Friday, June 29, 2012

DIY Marble Pastry Board

I would love to be a baker. My cookies are good. My breads are passable. Next, I want to learn to make PASTRY. It's like the holy grail of cooking abilities. I think if I can finally do that, make decent pastry, maybe I'll start to feel like I can cook. Maybe.

As I watch the Food Network, cruise the internet for tips and videos, and generally dream about flaky pie crust, I keep seeing marble pastry boards.

Pastry dough, in general, has more butter or shortening in it. This gives it the light, flaky texture that makes a good pastry. The problem is that you have to chill the dough before working with it, or it can get very sticky and fall apart. The idea behind something like a marble pastry board is that you can chill it first, then roll your dough out on it. The dough stays nice and cool and easy to work with.

These pastry boards are pretty much a big slab of marble, usually cost from around $25 to $150.

I wanted to see if I could get one for under ten bucks.

My inspiration was my sister-in-law. She uses a big section of countertop as her bread-kneading board. With this in mind, I went to a local place that makes custom marble and granite countertops. The very nice man in their front room was very approachable, and I asked what usually happens to the sink cut-outs. He told me that they often break and are just thrown out. I mentioned that if he had a reasonably whole one, I would be interested in buying it.

He told me I could have it for free.

Next thing I know, I am leaving with TWO cut-outs: a smaller marble one, and a bigger granite one.

Here's the marble one:

As you can see, it is toddler approved - so much so that I couldn't convince him to stop petting it long enough for me to take a picture.

It has a couple of scratches, but it is still perfectly suited to my use. All I did was wash it, and go to Joann Fabric looking for some feet to put on it.

The rubber feet are to keep it from scratching my table. I love my table very much and will protect it at all costs.

This pack of grippy circle things cost me five bucks, and has enough feet for both the marble board and the granite one. That's $2.50 for each board.

The only effort involved was turning the heavy thing over, and sticking on the feet.

Here's my brand new marble pastry board, complete with table-protecting rubber feet, for only $2.50 and almost no effort.

I'm feeling awfully proud of myself right now. I might celebrate with pastry.

More cool stuff here!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Simple Summer Dessert

This crazy hot weather has me barely wanting to cook, and absolutely not wanting to bake. This does not mean that I don't want to eat baked things. I want something sweet. Possibly chocolatey.

Looking through my cupboard, I am again reminded that my husband is a brilliant man. He bought marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers. Genius! Microwave s'mores!

It's dessert in less than a minute with no clean-up.

If you've never tried it before, just do this:

1) Break a graham cracker in half.

2) Put a piece of chocolate on half.

3) Put a marshmallow on top.

4) Microwave for 15 seconds (or until your marshmallow is all poofy).

5) Put the top graham cracker on, squish, and enjoy!

Want some variations on the theme? Try one of these! Or all of these! (Probably not at once!)

1) Butter the top graham cracker with peanut butter or Nutella

2) Add sprinkles to your marshmallow just before adding the top graham cracker

3) Add jam or jelly for a fruity option

4) Add a slice of banana (it's goooood)

Do you have another idea? Share it in the comments! I have a whole summer and a lot of marshmallows to experiment with!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's a Pre-Treater!!

In my efforts to try to have a healthier home, I have been making a lot of my own laundry and cleaning chemicals.

First, I made a spray cleaner that tackles EVERYTHING.

Then, I made cheap, awesome laundry soap.

Finally, I started using vinegar as fabric softener, and made a safe and effective bleach alternative.

To further my efforts, I have been looking for a replacement for Spray and Wash. My kids are murder on clothes, and I am constantly spraying grass-stained pants, or food-stained shirts.

My first attempt at this was a home run. Here's what I did:

1) Bought a spray bottle. ($0.97)
2) Filled it with the bleach alternative that I already made.

That's it.

It's wonderful! I tried it on a very stubborn stain on Husband's gardening/work shorts.


I love how little things like this make me enormously happy.

