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Monday, December 31, 2012

Maple Sugar Candy

(So, I took my own advice to heart about trying to simplify the Christmas season, and I haven't blogged in a week.  My apologies.  But I hope everyone has had a wonderful start of the season!)

One of my favorite candy recipes is maple candy.  As you might know, sap from the maple tree is a wonderful thing.  Boil it for a (long) while and it become syrup.  Boil it some more, and it become a mass of sugar, but with a texture so wonderful that it is a great candy.

The wonderful thing about this candy is the cost savings (well, and the flavor, but that has to be tasted to be believed).  You can order boxes of maple sugar candy, pressed into little maple leaf shapes, for $20-30 for about two dozen pieces.  Or, you can make your own at home for the cost of a bottle of maple syrup.  This recipe works very well in candy molds, but when I'm pressed for time, I spread it and break it like brittle.

Maple Sugar Candy
Maple Syrup (Be sure to get real maple syrup -- maple flavored topping, like pancake topping, will not work)

Heat maple syrup in a sauce pan until 235 degrees on a candy thermometer.  Remove from heat and let cool to 175 degrees without stirring, then stir with a wooden spoon for about 5 minutes until the mixture loses its gloss, lightens up a bit, and becomes thick and creamy.

Spoon into molds or pour into foil-lined pan and let cool completely.  Remove from molds or break into small pieces.  You might store it in the refrigerator so it doesn't become sticky due to a warm room or humidity, but since this is basically sugar, it keeps forever.

The Analysis
Fast:  I love this recipe for its speed.  It probably goes from bottle to cooling process in about 30 minutes.  If I had a houseful of guests or kids (or guests with kids) begging for me to make more candy for the holidays, this is what I would make.

Cheap:  Way cheaper than ordering the fancy stuff, and you have the opportunity to buy local maple syrup if you have the chance.  Here's a fun fact:  the lower the grade of the maple syrup, the less expensive it is, but the more maple flavor it imparts to the candy.  So don't go buying a "fancy" grade -- just whatever you can get that is organic and local, if possible.

Good:   A burst of maple flavor in a bite that is somehow creamy and melting.  I like to pop a piece in my mouth after a meal to stave off the sugar craving.



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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Saving Your Sanity at Christmas

So, it is December 23.  Christmas Eve Eve.  If you celebrate Christmas, you have all of the prep work done, and you are settling down to a little recreational internet surfing before joining calmly in some festivities, right?

No?  Of course not.  Me either.

If you celebrate Christmas, the period of time between Thanksgiving and January 2 can rapidly turn from being a time for joyful celebration into a part-time job you didn't really ask for.  And, judging by some of the posts I've seen on Facebook from some of my friends, the season is bringing with it its standard array of frayed nerves and mood swings.  That's why I want to talk about a kind of sustainability we rarely talk about here -- saving your own sanity.

Christmas is some high-stakes stuff.  Religiously, you have the story of a miracle more precious and perfect than any that has ever occurred.  On the secular front, you have Currier & Ives, Norman Rockwell, and the entire cartoon and stop-motion animation industries conjuring up pictures of the perfect family holiday.  Even if you don't celebrate Christmas at all, you can't avoid the pressure -- it is there in the aisles of your grocery store (who doesn't need some extra tinsel?) and on your car radios and in your newspaper advertising supplements.  It is enough to make anyone bonkers.

Add to that the fact that annual holidays really can bring on the melancholy.  If we look back, we see Christmases spent with relatives now departed or with innocence and hope that we may no longer have.  If we look forward, we might fear what we could lose in the year to come, or what storms we might have to weather before we put up that tree again.  (This is a big one for me.)  It takes a better yogi than I am to stay perfectly balanced in the present.

So, as my gift to you, let me offer a few tips for how to get through the holiday with a minimum of mental angst and a maximum of joy.  Remember, your sanity is a limited resource you must use in a sustainable way too!

Limit the Christmas Music/Specials:  Now, if you're one of those people who only gets happier the more carols that play on your iPod, you'll want to ignore me on this one, but I suggest you limit the number of Christmas TV specials you watch and Christmas songs you hear.  The reason?  I don't want to be a Scrooge, but these reminders of the season, by their very nature, bring back memories and tug at the heart strings with holiday reminders.  If you find yourself thinking of your departed aunt every time you listen to her favorite Christmas song or tearing up whenever you watch the special your kids loved when they were small, do yourself a favor and turn it off.  Save your exposure for things that really make you happy.

Stay Off Social Media:  While we're limiting our media, this may be a good time to place a rationing system around your use of Facebook and the like.  I know it is tempting to spend part of your time off work continually hitting "refresh" on your phone, but you need to limit the number of times you see examples of Christmas perfection posted by your friends.  It brings a tear to anyone's eye to see the picture of four generations of women, all gathered in the kitchen with well-starched aprons, happily making cookies.  Try to remind yourself that your friend posted that photo not because it is an everyday occurrence in their happy lives, but because they thought, "Dang, I've never seen that kind of thing happen in my life -- better snap a picture and post it to Facebook and prove it actually happened!"

