them away as small Christmas presents or hoard the whole bunch for my future travel needs. The price? $4.99 at Marshall's/TJ Maxx, versus $6.99 on the EO website.

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Another EO product I've been excited about lately are the 5 oz bottles of shaving cream. I hadn't previously used EO shaving cream, but it's good stuff and the scents are great. I picked up a lavender one and a tea tree and lemon one for $3.99 each. On EO's site? $8.99. If I get a chance, I'll pick some more up soon and stockpile them--that's one thing about finding this stuff at TJ Maxx or Marshall's, they aren't going to have it forever, so you have to get it while the getting is good.

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Another brand of which I am a big fan, which TJ Maxx and Marshall's carry not infrequently, is The Body Shop. My latest score was several 7.1 oz containers of Pink Grapefruit Body Scrub--pink grapefruit is my favorite Body Shop scent, and I think they might be discontinuing it? Anyway, the scrubs were $4.99 each, and The Body Shop sells them for $20! I also picked up a couple of 8.4 oz bottles of pink grapefruit shower gel, on clearance for $3 each ($13 at The Body Shop), a Moroccan Rose body butter for $5.99 ($20 at The Body Shop), and a Wild Cherry body butter ($5.99, $20 at The Body Shop).

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Recently, I've noticed a few high-end cosmetics at TJ Maxx, which is, as far as I know, a new thing. The best thing I've found was the NARS Black Eye set--a bottle of eye makeup remover, a eye shadow duo in Pandora (black and white), a black mascara, and a black eyeliner pencil. The retail on this set, which isn't available anymore anywhere I can find, was $60. I picked mine up for either $24.99 or $29.99.

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I live in tights in the winter, and buying them is not easy at my size. One brand I can always count on to fit me properly is Hue (Size 4, baby! They actually really do fit a 6'0", 215 pound woman!). On their website, Hue charges $9.37/pair or two for $15 for their opaque tights. At Macy's, they are $8.99/pair on sale. At my discount stores, I regularly find two packs of the exact same tights for $9.99. And I buy them every time.

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The gourmet food section is definitely hit-or-miss at most discount stores, and do you have to keep an eye on expiration dates, but there are gems in this rough. Most recently, I found a bunch of these gourmet Spanish salts from SoSo Factory, for $8.99 each. I snatched up the smoked paprika salt and the five-pepper salt, and was Mark ever happy that day! These retail for $18 each and the packaging is almost as great as the product--I'd definitely consider them for foodie gifts.

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Another recent food section highlight has been offerings from Mustapha's Moroccan, a brand Mark sometimes orders online. I've seen capers, harissa, and various spices. The 10 oz jar of capers was $4.99 (as compared to $9.50 online), and the 1.6 oz ras el hanout was $7.99 ($15 online). The 1.6 oz nigella (grains of paradise) was $3.99 ($7.50 online).

I also have to recommend taking a look through the clothes. Sometimes, there's nothing. Recently, though, I've been impressed with the sweater selection. The clearance rack at my TJ Maxx had tons of really nice merino wool cardigans that had their tags cut out, but I am fairly certain were from either J. Crew or Talbot's. For the $15 each they were marked, they looked very high end, and were I not allergic to wool, I'd be adding several to my new job wardrobe.

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If someone on your list has been very good, another thing I've noticed in my stores recently is a lot of Le Creuset. Even at a discount, this stuff is expensive, but there is a substantial discount. For example, I saw the 5.5 quart round French oven, which is $235 at Amazon.com, for $145 at TJ Maxx. You won't be able to be picky about colors--they usually only have one or two, but still, it's worth considering if you have anybody on your list who lusts after fancy cookware and doesn't mind last year's model (and honestly, has it changed?).

Cookbooks are another thing I've noticed a lot of recently--usually for less than $10. My not-MIL has a thing for the Barefoot Contessa, and I've seen several of her books at Marshall's, as well as Giada and Martha Stewart.

If you decide to take my advice and check out your local discount stores, I highly recommend you buy first and think about it later. If you decide against something, you can return it (with a receipt!). If you leave it, though, chances are excellent that you'll come back for it and it won't be there anymore. You can't guarantee anything will stay on the shelves, or that there will be more when something runs out. Likewise, if you find something small you really love (like, say, the toiletries I posted about at the beginning of this post), buy a few and stockpile them. It's not unlikely their manufacturers have discontinued them, so this is going to be your last chance.