Check out other great ideas here:

Monday, June 25, 2012

Pretty Summer Feet

It is the start of summer, meaning that I have officially abandoned socks (and for the most part, shoes at all) for the next three months. The problem is that I have pretty much ignored my feet since the conclusion of last sandal season. Eek.

Should I go get the $28 pedicure at the local nail salon? Tempting. Very tempting. Until I think of what I could do with $28. Time for an at-home foot make over!

There are some really easy things I want to share with you that can give you a salon-style pedicure for pennies on the dollar.

Step One - Epsom Salt Foot Soak
You know that nice swirly foot bath you get to soak in at the nail salon? Ever wonder what's in it? It's pretty much just a solution of epsom salt and water! Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) is incredibly useful and incredibly cheap. I bought a four pound carton at CVS for less than 5 bucks. I bought the unscented kind, but you can find all sorts of scented bath salts that are just regular epsom salt mixed with essential oils.

You can either get a container big enough to put your feet in, like a bucket or basin, or just your tub with ankle-deep water.

I am using one of those plastic rectangle things that they gave me in the hospital when I had my last baby. I'm not sure what it's original purpose was, but for soaking feet and pre-treating laundry, it's stellar.
For a bucket this size, I used about a half cup of epsom salt and water as hot a I could stand it.

To really get the spa experience, sit back and relax (preferably in a comfy chair). Watch something you want to see on TV. Read a book.

Have a nice cup of coffee.

Or if you are so inclined, a nice nap.

After around 10 or 15 minutes, you are going to need a few things. I have all of these on hand, as I tend to like doing my own nails (the whole cheap thing again).

If you have cuticle gel, apply it now. While you are waiting for that to finish softening your cuticles, use a pumice stone or file to remove any dry skin and smooth any calluses. (It should be pretty easy now that the epsom salt has had time to work). Now you can push back your cuticles with...whatever that thing is called that pushes back cuticles. The thingy. If you feel like it, you can trim your cuticles with...that other thingy. Return your feet to the water bath, then make yourself a note to actually learn the proper vocabulary before posting something on your blog. (Sorry).

Note: if you are taking your sweet time with this, feel free to refresh your water bath with more hot water and epsom salt. This is your pedicure. Go at whatever pace makes you happy.

Once you are ready (and not a moment before), remove your feet from the water bath, towel dry, and apply lotion everywhere but the nails. Use the nail clipper and nail file to trim and shape your toe nails.

If your nails are stained from previous nail polish, there are a lot of possible remedies you can use to return them to their natural color.

1) Rub a slice of lemon on them.
2) Use an old toothbrush and brush them with toothpaste.
3) Brush them with a paste of baking soda and peroxide.
4) Soak them in a mild peroxide solution.
5) Buff stains away with a fine emery board.
6) Ignore it and just paint over them.

Finally, if you wish to apply nail polish, there are a few tips to make this easier and more professional looking.

First, take a cotton swab and gently apply some Vaseline to your cuticles. This will make it easy to later peel away any polish that gets on your skin.

Next, make sure to apply a base coat to your nails. Not only will the base coat protect your nails, but it will make the polish last longer.

When choosing a nail polish, save yourself some aggravation and choose a fast-drying type. I like Sally Hansen Insta-Dri. (I know it says one coat, but it looks much better with two coats, IMO). Remember, the faster it dries, the less likely you are to botch it up by smudging it.

Finally, apply a top coat. It will protect the polish and keep it from chipping, so it will last longer. I save money by making sure to get a base and top coat in one. This also means that I have fewer bottles to keep track of.

I'm actually posting this TWO WEEKS after giving myself this pedicure, and it still looks good!

Now, go use that $28 bucks you just saved for something better, like cute sandals.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Cheaper than Chinese

When we lived in New York City, husband and I used to go out every Friday night for a date. A typical Friday found us at Ollie's (a Chinese food restaurant) then a movie. This type of evening averaged around $50.

I giggle now thinking that this used to be a small sum of money.

