Saturday, December 22, 2012

Winter Hat for Kat, Part 3

Kat's winter hat has been stalled for the past several weeks.  I was able to extend the hat successfully.  But once I figured that out, the hat has sat on the end table neglected.  Which is just plain sad, 'cause the only thing I had left to do was weave in the ends.

I researched quite a bit to figure out how to extend the hat.  I read lots of suggestions about ripping out the bottom row(s) of stitches (like this), but I wasn't a big fan of this method.  First of all, it looked really tedious (and I'm lazy).  Also, Kat's hat was knit from the bottom up, with ribbing at the bottom, and most sites that I read cautioned that adding on to ribbing would result in a half-stitch jump between old and new stitches.   Finally, and probably most importantly, the thought of cutting into the work and having the whole thing unravel scares me!

Instead, I chose to use a contrasting color and basically sew a cast-on row to the bottom of the hat in the new color.  I threaded a yarn needle with the new color (gray).  I put the needle between the stitches on the original cast on row, looped around my knitting needle, and back through the hat in between the next stitch.  The biggest trick was just making sure to cast-on the same number of stitches that I had in the original cast-on row.  Once I had a new cast-on row, I continued the same rib pattern top-down.  And because I looped my new cast-on stitches between the old stitches, I didn't really notice any jumping, mostly just that the ribbing isn't exactly smooth (but I expected that).

So, what do you think?  I'm pretty happy with how it turned out, and I think Kat is too!  (What a ham, eh?!)

This project is listed on my Ravelry profile.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Hi Ho Hi Ho! It's off to work I go!

Please excuse my absence as I have been settling back into my routine at work and trying to figure out my new life as working mom of TWO!  And for added fun, this past week included: preparing for Christmas, an overnight visit of one of NerdDad's friends, one kid with pink eye, and both kids with ear infections...  And you have one very crazy week!  

Now that I'm back at work, my mother-in-law (MIL) watches Buddy and Kat twice a week.  (And at the end of the month, Buddy will join Kat at daycare for the other three days.)  Unfortunately, with Buddy's ear infection, he has been a lot fussier than usual (the sign that indicated an ear infection in the first place) and hasn't been napping well.  I know that it's because his ear hurts, and I had lots of ear infections as a kid, so I understand his pain.  But his fussiness really tests my patience.  Fortunately, I am able to hand him off to NerdDad when I've had enough, but my poor MIL has been struggling while watching both kids on her own.  Hopefully, the antibiotics will do their thing, and he'll be back to his old self again soon.

So far, the work-family balance hasn't been too hard, but I am also working from home half the week, at least until the end of December.  So the back-to-work adjustment is spread out over the month.  On one hand, adjusting to this new routine has been fairly easy, so spreading out the adjustment period has been nice.  But on the other hand, I know that another new routine is just around the corner, and I almost just wish I could get it all over with at once.  For now though, I'm trying to enjoy my workdays at home with my Buddy.

Yesterday, we started off the weekend with a little mid-morning Christmas shopping.  NerdDad and I each took one kid and off we went.  Thankfully the crowds weren't too heavy yet (probably because of the non-stop rain).  Between just a couple of shopping trips and a decent amount of online shopping, we have made a decent dent in our Christmas lists already.  Considering our usual procrastination, we're feeling pretty proud of ourselves!

After the busy week, I'm spending today getting into the Christmas spirit and recharging for the week ahead.  I spent the morning sipping peppermint mocha coffee and listening to Christmas music while making cookies with Kat.  It's been sooo nice!  A big thank you to NerdDad for holding Buddy all morning so that I could bake.  :)  He'll be rewarded with lots of cookies!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

End of Maternity Leave

It's been a bit since my last post; the family and I went to visit my family and celebrate thanksgiving. My ten weeks of maternity leave is over on Monday, so I've been trying to enjoy my last week where my sole focus is family.  As nearly every working mother will tell you, the end of maternity leave is an emotional milestone.  When I was on my maternity leave with Kat, the weeks before I went back to work were filled with worries about starting daycare, finding a routine, pumping at work, and how in the world was I going to be able to leave her?!  Since Buddy is my second child, I'm not (nearly) as worried about daycare or pumping.  I know that I did it before and am confident that I'll manage again this time.  But establishing a routine and finding time is an even bigger worry this time around.