Happy shopping!

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Gearing up for the new gig

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I haven't talked about it much here, but I have been, at least mostly, unemployed for the last three months. The technical writing contract on which I was working ended August 31, and the subsequent contract I'd expected to come through did not. While I still had some freelance grant projects, my main work (and main income stream) was gone. So, I started a local job hunt.

The job hunt went remarkably well at first. I was interviewed and then informally offered a job at a small technical consulting firm in mid-September. Then, a few days later, that job disappeared. I was told that they had decided not to hire anybody after all. Discouraged, but not yet worried, I went back to the drawing board. More interviews. During the first week of October, I was one of two finalists for a non-profit grant writing position that seemed perfect. The other candidate was chosen. Then, only a few days later, I was offered a technical writing position on a big federal government contract with a very large international technical consulting firm. We negotiated and agreed on salary. I filled out tons of paperwork, got finger printed, and began the federal security clearance process. It all looked to be going great. Two weeks after receiving my offer letter, I received an email from the HR department, un-hiring me. The client, I was told, had decided I was not a good for for the position.

At that point, I was intensely discouraged, and starting to get a little bit scared. What if I couldn't find anything? My savings was running down, and I was getting really bored. I sent out more resumes. I considered prayer. Then I had a couple of phone interviews followed by the single most nerve wracking in person interview of my life (it's a long story, and one I don't think I should share here, given the outcome). And I (finally!) landed a job. I'm 99% sure it's going to stick.

For the sake of privacy and professionalism, I'm not going to say much here about the job itself. It's a professional writing job, doing a different type of writing than I've been doing for the past few years, for a small but growing company. It's an easy commute from my house, but I will be working in a professional office. I am extremely excited about it. I start the Monday after Thanksgiving. I'm currently freaking out about what I'm going to wear, since I've let my professional wardrobe slide quite a lot in the past year of working from home and the previous couple of years of casual work environments. We're going to need to buy a second car now, since Mark and I will both be commuting (and in opposite directions). Hopefully we're going to do that this weekend.

This is the longest period of time I've ever been unemployed. I know I got off easy--I had savings, some income stream, and a lot of decent prospects. Still, it was really horrible, and I ended up questioning myself on everything--my value as a professional, even as a human being. I don't think I've been properly sympathetic in the past to those who can't find work, and it's a mistake I won't make again.

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Chubby Girl Cheesecake review and giveaway!

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pumpkin and honey cheesecake picture.jpgRecently, my friend Susan took the plunge and opened her own small business, the fantastically named Chubby Girl Cheesecakes. As soon as her shop was up and running, I wanted to make an order--I love cheesecake!--but I waited until I had a similarly cheesecake loving guest come to stay a few weeks ago, since Mark doesn't like it.

It was worth the wait. I got 1/2 a Vanilla Bean cheesecake and 1/2 a Meadow Foam Honey cheesecake, with a bag of Susan's holiday Spiced Wine Cranberry sauce. And my friends, it was amazing. It was not only the by-far best cheesecake I've ever had, but one of the best desserts I've ever had. Susan ships the cakes frozen, so you'd think the texture would suffer, but it's still fantastic when it arrives and defrosts. The vanilla bean was the perfect vanilla, not too strong, but definite vanilla flavor, and a creamy texture that I can't even describe--nothing like those cheesecake that you think might just be a block of slightly sweetened cream cheese. The Meadow Foam honey had a wonderful, slightly herbal honey flavor and a more whipped texture. And the crust! Susan makes her own cookies and graham crackers for crusts, and the difference is obvious--it's remarkable. The sauce was the perfect red wine and cranberry compliment. Seriously, the whole thing was amazing. A transcendental cheesecake experience.

Susan's cakes aren't cheap--$39 plus shipping--but they are completely worth it. Each 10" round, 5-6 lb cake is an easy 16 servings, which makes the per serving cost totally reasonable. I'd HIGHLY suggest you consider a Chubby Girl Cheesecake next time you need a fancy dessert.

