Sunday, January 27, 2013

What Every Kitchen Should Have - Part I: The Pantry.

This has been a very busy week for Living Well.  I started my classes for this semester, submitted an application for a speciality assignment, and well, what else is new with 4 kids, a full time job, and a husband?  

So, while I was in deep thought for this blog, I was thinking, if I listed what every kitchen should have, all the things you should have, then the list would go on forever, so I'm going to divide this up into several segments, the first one being what you should always have in your pantry, in your spices, in your baking rack, in your refrigerator, and finally, necessary kitchen gadgets.  

So, let's get started, shall we?

1) Whole Grain, Brown, or White Rice - to use a side dish, main dish, soup additive.  

2) Dry Pasta, Whole Grain, or Enriched - to use as a side dish, main dish, soup additive
3) Diced Tomatoes, Whole Tomatoes, or Stewed Tomatoes (2-3 cans) - You never know when you'll have short time on your hands and need to throw together a soup or chili.
4) Tomato Paste (1-2 cans) - for homemade spaghetti sauce or chili.
5) Plain Tomato Sauce  (1-2 cans)- Again, for soup, chili, or spaghetti sauce.
6) Emergency Spaghetti Sauce (1 can, or Jar) - For when you don't have time to make your own.
7) Canned Beans (Kidney, Pintos, White Beans) - very versatile.  Soups, chili, salads, what ever you can think of.
8) Dry beans - For those days when all you want is a big ole pot of beans and cornbread for dinner.
9) Cream of Soups (mushroom, chicken, celery, potato, etc.  At least 1 of each, or 2 of the ones that you use the most) - Casseroles, one pot dishes, pot pies, etc
10) Canned Mixed Veggies (Veg-All) - I normally keep two cans of these on hand whenever I need to make  a quick chicken vegetable soup, or beef vegetable soup, or pot pie.
11) Quick Oats - I can't say enough about this breakfast staple.  (Notice I didn't say instant oatmeal.)  I've learned how to make the flavors that I love for just pennies a serving, not to mention it can be used in breads, home made granola, etc.
12) Cheerios, Chex Mix, or any cereal that isn't too sweet.  Not only can this be made for breakfast, but also snack mixes, school snacks, and thrown into yogurt for an extra crunch.
13) Peanut Butter - Good for school lunches, a quick snack, thrown into a protein shake, or a smoothie for the kids.
14) Soup Crackers (Saltines) - Good for those soup and sandwich nights.
15) Ritz or Club Crackers - Top with peanut butter or cheese for a quick after school snack, or use a few and top with tuna for lunch.
16) Canned Tuna or Chicken - sandwiches, salads, dips, etc.

Those are the items that every pantry should have.  You can add to or take away from this list as needed, or use this list verbatim.  The point is, once you organize your pantry with the key ingredients that you use the most, then the list of dinner combinations are endless.  It's easy to replace these items as you need to, and this is a good 'getcha started' list.  Whenever I move to another duty station, I make sure to stock up on these items on my very first grocery trip.

Another bonus to these items, they are often featured on coupons.  Normally, the coupon will say, $1 off of 4, and normally you don't need for cans of tomato sauce.  However: if you are stocking, or restocking your pantry, then this is a great place to use those coupons. hint, hint.

COMING UP NEXT WEEK: Why You Should or Should Not Purchase a Keurig.

COMING UP IN NEXT MONTH: Cooking Like the Cracker Barrel: Chicken and Dumplins.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Marshmallow Fondant Recipe

Here at Living Well, we make a lot of home made food, from scratch.  Not only do they taste better, they are better for you as well.  You know exactly what goes into the dish, and what your kids are eating.  So today, in celebration of my 9 year old's birthday, I'm going to share with you a Marshmallow Fondant Recipe that'll have you making fun, festive cakes for your kids, or any special occasion.

Decorating with MMF (Marshmallow Fondant) takes practice, but with each new birthday, my cakes get better, and more creative.  To start out, I would recommend that you start with simpler designs.  I made the mistake of trying more complex cakes (a NASCAR cake with Jimmy Johnson winning the race) and have since become more patient with myself to make simpler cakes that kids will love just the same.  So, while I have your mouth watering for this delicious recipe, let's get started, ok?

Here's what you'll need.