Being on maternity leave has given me plenty of time to not only focus on Buddy, but to also spend extra time with Kat and to start a few projects (like this blog!).  I know that as Buddy gets older, the evening rush between the time I walk in the door until I fall into bed will become less stressful.  But I remember how frantic that time of the day was when I first went back after Kat was born.  Taking care of just Kat and preparing for the next day was sometimes all that I could do.  So how do I take care of Buddy, prepare for the next day, AND spend some quality time with Kat?  And I might be totally insane, but I would so love to be able to find time to continue some of my fun projects. Oh, and let's not totally forget NerdDad!

Plus how in the world am I going to leave this grin?

So before I get entirely overwhelmed, I want to write a few reminders for myself:
  • Take life one step at a time.  Try not to become overwhelmed thinking about things that need to be done tomorrow, next week, etc.
  • Enjoy the few free moments throughout the day.  Use those few seconds to take a deep breath and relax.
  • Be willing to let some things go. 
  • Ask for help when needed.  (And if I don't, I shouldn't get mad at NerdDad for not being able to read my mind!)
  • Be open to change.  With a new person in the family, we may need to change responsibilities or routines.  For example, moving dinner time a half hour later might make the whole evening less stressful.
Wish me luck!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Recipe: Caramel Apple Oatmeal Cookies

This past Sunday, our furnace decided that it needed a day off. Fortunately, the weather was near perfect, so the furnace wasn't really needed. Unfortunately, the HVAC tech couldn't come out until Monday afternoon.  The high temperature on Monday occurred early morning, and the temperatures were supposed to fall the rest of the day.  So Monday morning was the perfect time to turn on the oven, bake some treats, and hopefully heat up the kitchen a bit.

I still have half of a refrigerator crisper drawer full of apples from our apple picking trip earlier this fall. So of course, I've been on the lookout for recipes using apples. Last week, I saw a few links to Caramel Apple cookies, which sounded delicious!  And even better, I was able to find caramel bits in my grocery store's new expanded bulk section - score!  Caramel bits are like chocolate chips, except they're made of caramel.  And they are much easier to use than chopping up a bunch of caramel candies.

After comparing a few recipes, I decided to use Cooking Light's recipe for Caramel Apple Oatmeal Cookies as my inspiration and make a few adaptations.  These cookies full of chewy oatmeal, softened apple, melted caramel.  Even NerdDad with his "cookies need chocolate" stance agreed they were pretty good.

Caramel Apple Oatmeal Cookies

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 

1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg
3/4 cup finely chopped, peeled apple pieces (use a baking apple like Granny Smith or Winesap so the pieces don't get too mushy!)
3/4 cup caramel bits or 16 small soft caramel candies, chopped
Pour the oats into a food processor and pulse 5 or 6 times, or until only half the oats are still whole.  While this step is optional, doing softens the texture of the cookie and allows the apples to stand out more.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine processed oats, flour, powder, soda, and salt.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat sugars and butter with a mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy.  Add vanilla and egg and beat until mixture is smooth.  Gradually add the dry ingredients, stirring just until combined.  Gently stir in the apple pieces and caramel bits.

Drop dough by 2 teaspoonfuls, 2 inches apart onto parchment-lined baking sheets.  Bake at 350° for 10 minutes.  Cool on pans 5 minutes.  Remove cookies from pans; cool completely on wire racks.

Makes 3-4 dozen. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Knitting: Winter Hat for Kat, Part 2

I have been racing against falling temperatures, trying to finish a warm winter hat for Kat.  Kat's head measured a whopping 19", so originally, I thought I would need to follow instructions for the child sized hat.  However, when I first started the hat, I had a little bit of trouble matching gauge, mostly because I wanted to use a heavier yarn than the pattern recommended.   So after going back and making several gauge swatches, I decided that following the instructions for the 12 month to 2 year size would allow me to accommodate a worsted weight yarn. 

The pattern calls for the hat to be worked in the round until it measures 6" from the cast on edge, but the last hat that I made for Kat (just 1 month ago) only measured about 4.5" for the same part.  So I started the decreases for this hat at 4.5" too.  This turned out to be a bit of a problem...

As you can probably tell, the hat fit around, but just barely reached the tops of her ears!  Uh-oh! 