And guess what, lucky folks? One of you is going to get to order one ON ME! That's right, I'm giving away a Chubby Girl Cheesecake in honor of Susan's new business and in the spirit of Thanksgiving. Just head over to her site and take a look at the order form to see all the varieties Susan has available, then come back and leave me a comment as to what flavor(s) you'd like to try. If you want extra entries, blog about this contest or Tweet it and leave me a comment telling me you did that. Next Friday, I'll let random.org choose a winner, so be sure to leave me a way to get in touch with you!

Good luck!

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Feeding the freezer

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Lately, we've been depending a lot on convenience foods, takeout, and just plain not eating dinner. Mark's days are too long for him to reasonably be expected to cook dinner, and though I've been doing the best I can to take up the slack, I am not much of a quick cook. Since I'll be starting my new, not-from-home job the week after Thanksgiving (like how I slipped that in without ever actually telling you about it?), things are only going to get worse. I've been puzzling on how to deal with that and this past week, while Mark was safely away at a conference and I had the house to myself, I decided to do something about it.

I've long been enamored with the idea of "feeding the freezer." I've been reading frugality and homemaking blogs for years that advocate cooking in one day to feed a family for a week, or even a month. Ideally, this saves time and money. I never thought it would work for us, though, since there are very few things Mark cooks that are freezable. However, the few things that I have perfected DO lend themselves to freezing. So, I decided to give it a try.

I knew it wasn't reasonable, for me, to try to create a month's worth of meals. I also knew I didn't want to put the time in to cook anything I didn't already feel pretty confident in making, so no new recipes. With these things in mind, I decided to focus on four things I knew I could make, I knew Mark would eat (he's picky about cooking that isn't his own), and I knew would freeze well: lasagna; chicken, ham, and leek pie; chicken soup; and butternut squash soup.

After I decided what I was going to cook, I headed out with two purposes: grocery shopping and container shopping. I decided to forgo disposable foil containers and go with with heavier glass containers that can be frozen, heated up in the oven, washed in the dishwasher, and reused. The best place for something like that, I thought, would be Big Lots (I think I must have subconsciously remembered the exact containers I was looking for from my last visit there). I headed over to the store and purchased some Anchor Hocking containers much like these (mine have blue lids). I got six of the six cup size ($5 each) and three of the eleven cup size ($7 each).

Next, I headed to Costco, then Giant, and finally Trader Joe's. When I got home, my entire counter was covered in bags of groceries.

Which was when I came to the obvious realization. This was NOT all going to fit in the freezer at the top of our fridge.

ge freezer.jpgMark and I have been talking about buying a small freezer for years, but first we didn't want to do it until we moved here, and then we just didn't do it. Now, I thought, was the time. I looked on Craigslist first, to see if I could get a deal on a used model, but the only ones available were the very large sizes, and that was not what we wanted. So I started looking at ads online, and finally decided on the GE® 5.0 Cubic Foot Manual Defrost Chest Freezer, handily for sale at my local Home Depot. I went and bought the last one in stock, then got it home and wrangled it out of the car and down to the basement. It was a little touch and go on the stairs, but I had it plugged in quickly enough. The user manual advised me not to put anything in to freeze four five hours after plugging it in. That would be just the right amount of time, I thought, for me to cook my meals.

Yeah. Right.

First, I made a quick outline of how I should go about things. It looked like this:

1. Put chicken in to roast.
2. Put squash in to roast.
3. Fill and run dishwasher.
4. Make red sauce for lasagna
5. Assemble lasagna.
6. Put chicken soup together to simmer.
7. Remove and cool squash and chicken.
8. Make pie dough for pot pie and refrigerate.
9. Put together squash soup to simmer
10. Put together pie filling.
11. Assemble pie.
13. Remove and cool chicken soup.
14. Remove and cool squash soup.
15. Freeze all.
16. Clean up kitchen.

And I did it, in more or less that order.

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Squash and chicken roasting.

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Red sauce for lasagna simmering on the back burner, mushrooms being cooked in butter and wine on the front burner.

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Finished roasted butternut squash.

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Assembled lasagnas in 11 cup containers.

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Completed containers ready for the freezer: two six cup containers of squash soup; two six cup containers and one eleven cup container of chicken soup, two eleven cup containers of lasagna plus one extra container of sauce, and one chicken, ham, and leek pie.