1 bag mini Marshmallows.  (Some people prefer a name brand, but I use whatever is on sale.)
1 - 1 1/2 boxes powdered sugar 
1-2 Tablespoons water
Crisco (I use butter flavored.  I'm not sure that it actually tastes like butter.  It does give your fondant an off white color, but it's what I use.)
1 tsp vanilla flavor

To start:

Liberally grease your counter top with crisco.  Place marshmallows into a microwave safe bowl, and sprinkle with water.  Melt marshmallows 30 seconds at a time until melted.    Add 1 cup of powdered sugar and vanilla and stir well with a well greased wooden spoon.  Pour mixture onto greased counter top.  Grease hands with Crisco.  The marshmallow mixture is sticky, so you'll want to remove any jewelry and grease your hands all over.  Knead in enough of the remaining sugar to form ;a nice, soft ball of MMF.  At this time, you can tint your MMF to any color you want or store it away for later use.  I recommend using gel coloring for tinting since it does not water down the MMF, and the colors are more vibrant.

To tint your MMF, using a gel color and a toothpick, start with just a little bit of coloring and smear it onto the white MMF.  Knead MMF until color is consistent.  If the color is not as bright as you want, gradually add more color and knead until you get the color that you want.  I used two different yellows to get this bright yellow.  You should experiment with different color combinations on smaller amounts of MMF in order to get the color you want, before coloring a large amount of MMF.  For best results, us a color chart.

To Store MMF, grease the ball of MMF, wrap in plastic wrap, and place in an air tight container.  To use, simply lightly grease and knead the MMF until it become pliable again.

Before covering your cake with MMF, level your cake and lightly ice it with any icing that you like.  I like butter cream.  This helps the MMF stick to the cake.

To roll MMF, liberally dust counter top and rolling pin with powdered sugar.  This keeps the MMF from having a shiny look.  If you cover your counter top and rolling pin with Crisco instead of powered sugar, the MMF will have a shiny appearance to it.  The powdered sugar keeps the finish matte.  Don't worry about it leaving white spots on the cake, it easily dusts off.  You'll want to roll the MMF until it's about 1/8 - 1/4 inch thick.  Once the MMF is rolled out, you can roll it onto your rolling pin (like you would a pie crust) and roll out onto your cake.  Using a pizza cutter, cut off excess MMF and set aside for future decorating.

You can use the left over MMF to shape into anything you like; keep in mind that the bigger the object, you may need support, such as toothpicks, or small wooden dowels.  You can also use Rice Crispie treats to make bigger items, such as cars, trees, people, etc. and then cover with MMF.  MMF will have the consistency of play dough in order to mold into figures.  To attach decorations to your cake, use icing as a glue, or mix up an edible glue to use instead.  You can use cookie cutters to cut shapes, and get your kids involved to make 3-D shapes.  The end result is a nicely decorated cake that your kids will love.

The total cost for this cake was under $5.  All the kids thought it was cool, and my 9 year old has memories that will last a life time.  Practice makes perfect, or at least perfect enough for your kids to think you are a cool mom.

Enjoy decorating with MMF.  Decorating takes lots of patience and time, but it's well worth it.  So, the next time you have a special event coming up, and you are standing at the cake counter, think, do I really want to spend $30 on a store bought cake that has been sitting on a shelf for days, or should I invest the time to make one that every one will love.

COMING UP NEXT WEEK: Staple Ingredients Every Home Should Have in Order to Live Well.

COMING UP IN TWO WEEKS: Why you should, or should not invest in a Keurig Coffee Maker.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Make Your Own Trail Mix

     At Living Well, we are on a journey to a happy, healthier, money saving New Year.  I'm not into resolutions, but what I am into is saving money, being happy and healthy.  So, onto this week's blog.

     Tomorrow we are going to go on a road trip, which for a family of six can get quite expensive, especially since we live in Europe.   We love to have snacks and drinks while we travel, but we mainly resort to pre-made granola bars, chips, and soda.  Not only are those snacks bad for you, they are expensive as well.  So, while surfing Pinterest, I came across another blog about grocery shopping, which included a blurb on making almost everything home made.  I already make most things home made, but I've never made trail mix.  So, I'd thought I'd give it a try.

     In order to do this so that you save money, you should already have all the ingredients, or the majority of them, on hand.  Basically, they should be staple ingredients already in your pantry.  Raisins and nuts, for example, can be on hand for a snack, or baked into recipes, and cereal such as Chex or Multigrain Cheerios have a slight sweetness to them, which also doubles as a breakfast food (who knew?).  If you normally have all these on hand, then you may have to go and and purchase M & Ms and pretzels, which brings the price of Trail Mix to about $4 for 6-9 servings.  Considering you would pay more than $1 for a single serving (that is mainly peanuts) at a gas station, I'd say you get a pretty good deal.