So now I'm working on how to make her hat longer.  Guess I should have followed the pattern.  (I'm really not good at following directions!)  Since this hat was knit bottom up, I could either (a) rip out all my decreases, add more rounds, and redo the decreases (giant UGH! to ripping out my working and then having to redo it) or (b) figure out a way to add length to the cast on edge.  I think I pick B.  Stay tuned!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Housekeeping Realization

A normal workday for me goes a little something like this:  I wake up at 6:45 to breastfeed Buddy, dress both kids, shower and dress myself, and pray that I'll be out the door by 8:00.  I  need to be at work by 8:30, my mandatory hour lunch is spent either breastfeeding or pumping and maybe squeezing in an errand before I eat lunch at my desk.  I leave the office at 5:30, arrive home 5:45-6:00 to immediately start working on dinner (or supervising the making of dinner while I breastfeed).  By the time dinner is finished, it's close to 7:00.  I get to spend about an hour with Kat before bedtime at 8:00.  That leaves a mere two hours before I go to bed at 10:00. 

When I went back to work after the birth of Kat and settled into this routine, it was a shock at how little time was left at the end of the day.  And I realized that I could either spend that time relaxing, focused on activities that I wanted to do, and connecting with NerdDad  OR  I could spend time cleaning, doing dishes and laundry, and working on other chores.

This decision seriously stressed me out for a while.  Obviously, spending those two hours in a way I enjoyed was my preference, but I just couldn't let those chores go undone.  NerdDad is awesome, and we have chores pretty evenly divided, usually based on what we feel most passionate about.  Keeping the house clean and organized fell on my plate.  It takes NerdDad a few too many days before realizing that something is dirty.  And I'm always concerned about what visitors might think if they arrive when I have dusty floors, fingerprinted windows, and cobwebs in the corners.  However, spending my evenings straightening and cleaning just left me feeling drained, worn out, and on edge.  Something had to give (or else I was going to fold).

Now, of course, there are some chores that just have to be done (dishes and clothes need to be washed and kitchen counters should be wiped down).  But for a while, I let everything else go.  And I felt horribly guilty!

Over time, though, I've realized something.  The reason I felt bad about not cleaning as often as I "should" wasn't because I was bothered by the extra dust; it was because I was worried about others being bothered by my extra dust.  And I realized that this was silly!  My house is mine (and my family's)!  I should be able to keep it however I want.  My home should be a sanctuary, not a place where I'm worried about what others think.  So I instituted a new rule: the only people who would be invited into my home would be ones that I was confident would not judging my housekeeping. 

Perhaps my new rule seems silly, and that I just need to toughen up and not worry about what others think.  But relieving myself of the need to impress visitors with my housekeeping skills has freed me to be able to spend more time on the things I love.  And that's better for everybody.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cooking Techniques: Pumpkin Purée

Thanks to Pinterest, I have been seeing a lot of pumpkin recipes lately. Previously, any pumpkin that I cooked with came from a can. But this year, I decided to try making my own pumpkin purée.

According to Mavis at One Hundred Dollars a Month, cooking pumpkin isn't any harder than cooking any other type of squash.  After reading her post and seeing the piles of pumpkins at the grocery store, I was inspired to try making my own pumpkin puree.  Plus, every time we pass the pumpkins at the grocery store, Kat exclaims, "Punkin!"  And how can I ignore that?

I decided this would be a fun exploration project with Kat, so before I sliced the pumpkin in half, I asked her what she thought was inside.  "Apple."  As good of a guess as any!  While we didn't find any apples inside, she still ooo'd until she touched the "guts" and declared them sticky.

We scooped out the insides, and Kat helped me separate the seeds from the pulp.  She really enjoyed stirring the seeds (although no stirring was really required).  Growing up, I was never a fan of pumpkin seeds, but I saw a recipe for cinnamon sugar pumpkin seeds and was hoping to try it out.

I put a bit of olive oil on the cut sides, put pumpkin on a baking sheet cut side down, and baked at 375 for about 35 minutes, when I noticed the skin starting to wrinkle.  When I pulled them out, the pumpkins basically collapsed onto the baking sheet.

  The flesh was incredibly easy to scoop off the skin.  I put it directly into the food processor, and ran the processor until the pumpkin was smooth.  However, the puree didn't look like the stuff that comes from the can.  The color was closer to yellow than orange, and it was very watery.

I was concerned about making pie with such watery puree, so I looked for ways to thicken it up.  After a failed attempt at reducing by boiling (I don't recommend this; boiling puree is messy!), I lined a colander with a coffee filter, set the colander over a bowl, and poured in the puree.  About half a cup of water drained out!  Success!

I used the puree to make pumpkin pie (NerdDad's favorite), but adjusted my recipe to include less milk since the filling already looked pretty liquidy.  It turned out perfectly!  In fact, the pie was half gone before I got a chance to take a picture.