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Horrible kitchen aftermath.

All told, the cooking and clean-up took about six and a half hours, without any attempt to hurry. By my count, this is about a dozen dinners worth of food for Mark and I, with some leftovers. The lasagnas and pot pie, frozen without baking, will just need to be thawed and put in the oven. The soups can be heated on the stove, with dumplings or pasta added to the chicken soup to fill it out. And there is plenty of space left in the new freezer for more meals, Thanksgiving leftovers, or, as Mark said when he saw it, a half a hog.

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Really really good mac and cheese. You should make some.

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I just made some really good mac and cheese, quite by accident. Recently, I promised Mark I would write it down somewhere when I make something yummy, since I tend to forget how I did it and not being able to re-create it later. Seems like the blog is the best possible place to do that, since I can share the recipe with y'all as well as keep it for my own posterity. The proportions of butter, flour, milk, and cheese are more or less from Cooks Illustrated.

So here's my new go-to for mac and cheese:

Ingredients
-16 oz shredded cheese of multiple sorts
-2 leeks
-1 12 oz bag vegetable rotelli
-2/3 cup panko or bread crumbs
-5 tbsp butter
-6 tbsp flour
-4 cups milk and/or half and half
-1 tsp dry mustard
-1/2 tsp nutmeg
-salt and pepper

Directions
1. Boil the pasta in some salted water. Pull it right before it's al dente, and run cold water over it to stop the cooking and make sure it doesn't stick together.

2. Shred up your cheese. The whole idea for me was to use the odds and ends of cheese I had around, so I ended up with 8 oz of mixed comte and gruyere (the ends of two chunks), a wee bit of mozzarella, and half of a 16 oz bag of "Mexican blend" cheese, containing sharp cheddar, jack, asadero, and queso blanco. You want about 16 oz total, and I say the more kinds the merrier.

3. Chop your leeks. Be sure to get any sand or grit out of them.

4. Preheat the oven to 375 or so.

5. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, then whisk in the flour. Cook this mixture for a couple of minutes, then whisk in the milk, dry mustard, nutmeg, and salt and pepper. I ran out of milk, so I used 3 cups of milk and a cup of half-and-half. I'll probably do that on purpose from here on out. Whisk whisk whisk until it thickens--mine took about 10 minutes. When it's thick, take it off the heat and add the cheese, whisking until it's smooth.

6. Heat up a skillet over medium-high heat with a little butter or oil, add the leeks and salt and pepper, and cook the leeks until they are soft and kinda translucent on the white bits. Takes about 5 minutes.

7. Mix the pasta, leeks, and sauce together in a bowl, then spread into a 8-by-8 inch pan. Sprinkle the panko or bread crumbs over the top.

8. Bake until it's bubbly and brown on the top--20 or 25 minutes should do it.

Yum!

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A little bit more on Any Soldier

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I'm really pleased at all the response I've gotten from my Any Soldier post the other day. Not only did I get a few comments here and on FB from friends who are planning to participate in the program themselves (and even a great financial donation for the boxes I sent!), but I got a handful of emails about it, as well.

A lot of folks seem to have questions, though, or be not quite sure where to start, so I thought I'd post again and give a few tips. I'm hardly an expert, but this is my sixth (I think) year sending these boxes, and I have learned a couple of things.

1. Expect to cry. Seriously. My sister said she cried all the way through reading the Any Soldier notes on the website. I didn't cry reading them this year, but I broke down in the middle of Target when I was shopping. I don't think I've been through this once without a bawling tangent or two. This shit is sad, dude.

2. Pick our your recipient(s) before you shop. A lot of the recipients on the website have specific wish lists, so it's great to have those in-hand when you go shopping.

3. Don't be afraid of those who don't have specific requests. Some of the soldiers on the site are very clear about what they want/need, but others are very vague, or don't ask for much at all. The first few times I did this, I shied away from those lists. This time, though, I picked one of them, knowing that a lot of the things I was picking up for the more detailed list I'd chosen could be duplicated and used. Once you've read several of them, you see that a lot of the things they ask for are the same.