Now that we are older, with a mortgage, car payments, kids, retirement savings, and a thousand other things, 50 bucks seems enormous. No more dates like this.

For a while after the whole parenting thing took hold we would order Chinese food pretty regularly. I'm a vegetarian, and my very favorite dish to order is tofu and vegetable stir fry. At the local take out place, one order of that is $7.50.

I can do this cheaper. I'll prove it.

Here's all I need:

Frozen stir fry veggies = $1.50
Sauce = $3.00
Tofu = $4.00

"But, Amy Sarah!", you exclaim to your computer screen. "That equals $8.50, which is actually a dollar MORE than the take out!"
Have no fear, friends. I know what I am doing. The power of unabashed cheapness will not fail me.

First, drain the tofu and cut it into 1/2 inch cubes. Heat a frying pan on the stove over medium-high heat, with just a spray or two of cooking spray (or olive oil). Cook the cubes until just starting to brown. (While they cook, keep them moving with a wooden spoon or spatula so they don't stick).

Transfer the tofu to a bowl, then dump the veggies into a frying pan. You don't need any oil. There is plenty of water in the frozen veggies to keep them from sticking to the pan. Cook them until they are tender and most of the water has evaporated.

Next, pour in about a third of the sauce. Mix until everything is coated. Cook about a minute more, then remove from heat.

Serve over some rice.

Beautiful, right? It's also better for you than the oil-filled take out version. But is it cheaper? Let's break this down.

The total that we bought was $8.50, but the ingredients make much more than we get from the Chinese food restaurant.

The entire bag of veggies ($1.50), one third of the sauce ($1.00) and about half of the tofu ($2.00) make about twice as much as I get in the take out container.

So that's $4.50 for twice as much food as is in the $7.50 take out.


Looking for some good reading? Come check out Mostly Homemade Monday!

Greatest Home Made Fabric Softener

We don't often use fabric softener. Here are the main reasons why:

1) We have enough aggregate allergies for any two other families, so the less stuff on our clothes, the better

2) Fabric softener can leave a residue that makes towels less absorbent, and clogs the lint filter on the dryer

3) I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I'm kinda cheap about buying stuff.

I kept seeing recipes for home made fabric softener showing up on Pinterest. Some use herbs, some use hair conditioner, most use vinegar.

I love vinegar. As it turns out, you can use PLAIN VINEGAR TO SOFTEN CLOTHES.

Here's what you do. Go get a Downy Ball.

You can see that I got mine for $2.26.

Now just put fill to the line with vinegar instead of fabric softener, and chuck it into the wash. It will open during the rinse cycle.

Here's the benefits:

1) Soft clothes

2) Super cheap

3) Removes the residue left behind in your washer by soaps and other fabric softeners

4) Removes residue on towels that can make them less absorbent over time

5) Deodorizes clothes! (This is REALLY helpful if you forgot to switch the wet wash over into the dryer before going to bed last night. Like me).


You will create chlorine gas and possibly poison yourself. Read this post for more information.

I like you people. I wouldn't want you to get hurt. Let's stay safe out there.

Happy laundering.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bleach Alternative: First Test

Remember when I said that I am giving up bleach? Well, today launches my first foray into finding a bleach alternative!

The most common type of recipes that I am seeing call for hydrogen peroxide and an acid, specifically vinegar. I have a concern with this:

Hydrogen peroxide reacts with vinegar to give you peracetic acid.

Peracetic acid is a wonderful biocide. This means that it is very effective at killing living things like bacteria and mold. This quality makes peracetic acid a wonderful sanitizing agent.

Here's the problem. PERACETIC ACID IS VERY EFFECTIVE AT KILLING LIVING THINGS. I'm not sure I trust it in any real concentration around my kids, especially because they are wonderful at figuring out the locks on doors and cupboards. Peracetic acid has some pretty harmful side effects, which can be found by reading the MSDS.

Instead of going with an acetic acid source (vinegar), I've opted for a citric acid source: lemon juice!