The process to make my own puree was so easy that I decided to buy another pumpkin yesterday. Now I just need to decide what to do with more puree.  Do you have any non-pie pumpkin recipes?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Toddler Activity: Painting Pumpkins

While I have fond childhood memories of carving pumpkins at Halloween, the thought of attempting to carve a pumpkin with Kat makes me shudder!  She's 21-months, so she has an attention span that's about 21 seconds, follows about 21% of any instructions I give her, and would probably end up needing 21 stitches.  But I didn't want to skip all pumpkin activities.

So last weekend, during our family trip to the grocery store, I let Kat pick out a small pie pumpkin by herself.  Surprisingly, she picked one of the smallest ones; I thought kids always went for the biggest is best philosophy.  I also picked out a pie pumpkin for myself with the intention of making my own pumpkin puree - more on that soon! (Update 11/4/12: See how to make pumpkin puree.)

Sunday afternoon, Kat and I set up a painting station at the kitchen table.  I taped a couple broken down cereal boxes to the table to create a work surface and to hopefully make clean-up easier.  I put a bib on Kat and sat her in her booster chair. 

I let her pick five colors from my collection of acrylic paints.  I like acrylic paints because they wash off with water, are available at most craft stores, and are pretty cheap (less than $2/bottle).  I have a whole shoebox of paint bottles from my time in college when I was still trying to be "artsy".  I also pulled out one paintbrush for each color to minimize the need to rinse brushes mid-project.

I squirted a bit of paint on the cardboard, handed over the paintbrush, and let her go!

I tried to avoid "helping" (a.k.a. taking over), and stuck to just turning the pumpkin whenever one side was mostly covered.  I let Kat decide when she was ready for a new color and then swapped brushes with her.  Amazingly, the paint was contained to the cardboard and just a bit on her fingers (yea for no paint in her hair!!).  


This project kept her attention for about 15 minutes.  From set-up to clean-up was slightly longer than a football game halftime.  ;-)  And since it wasn't overly messy, I think we'll have to try more painting projects for future holidays.   Any ideas?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Winter Hat for Kat, Part 1

Fall is definitely my favorite season.  It's the time of comfort foods - chili, stew, apple or pumpkin anything; and the weather is just cool enough to call for an extra layer, but not so cold as to rule out spending an afternoon outside.

This fall, Kat is in the Toddler room at daycare, which means that they spend part of most afternoons outside.  This also means that it's time to send all the fall and winter clothing supplies  that will live in her cubby - warm hat, jacket, back-up outfit with long pants and long-sleeved shirt.  When NerdDad asked if we had an extra hat to send, I promptly said that I would make one!  He laughed...

But my knitting and crochet skills are getting to be pretty good, and a hat is small enough that I can measure time to completion in hours, not days.   I'm not sure why he laughed; I have made three different hats for Kat, and another hat for Buddy.  So it's not like I'm a hat-newbie.

I quickly hopped on Ravelry (you can find me here) and began looking for a pattern.  Since I already have a crochet project in progress, I wanted something I could knit.  I also wanted something fairly simple that Kat could pull on herself (no ties or flaps).  I settled on this Swirl Hat.  The pattern is straightforward, but the swirl adds some fun.

I'm using a very dark pink that matches her coat - gotta keep things fashionable!  I am making pretty good progress, especially considering that I ripped out 6 rounds because I had an extra loop of yarn just hanging out (grr!).  I have finished the ribbed edge, and have (re)started on the swirl pattern.

Are you a knitter?  If so, what are you working on?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Recipe: Pesto Chicken Grilled Cheese

After trying out a new recipe for Seasoned Chicken, I wanted to find a quick way to try out some of the chicken that I just made.  I found some sliced provolone cheese in the refrigerator and decided to do a spin on grilled cheese. The result was a Pesto Chicken Grilled Cheese, and it was amazing!

I started by shredding one of the Seasoned Chicken tenders.  I wanted to slice it, but grabbed the wrong knife, and ended up with shredded.  Oh well!  I pulled out a couple pieces of bread, two slices of provolone cheese, a bit of margarine (you could use butter too), and a cube of frozen homemade pesto (you could also use store-bought). 


Heat up a griddle or skillet with just a bit of cooking spray.  Butter one side of each piece of bread, and place the first piece of bread on the griddle, butter side down.  Top the bread with about half a tablespoon of pesto.