4. Buy major brands. You'll often see that those who are specific in their requests ask for brand name items. My theory (and it is just a theory, but I think it makes sense) is that one thing the soldiers are homesick for is brand name items. They may have pale imitations available to them, in the PX or whatever, but they don't have the shiny branded packages they are used to back home. I'm not usually a big brand name shopper, but for this, I buy the major brands.

5. Set a budget. I have a serious over-shopping problem in general, and that doubles when it comes to something like this. This year, I intended to send two boxes. I came home with five boxes worth of stuff. That's typical. If I'd set a budget before I shopped, which I knew I should have done, I'd probably have spent a lot less than I did. The problem I have is once I am in the store, nearly everything I see seems like a good addition to the boxes. If you could avoid that, you'd probably be better of. Do as I say, not as I do.

6. Use the APO/FPO flat rate box. The post office has special flat rate boxes for military mail. They cost like $12 each to send, and they are regular large flat rate size (I think). They're easy as pie to use, and you can even print your shipping labels and pay online and have your postal carrier pick them up, avoiding the whole post office scene.

7. Write a note. This is actually the hardest part, for me, but I think it's important. With each box I send, I include a personal note from me to the recipient and his/her fellow soldiers. I keep politics out of it completely, as that's the only way I can feel honest and still respectful. I just say hi, wish him/her luck, and tell him/her to take care. If you have kids, I think it's great to have them write a note or color a picture--I've heard a lot of the soldiers really love that.

8. Do not expect response. I'd estimate I've received responses from about a quarter of the boxes I've sent. The letters are really nice to get, but they are not the point and the very last thing I want to do is add the the stress of any of these folks. Don't send these expecting a response.

Finally, for the curious, these are my packed up boxes for this round:

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I know it looks like they're all full of just candy, but I promise that's just the top layer. They also contain: tampons, pantyliners, instant coffee mix, fitness water mix, body washes, hair spray and gel, rubberbands and headbands, face cleansers, gum, disposable razors, socks, and laundry supplies. All pretty basic stuff, right? But it's what the majority of the female soldiers asked for, and I think the most important thing is to do the best I can to provide what they request.

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So you all know I love to thrift shop. What I may not have blathered on about as much is my love of discount stores. Part of both loves, of course, come from the thrill of low prices, but that's not the entirety of it. There is also the joy I get from shopping at a store I can't count on to stock any particular thing at any particular time. The treasure hunt, to see what new great items are available. Often, these are things I'd buy anyway at another store. Sometimes, they are things that I never even knew existed. But they always make me happy to find.

I've mentioned this love to friends before and been met with looks of skepticism. "What," I've been asked, "can you possibly be buying at Big Lots?" So, today, I thought I'd show you. There is no such things as a "typical" Big Lots trip, because the shelves are always stocked with different stuff. But this is what jumped into my cart last night:

What you see here is:
-three 32-oz shelf-stable boxes of Wolfgang Puck Free-Range Roasted Chicken Stock, $1.50 each (typical price $3.50-$4)
-two 32-oz shelf-stable boxes of Wolfgang Puck Organic Vegetable Broth, $1.50 each (typical price $3.50-$4)
-two boxes of Double Stuf Oreo Cakesters, $1.80 each (typical price $3.75-$4)
-two bags of Ghiradelli All-Natural Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips, 2/$5 (typical price $4 each)
-two bags of Ghiradelli All-Natural Milk Chocolate Chips, 2/$5 (typical price $4 each)
-two tubes of Toms of Maine Anti-Plaque Toothpaste in Spearmint, $2.50 each (typical price $4.50-$5.50)
-package of 100 Royal 100% cotton rounds, $.80 (typical price $1-$1.50)
-two rolls of 2" x 1600" USPS packing tape, $3 each (typical price $4.50-$5.50)
-one package of SomaDream sleep capsules, $2 (typical price $2)
-one package of Seven Moons Udon Noodles, $1.50 (typical price $3.50-$4 for similar)
-one package of Seven Moons Soba Noodle, $1.50 (typical price $3.50-$4 for similar)

As you can see, nearly everything I bought was at a substantial discount from what I'd have paid regularly, unless the item happened to be on sale (I don't coupon, I just am not organized enough). And most of it was even at a similar price to a BOGO sale or similar, which is about as good as regular sales and coupons get. Now, were these all things we needed, or at least things I would have bought anyway? With the exception of the SomaDream capsules, yes--each of these items was something on my regular shopping list, that I would have picked up at Target or the grocery store had I not seen them in Big Lots. It's not always that way--sometimes most of what I come home with falls into the bizarre category, rather than the necessary one, but usually it's more like this.