Yay! I love lemon juice! Mainly as lemonade! Sometimes in tea! Yay!

The recipe that I am using, which can be found at Frugally Sustainable, is easy to prepare and yields a gallon of bleach alternative. It also didn't cost me a cent as I already had the ingredients: lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide, water, and a container.

Here's a sum-up of the steps:

1) Take a gallon-sized jug (I used an empty vinegar bottle that had been rinsed well).

2) Pour in 1.5 cups of peroxide

3) Pour in 0.5 cups of lemon juice

4) Fill the rest of the jug with water.

5) Scribble out "vinegar" on the bottle and scrawl "bleach alternative" on it instead.

I love when the authors of those other blogs make beautiful, original labels (with neat printing and scalloped edges, and nice designs) for all of their homemade things. One day I'll learn how to do that. Not today. Today, I scribble with a sharpie.

Now to test it out!
This picture is of a wash cloth that I used to scrub my sandals (more on that later).

I took this wash cloth and soaked it in a 2:1 solution of water and bleach alternative.

Here's what it looked like after soaking.

And here it is again after I popped it in the wash.

Hooray! The stains are gone! And so is some of the color! ...whoops.
Edited to add: Hey, guess what! I'm an idiot! The first two pictures show the wash cloth WET, but the third shows it DRY. This is why it looks like some of the pink had faded. I just wet it to clean up another mess, and it's dark pink again. (I'd photograph it, but it's dirty again.)

Next step: testing it in the washer.

Will it be strong enough to remove stains even when diluted? Let's find out! I'll let you know when I'm done.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Why I Am Giving Up Bleach

I grew up in a bleached world. For a while, during my adolescence, I lived with my grandmother. She was an old-school true believer in bleach. She would dilute it in a bucket and scrub down the counters, the cutting boards, the sinks, the toilets, the tubs, and the floors. As my white socks turned a grimy dark grey from my refusal to wear slippers, she would corral me and show me how to scrub them out in a tub of a strong bleach solution, then let them soak overnight until they were an acceptable shade. I thought bleach could clean everything.

I'm not denying that bleach is an excellent cleaner and sanitizer, but I really have to stop using it. You see, I have studied enough chemistry that it sort of makes me nervous.

When I use the word 'bleach' I am referring specifically to sodium hypochlorite, like what is in Clorox. (The actual definition is anything that can remove the color from something else. Technically, the sun qualifies as a bleaching agent).

Sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl) likes to react with other chemicals, including other common ones that might be in your cleaning products, including ammonia and vinegar. Unfortunately a lot of these reactions can have products that are toxic to people and pets.

1) Reacting with ammonia can produce hydrazine. HYDRAZINE IS TOXIC.
Don't believe me? Read the material safety data sheet (MSDS). Go right to section 3.

2) Reacting with vinegar or other acids can produce chlorine gas. CHLORINE GAS IS TOXIC.
Feel free to read the MSDS for this one, too.

For the longest time I have used bleach or bleach products to clean my home without a major catastrophe. What makes me so nervous now? Simple. I have two little boys. As I am doing the laundry, or cleaning the kitchen, or scrubbing the bathrooms, or mopping the floors, my sons are following me and trying to help. If there is even a little hydrazine or chlorine floating around, do I really want it in their lungs? On their skin? Stinging their curious little eyes?

No. Never.

So, I'm going bleach free. I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Clean That Coffee Maker

I love my coffee pot. It's this totally awesome Mr. Coffee one but in white.

Well...it used to be white. Sadly, I have abused my coffee maker. I cannot imagine how, over 6 years later, this thing is still running like a dream. Someone told me recently that you really should clean your coffee maker regularly. I think I cleaned it once about three years ago....is once every three years "regularly"? Doubt it.

Apparently coffee can leave oils that can turn rancid and make your coffee taste gross. I love my coffee way too much to allow this to happen.

Some quick research on the internet resulted in lots of coffee maker cleaner kits like this one. Seeing as how I don't feel like leaving this house or spending money, I found a way to clean it with my standby helper: vinegar.