     Here is the recipe I used today for tomorrow's road trip.

Chex Cereal (Cinnamon flavor)
M & M fun packs (plain)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 - 1/2 tsp of cinnamon (to taste)

     Use your own combination of measurements.  I did about 2 handfuls of peanuts, 1/2 bag of pretzels, and used cereal to fill a large bowl until almost full.  

     Combine all ingredients except raisins, candy, butter and cinnamon in a large bowl.  Melt butter in microwave and pour over ingredients.  Stir well, place mixture in a cookie sheet, and bake in a 250 oven for 15 minutes.  Return to bowl.  Add cinnamon and stir well.  Let cool for about 10 minutes.  In individual zip lock sandwich bags, add 1 fun pack of M & Ms, and a handful of raisins.  Using a tablespoon (non-measuring), scoop about 6 spoonfuls into bags.  Zip and toss.  Makes about 6-9 servings.

     Feel free to change up this recipe any way that you like.  The entire idea is to save money while providing your family with a healthy snack to use on road trips, camping, as an after school snack, or during family movie nights.

     Enjoy your snack time!

COMING UP NEXT WEEK: Pictures of Evan's B-day cake and MMF (Marshmallow Fondant) recipe.

COMING UP LATER THIS MONTH: Staple Ingredients Every Home Should Have in Order to Live Well.

My weekly posts will always be on a Saturday unless other wise noted.  Next week's blog is currently scheduled for Sunday instead of Saturday due to the birthday is on Sunday.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year! Let’s Bake a Cake!

Two days early on this one, but it fits the occasion.

My family always celebrates the New Year with a month of Birthdays!  The month looks like this:

1 Jan – Niece Alexis
2 Jan – Brother Jimmy
11 Jan – myself
19 Jan – Brother Chuck
20 Jan – Son Evan

And that’s just the family members who have birthdays this month.  Let’s not forget so many friends of mine that celebrate birthdays as well.  With each Birthday, there is a Birthday cake.  And with each cake, an unnecessary, but very necessary added expense to the budget for the month.

When Tyler was younger, his first few birthdays were celebrated with store brought cakes, highly decorated with tons of super sweet icing, and cheap toys.  The cakes cost anywhere from $16 and up.  That was a decade and a half ago, and of course it was just for a plain cake with just Happy Birthday on it, not fancy plastic balloons, and toys, and tri-colored icing.  So, one day, so long ago in the past, I was pricing a Spider-man cake, and it was over $30, which was way over ½ of the Birthday budget!  So, instead, I ordered just the toy on the cake for $4.99 and bought a regular chocolate cake, with white icing that I dyed, as well as gel for writing.  (And for anyone who knows me, know that my handwriting is horrible, so I used the gel icing for the spider web for Spider-man.)  The total cost for the cake, $8.16 plus tax. 

This gave me an idea, which only grew with each child, and each passing birthday.  I will make and design my own birthday cakes for now on.  What a revelation!    How inexpensive would it be to bake, and decorate my own birthday cakes!  On top of that, my children love the idea that their mom makes them custom Birthday cakes, shaped as robots, race tracks, mountain tops, soccer balls, etc.

At first, the cakes started out as flat, 2-D cakes with just the images cut out, decorated with icing.  Then, I started watching Cake Boss, and secretly wished that I could make cakes like they did on TV.  One day, I Googled fondant recipes, as well as recipes for the best cakes to carve, and slowly, I learned how to make Marshmallow Fondant, and very dense sponge cake used for carving.  3-D cakes were born!

What I’m saying is, with a little creativity, some hard work, patience, powdered sugar and marshmallows; beautiful cake dreams do come true.    It’s still a learning process for me.  I get tips from my Aunt Tina, and I hope to one day make cakes as fabulous as hers.

So, to Live Well when you have a month full of Birthdays to celebrate, take a little time to learn even a little bit about cake decorating.  Your children will love that you took that extra time and effort to make a cake as special as them, even if it’s not perfect.

In the upcoming weeks, I will post pictures of Evan’s Birthday Cake, with directions and recipes as well so you can try your hand at cake decorating.

Happy New Year from Living Well!  May this year be prosperous, full of fun, and full of home made cakes that you and your family will love!