While I was browsing Big Lots (I totally go down every aisle, I find it mesmerizing), I saw several other things at high discounts that I personally don't need, but I know others would find useful. Boxes of Green Mountain coffee pods were $4 (regular price around $10). Condensed soups were $.50/can (regular price around $1). There is always a wide variety of pet products (I often buy cat toys there, and occasionally they have our brand of litter at a substantial discount).

This post is not intended as a Big Lots sale's pitch--they aren't paying me. I just think it's an interesting and often really money-saving experience to shop discount stores. It helps, of course, if you are willing to take a chance on some products that might suck, but if you go often, you'll likely find a few of your regular purchases every time. Plus, it's a lot of fun (well, it is if you're me, anyway).

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our-bodies-ourselves-and-the-work-of-writing.jpgRemember how I motored through my first two "12 Books, 12 Months" books in only a couple of weeks? Well, that ended abruptly with Susan Wells' Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Work of Writing, which is a mere 280 pages, and I've been working on for at least a month.

First, let me say that the book isn't bad. It's just not at all what I wanted it to be. I was so excited when I saw it recommended by Amazon--finally, someone writing some history about Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was the co-topic of my undergraduate thesis at Reed! I ordered it immediately.

I should have read more closely. It's not history. The author is an English professor, and a her academic work is in, God help us, rhetoric. This book is about Our Bodies, Ourselves less as a historical source, and more as a piece of writing. The analysis is of the text, as a text. Very little of the book is about the moment, or the movement. So, for me, who not only doesn't understand rhetoric but really doesn't care, it was a bit of a slog.

Next I'm on to another non-fiction book for which I have high hopes, Wini Breines' Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties. Breines isn't a historian either, she's a sociologist, but I clearly remember reading and enjoying her essay, "The "Other" Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls" in Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, so I'm holding out hope this one will be more my speed.

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Thanksgiving and Any Soldier

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Note: I'm re-posting a post originally made on November 17, 2006. I'll be doing Any Solider again this year, my own little Thankgiving tradition, and I'd love it if any of you were moved to join me.

***

I don't know if I've made this clear before now, but I'm sure it's not a surprise: I'm against the war in Iraq. I marched against it before it started (and just after), I've written countless letters against it, I'm against it. I think it's a bad idea. I don't think we ever should have invaded. I think it's bad, bad, bad.

That being said, I have a little tradition I started for myself several Thanksgivings ago that I thought I'd share. The first year, I took up a collection at my workplace to do it, since then I've been doing it on a smaller scale on my own. I go over to anysoldier.com and pick out a couple of wish lists, head over to Target to shop, and send a couple of care packages to folks serving abroad. Particularly to women serving abroad.

So why, since I am against the war, do I do that?

Well, to begin with, I don't think that the young men and women who are suffering on the ground have much say in the policy that put them there. Less say than I have in it, probably, due to their lower age and lower socioeconomics. It's not their fault they are there.

Secondly, I empathize with them, for a kind of strange reason. When I was the age some of them are, I was in my first year of college, and I was so, so homesick. I was in a safe, nice place, which I had chosen, which was only a couple hundred miles from home, and I was miserable. And I seriously cannot comprehend how much worse that it would have been to been in a dangerous situation, with few amenities, in a foreign country, where you had the risk of having to kill or be killed. It's beyond my capacity for creative thought. So I feel personally responsible for doing a little something to try to alleviate the homesickness these kids (and they are kids) must feel. For me, nothing helped more than a package from home, and I think it must be the same for them. And I feel especially for the women, whose lists so often ask for things like deodorant and tampons, as they are in a place that has to be alienating to them on a whole other level (both in terms of the military and in terms of the country).