Here's the before picture:

I hadn't realized how bad it had gotten. In my defense, when I see the coffee maker in the morning, I am usually in my bleary-eyed, grumpy, pre-caffeinated state, so you could probably smuggle a gorilla into the living room and I wouldn't notice it. Unless it did something annoying. Then I'd say something snarky and glare a lot.

To clean a mess this horrible here's what you do:

1) Fill your carafe all the way with a 50/50 mix of water and white vinegar (for a 12 cup coffee maker, six of water and six of vinegar).

2) Run it through as though you were making a pot of coffee, filter and all (but no actual coffee, for obvious reasons).

3) Dump the water, allow the coffee maker to cool

4) Wipe down every grubby part with a wet washcloth.


5) Use cotton swabs to get into any hard to reach spots.

6) Run through a pot of plain water.

7) Celebrate your much cleaner coffee maker! Possibly by brewing a pot of coffee!

P.S. I have to add "clean the coffee maker" to the monthly chore list, because in the muck on the underside of the lid, I unearthed this writing. It says, "IMPORTANT: CLEAN COFFEEMAKER AT LEAST ONCE A MONTH. SEE INSTRUCTION MANUAL"


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Stop Buying Brown Sugar

Seriously. Don't buy brown sugar. If you bake enough to even need brown sugar, you likely have all of the ingredients you need to MAKE it from scratch right now.

White sugar is just brown sugar with the molasses removed.
Brown sugar is usually made in factories by just adding molasses BACK INTO WHITE SUGAR.

Is it just me, or is this really dumb?

Here's what you need to make brown sugar:

Take one cup of white sugar and mix it with a table spoon of molasses. That's it.

If you want it darker, add more molasses.
If you want it lighter, add less molasses.
If you are as lazy and time-pressed as I am, don't bother mixing it together first. Just add the cup of white sugar and table spoon of molasses into any recipe that calls for a cup of brown sugar.

It saves you money and frustration because you don't have to worry about a bag of brown sugar turning into a brick of brown sugar in the cupboard.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Beans, Beans, Good For Your Budget

I love beans! They provide protein and fiber! They help prevent diabetes, obesity, and cancer! And they are really cheap! And I love cheap!

Yes, beans are great for stretching that food budget even further. Look!

Dried beans:
Cost = $1.50
Yield = 6 cups cooked
Cost/cup = $0.25

Ground beef:
Cost = $3.50 - $4.00
Yield = 2 cups cooked
Cost/cup = $1.75 - $2.00

This doesn't mean that you have to eat beans straight up if you don't want to. Add beans to your soups, stews, burritos and tacos, meatloaf, burgers, or any other place you feel like making your meat budget go further. Not only does this give you more servings per recipe, but more FILLING servings. The fiber and complex carbs in beans keep you feeling happily full for longer!

When buying beans most people opt for canned. Usually, I do too. Usually.

Recently I was looking at a can of beans from our cupboard (one of the 68 cent off-brand type). Wanna know one of the main ingredients? High fructose corn syrup. Yeah.

Screw that. If my kids are going to be chock full of sugar, it's going to be from chocolate chip cookies like the Good Lord intended.

So, I'm converting to using dried beans. The main problems with dried beans are quantity and time. They have to soak overnight, then cook for two hours or more on the stove. To do this for one or two cups of beans at a time would be idiocy. This is where the freezer comes in.

We were recently given a chest freezer by a colleague of my husband. They had it for a few years but rarely used it. Since I'm going back to teaching in the fall, we are stocking the freezer with meals and ingredients to make life less hectic. The goal is to have plenty of stuff to heat and eat when time is at a premium. I made the decision to cook a pound of beans and freeze them in can-sized portions for quick use in recipes.

The hours required for this look scary, but I actually did about 15 minutes of combined work in this entire thing.

Step 1: Soak the beans. I opted for a quick soak, which meant bringing them to a boil for two minutes, then leaving them to sit and cool for about an hour and a half.