Next, assemble the sandwich.  Layer on a slice of cheese, then the shredded chicken, another slice of cheese, and finally, the other piece of bread, butter side up.


After a few minutes, flip the whole sandwich.  The bread should be toasted and lightly browned.  Cook for another few minutes to toast the other side.


This sandwich has the gooey goodness of grilled cheese, is hearty enough to stand as a meal because of the chicken, and  has amazing flavor from the pesto.  It reminded me of something that I would typically order at a deli.  Yum!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Recipe: Seasoned Chicken

I often use Pinterest to find new recipes.  However, I have a hard time actually following the recipe exactly.  While I'm sure the original recipes are just fine, I like to use the recipes I find as inspiration or a jumping off point, not as a rulebook.  I've been cooking for over ten years now, and have tried enough recipes to guess what might work (and have learned a lot about what doesn't!).  If you are new to cooking, or trying a new style or kind of dish, then certainly follow the directions!  But after a few tries, be confident enough to make a few changes or try a shortcut.

When my daughter was born almost two years ago, I started trying out more freezer meals.  I could spend an afternoon cooking, and then not feel so rushed once I got home from work.  And for a while, I kept cooked cubed or shredded chicken in the freezer, so I was ready when I came across a casserole, pasta dish, or salad that called for cooked chicken.  But this chicken never tasted very good, so I stopped.  But when I came across a link to The Perfect Chicken, I realized that of course that chicken wouldn't taste good; I never seasoned it!  I had mistakenly thought that I shouldn't season it since I didn't know what dish I would be using it in.  But the recipe for Perfect Chicken uses spices that are common enough to most dishes and aren't overpowering, so the chicken could still be used in whatever I need it for.

The recipe makes a simple spice rub using salt, pepper, paprika, onion powder and garlic powder.  I quickly through together a batch.  


I had purchased a package of fresh chicken tenders earlier this week for another dinner, and after seeing this recipe, intentionally put a few of the tenders back in the refrigerator so that I could try out this recipe.  The recipe made plenty for the four tenders that I had, and probably would have been enough for another four. 


I browned the tenders on the stovetop as instructed in the recipe.  Because I was using tenders instead of full chicken breasts, I decided I could finish cooking on the stovetop, instead of baking as instructed, because the tenders were thin enough to cook through without getting dried out.  I simply lowered the heat and added a lid to keep the moisture in. 

This was a quick way to add more flavor to plain boneless, skinless chicken.  The spice rub came together in less than a minute, browning the chicken took about five minutes, and then I let the chicken sit unattended and covered on low for about ten minutes to finish cooking.  I haven't tried freezing this yet, but will soon.  The chicken looked so good, I immediately looked for a way to use it and came up with a Pesto Chicken Grilled Cheese 

Do you have an easy spice rub recipe for chicken?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Apple Picking

My sisters were in town visiting this past weekend. With a weather forecast that predicted a near perfect fall day, we decided to venture out and pick our own apples at Lynd Fruit Farm.  Because we wanted to finish up before lunch and naptime, we got moving fairly early, packed everyone into our new (to us) minivan, and made the 40 minute drive out of the city.

The farm had three apple varieties ready for harvest - Rome, Fuji, and Winesap. We quickly ruled out Rome apples as they are grown on large trees.  We realized that with me wearing Buddy and the toddler wanting to pick her own apples, we should stick to the small trees. Since Fuji apples are readily available at the grocery store, we decided to branch out and try Winesap, an heirloom variety that is good for eating, sauce, and baking.

Kat was slightly frustrated at first as she wasn't strong enough to pick the apples on her own. Fortunately, Aunt K saved the day by teaching us to rotate the apples a few times to loosen them up enough to let Kat pluck the apple off.

Kat was even more excited about apple picking when NerdDad let her pick an apple to eat as we were walking through the orchard.  We all had a fantastic time and enjoyed the perfect fall morning.  By the time we were leaving the traffic to get in was nightmare; I was so glad that we had gotten there early!

We picked half a bushel of apples (about the size of a standard plastic grocery bag) for $20, so this was a fairly inexpensive outing.  My sisters promised to take a few apples home with them, but I still have enough apples to entirely fill my refrigerator's crisper drawer.  Fortunately, if stored properly, the apples should last for a couple of months.  I'll soon be posting some of the ways that I intend to take advantage of our fall harvest! 

However, if you have suggestions beyond the basic apple sauce, pie or crisp, please share!