Finally, I believe in being the change you want to see in the world. The change I want to see is for our government not to ever feel that it's the right thing to do to send kids to kill and die a million miles away for spurious reasons. But that's not something I have much capacity to change right now. What I do have the capacity to change, albeit in a very small way, is how horrible it is for those kids. And I want to do that.

Be forewarned that the website is sort of sickeningly ra-ra USA and doesn't mesh with many (if any) of the political views you or I may hold. To me, that doesn't matter. I can look past that, for a minute, and try to just be kind. I think that maybe if more people could try to do that, we wouldn't be in this mess.

Also, if you decide to send a soldier a care package this Thanksgiving (or some other time), please include a letter. From what I've read/heard, personal letters are reallly appreciated.

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New makeup loves (and some not-loves)

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As is my way, even when unemployed, I was unable to resist the Sephora Friend & Family sale this past week. So I got...a few things. Mini-reviews to follow:

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Laura Mercier Foundation Powder, No. 1, $40

I really wanted this stuff to work. I love the idea of powder foundation--no gloppy messiness! But it just seems to be a sheer, slightly yellow-tinted powder. The coverage isn't much at all, and the color isn't really right for me, either. If my skin wasn't being such a problem recently, I might try the No. 2 color and use it for quick application days, when I don't want full makeup, but I'm so broken out and in need of cover up recently, I don't think it would be worth the $40.

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Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner, Violet Ink, $21

I love gel/cream eye shadow and liner, and have been trying out different kinds for months now. Up until now, Benefit was my favorite. It has been usurped. This stuff is amazing. It goes on great, stays on a long time, and it's really purple--it doesn't end up looking blue or gray like some purple products do. Definitely a new go-to.

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Sephora Collection Ultra Vinyl Lip Pencil, Gorgeous Peach, $12

This is another winner. The formula is great--I love being able to use a pencil to get a clean application to my rather thin lips, and have it look like a nice glossy lipstick. I branched out in terms of color, going with a peach shade, rather than my usual pink/berry range, and I really like it, too. I'll probably go back for a couple more of these in other shades in the future.

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TheBalm Batter Up™ Creaseless Cream Eyeshadow, Grand Slam Pam, $18

This one actually is going back without being tried. It may be a great product, but it's the same color--nearly exactly--as Benefit's Get Figgy, which I already have (and use a lot). So no use in keeping this.

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Smashbox Burlesque Beauty Collection, $35

I'm a sucker for a set! This one appealed to me because of the eyeshadow quad--three out of the four colors are my favorite shadow colors--and the loose shimmering powder. Those are actually the only parts of it I've tried so far--and they alone were worth the purchase price. The eyeshadow quad in particular is definitely going on heavy rotation for me this winter.

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Tarte Matte Waterproof Bronzer, Park Avenue Princess, $29

I've been using a Laura Mercier bronzer, and I like it, but the mixed colors don't all work for me-the darker two really are too dark, so sometimes it goes on well, other times not. It also seems to wear off. This seems to be a lot better, as far as staying power goes, and the tone is just right for me. I hope it will stay just right through the winter.

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Tarte Natural Lip Stain with LipSurgence™ Technology, Moody, $24

I've told you before how much love Tarte Lip Stain, and that's still true, but this one isn't my color. It's supposed to be "deep berry," but on me it's...brown. It's going back.

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Tarte EyeQuatic Waterproof Summer Essentials Set, $15

I bought this because I've been wanting to try the mascara, Lights, Camera, Splashes! 4-in-1 Natural Waterproof Mascara, and it was just as cheap to buy this whole set, on sale, as just to buy the mascara. The mascara is the only thing I've tried so far, and I'm impressed--great staying power.

All in all, this was a good order. I love the Friends & Family sale! Now, to NOT buy any mor makeup for a couple of months...

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Living out Loud 22: Name your vice

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This month, Genie is asking us to admit our vices. She writes:

Tell us what your vice is. What's your bad habit? Or if applicable, who is your bad habit? (I always think of my friend who said that a guy was Her Favorite Mistake like the Sheryl Crow song.)

You don't need to get all biblical on us, picking one of big seven deadly ones. I knew a guy once who was vegan but every October would sneak off to eat Tootsie Rolls where his vegan girlfriend couldn't find them.
Since wikipedia reminded me that vice is the opposite of virtue, maybe your vice is that you don't return the shopping carts to their corrals in the parking lot or you don't recycle.