Step 2: Drain, rinse, and pop them into a crock pot with about 8 cups of water. Ignore for 5-6 hours, or until tender.

Step 3: Measure out can-sized batches into freezer bags. For this I am using a heat sealer that a friend lent me and some Food Saver bag material.
When you buy a can of beans you get about 1 2/3 cups after draining. In order to make can-sized freezer portions, I measured the same amounts into Food Saver bags and sealed them. (The sealer that I borrowed does not vacuum pack the food, but this will certainly do for now, seeing as how I don't have the scratch to go buy a vacuum sealer.)

Step 4: Label the bags and freeze! I got three can-sized portions that I can thaw and add to recipes, plus about a half cup extra that I put into a salad. Totally worth it.

Note to self for next time: make more than one pound of beans at a time.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Get Rid of Lice Easily

I love tea tree oil. Love. This little bottle is pretty much an entire summer med kit (minus band-aids). Today's lesson: using it to kill lice.

I came across tea tree three years ago, when I discovered that my older son (then three years old) had head lice.
A word of background: my son has Asperger's. When he turned three he knew all of his letters, knew the sounds they made, was learning to sight read, could add small numbers, could recite a bunch of books and whole cartoon episodes from memory, but could not actually tell us when something was wrong.

So, how did I find out that he had head lice? I figured it out when I discovered that I HAD HEAD LICE. Oh, and that discovery wasn't exactly easy. I thought I was having an allergic reaction to my shampoo. I went through three shampoos, two conditioners, and two visits to my doctor before I finally found one of the little blood sucking bastards on my hand in the shower.

I freaked. We cut little man's hair really short, but that wasn't really an option for me, since I didn't want to look like G.I. Jane.

I got one of those lice removal kits from the store (can you believe that it cost $25??). Other than the steep price, there were several problem with it:

1) The cheap-crap plastic comb in the kit was no match for my massive mane of doom.

2) Apparently if you are allergic to rag weed (like me) this stuff makes you feel like you can't breathe and have to scramble for your husband's inhaler.

3) IT DIDN'T KILL THE LITTLE FIENDS. SERIOUSLY?!  F@%$ers are harder to kill than Bieber music.

To the internet! While I was having a nice little spaz-fest on a message board, a lovely woman from England informed me that Americans freak out way too much about lice, and that they are pretty easy to get rid of. She was the person to tell me about tea tree oil. I don't know her real name or anything, but I know that I love her.

Here's how you get rid of lice with tea tree oil:

1) Go to the pharmacy. Find some tea tree oil (about $8-9 for a good sized bottle).

2) While you are at the pharmacy, look for METAL lice combs. They are made by the same company that makes the lice remover kits. Usually you get two sizes in one pack and can use them forever. (I couldn't find them at first, but a pharmacy employee found them in a jiffy). (Oh, and they cost less than $10 and appear to be indestructible).

3) At home, mix a tablespoon of tea tree oil with a quarter cup of your favorite conditioner.

4) In the shower, put a ton of the mixture into your hair and sit there for a few minutes. Try to imagine the tiny, tortured screams of the dying lice. It helps.

5) Rinse out the conditioner, then get out and dry off. Find a comfortable place to sit (preferably on the floor. If one of the little blood suckers escapes you can vacuum it right up). Take out your new combs and follow the package instructions.

I did this every day for several days. Almost all of the lice were dead the first day, and ALL were dead the second. The days after that I was mainly removing dead nits and eggs.

Since lice eggs hatch after around two weeks, I did this again two weeks later. I found NOTHING.

Wash any sheets, clothes, and towels you use in water as hot as possible to kill any left over bugs, and vacuum rugs and upholstered furniture frequently. Lice don't live more than a couple of days away from your body heat and blood supply, so putting stuffed toys into a sealed trash bag for a week or so will ensure that they are lice free when you take them out again.

Good luck!

That woman was right. This was way easier than I thought it would be. Of course, that doesn't mean I want to go through it again. Yuck.