This may be my favorite Living Out Loud yet. My friends, I am a person of vices. Lots of 'em. Some of which I am apologetic about, most of which I am not. In fact, I am so full of vices, I had a really hard time coming up with just one or two to tell you about.

So I decided to kick it old school. Even though Genie said it wasn't necessary, I'm gonna get biblical.

Did you know the Seven Deadly Sins are also known as the Capital Vices? And I have ALL of them.

Lust: Probably best not to go into too much detail on this one. Let's just leave it at this: I am unmarried. I am not a virgin.

Gluttony: This is where I really shine. You know those big soft frosted sugar cookies they sell in ten-packs in grocery store bakeries? What my friend Nonny calls "shortening cookies"? I can put down a full ten of those in a sitting. Other examples include whole pizzas, full packages of Oreos, and the fact that I'm not allowed to buy orange Tic Tacs, because I'll eat them all on the first day they are in my purse.

Greed: I have a hard time being honest on this one. I really don't WANT to be a greedy person. That said, my recent job search has made it clear to me that there is greed in my heart. Knowing I can get more money makes me unwilling to take less, even though I don't necessarily need it. Pretty sure that's greed.

Sloth: Another of my gold star categories. Our couch is less than a year old, and there is already a very clear and permanent indentation of my ass on the cushion on which I sit. Working from home, and then unemployment, has made the situation much worse--I regularly sleep 11 or 12 hours a night, and feel virtuous if I get out of bed before 10. I'm not sick, or gestating, I'm just lazy.

Wrath: I am an angry person. That's just the long and short of it. I yell. I throw things. I have even been known to throw an occasional punch. I'm not proud of it, and I've done a pretty good job of curbing it in recent years, but it's always going to be there.

Envy: Oh Lord. Envy, I has it. Most recently, it's been the green, bile-in-the-throat kind I feel every time another friend of mine announces a pregnancy. But it isn't limited to that--I am envious of the skinny, the clear-skinned, the rich, and those who live in areas like actually like. I desire my neighbor's everything.

Pride: I probably think I'm smarter than you. I may also think I'm more interesting, better dressed, or have prettier pets. And no matter how many falls I have, pride still cometh before them.

So that's me and my vices. At least, the ones that are likely to send me south. Don't you just want to be best friends now?

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2010 Goals Check-in #6

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First of the month again, so let's check in on my goals.

1. Take at least one overseas trip.

2. Read 30 books.
I was at 19 last month and am currently at 20, with two more in progress. Gonna have to step it up a bit to make that 30 book goal by the end of the year.

3. Get to a healthy size.
Still fat. No change.

4. Save $500/month.
Really negative progress. Two months of unemployment pretty much means my savings is depleted.

5. Give 5%.
Still doing what I can here, but I have cut back some (see previous re: unemployment).

6. Start retirement savings.
No change. The account is open, but not yet funded for 2010, and I don't know if it will be. However, since I did open it, and that was the goal, I'm crossing it off.

7. Join something.
Still fail.

8. Write a novel.
Decided not to do this, so I'm striking it off the list.

9. Create something.
I'm planning to use my sketchbook from The Sketchbook Project to meet this goal. But it's still just in the planning stage.

10. Remember birthdays and send cards.
I didn't send a single one in October. Gah. I'll do it in November. I have (checks calendar) three birthdays on my calendar this month. I am going to send THREE cards. Really.

I'm not gonna lie--it's been another bad month for my goals. And some of them are clearly NOT going to be successfully completed in the next two months. So the plan as of now is to just keep trying and do the best I can to finish the year out strong.

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The Beauty of Different

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beauty of different cover.jpgI've told you, a time or two, how much I admire Karen Walrond. Well, Karen's gone and written/photographed a book (which I am told my photo is in, so bully for that!). And you can buy it over at Amazon or at the publisher's site, Bright Sky Press. My copy hasn't arrived yet, so I can't tell you much about it, but I can say that I haven't ever seen anything Karen has done that wasn't just gorgeous and totally worth your time, so I have no problem recommending this one sight unseen. And watch this space--I'm thinking buying an extra copy to give away here wouldn't be a bad plan.

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