Take Some Shortcuts:  We've all read the holiday stories of cooks who make a pie for every holiday guest so everyone will have their favorite, or of those who have time to paint little decorated packages on their fingernails, complete with bows and nametags.  (Bonus Tip:  Stay off Pinterest!)  You don't have to do this.  If you hate making pie and you feel you must make one, make ONE.  Everyone's just going to have to make do with the flavor you chose.  Don't allow yourself to feel pressured into doing everything you think everyone  expects just to make a perfect holiday.  Which leads me to my next tip...

Remember that Santa Had Elves:  Even the mythical Big Guy didn't try to throw a celebration without help.  Now is your time to ask people to help you with the tasks you think are essential.  Go ahead, ask your mother-in-law to bring dessert; if you ask her to bring that specialty her son or daughter always loved growing up, I'll bet she says "yes."  If you feel you must be the sole host or hostess of an event, for heaven's sake wait until the summer barbeque, when you don't have do a million other things besides.

Allow Yourself to Remember:  Even if you have the logistics mastered, Christmas can bring some strong emotions, particularly if your family is missing a loved one.  Give yourself time to remember, and allow those feelings to be bittersweet.  Honor that person in a way that is meaningful to you; hang an ornament that reminds you of them, or make their favorite recipe, and invite this person back into the celebration.

Save Something for You:  "Christmas is for children."  "Christmas is for other people."  Yes, the spirit of these sayings is very true and well-taken.  But if you get wrapped up in making a holiday for others, you will miss it yourself.  Pick something that you look forward to; one thing for me is Christmas Eve dinner with just my husband.  Then, tell everyone that this part of the celebration is important to you, and you really want to see it happen.  After all, it is important to give, but it is important to nourish your own soul so you can keep giving in the New Year.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and the Best of the Season to All!
Jennifer
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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Barriers to Biking

Today, I came across this wonderful post on 5 Barriers to Women Bicycling More.  As my part of Ohio braces for the first snowfall of the year, I find myself yearning for a little errand on my bike, knowing that I will be waiting until Spring for that to happen.

The article breaks down the barriers to women biking into five main types:

  • Risk
  • Time
  • Convenience
  • Vanity
  • Community
Please check out the whole article for more analysis, but I must admit that I have forgone biking for all of these reasons from time to time.  And, with the possible exception of vanity, I think they are equally valid for men, too.

For me, one of the top barriers is risk, including comfort issues.  I won't bike in the snow or ice.  Truthfully, I won't bike with temps in the 50s or lower.  I won't bike in the rain.  I know there are readers from very bike-centric cities that are laughing at me for this, but I don't always feel safe or comfortable in these conditions.  Add onto that the fact that some trips don't feel physically safe to me to do alone.  For example, one errand I could run involves a bike path that is very secluded; I will bike it happily with Mr. FC&G, but I won't bike alone.

Second for me is definitely vanity.  And, unlike some bikers, I have no belief that I have to be wearing spandex and biking shoes to get on my bike; I bike in A-line skirts and chunky heels half of the time.  However, there are times that I don't feel like re-doing my hair when I get to my destination, or I just don't care to bike to a meeting or a class and have to commit to a ponytail for the whole day.

Finally, there is community.  As I noted in my post on Walk Score (which has expanded into Bike Score), there is something wonderful about a community that embraces walking and biking as viable types of transportation.  One of the things I love about Key West is the bike culture.  Everyone goes everywhere on a bike, so there is no question in your mind that you will find a place to chain up your bike or that the motorists will be unaware of the possibility of bikers (so, overlapping with risk).  Also, the casual culture and the warm environment means that you will probably be wearing flip flops and comfy skirts and ponytails anyway, just to handle the climate.  There is less call to look "professional" on a daily basis (although I do love dressing up for clients, so I would miss it). The culture of your community makes a huge difference.

So what do you think?  What is standing in the way of you getting on a bike for an errand or trip each week?  Sound off below!
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Monday, December 17, 2012

Sustainable Pin: Buckeye Bark

I'm not sure how sustainable any project is the week before Christmas, you know?  I mean, if you were going to hand-make all of your gifts, you would have done so already.  If you were going to grow and preserve your own edibles for the feast, in most parts of the country you would have been done with that task months ago.  If you are working on things now (as I am), you are trying to get some holiday treats together without going insane while you try to prep for two three-day work weeks in a row coming up.  (Three-day work weeks just wreak havoc with a freelancer's schedule, but that's OK.)

So, this week, it seemed like a good time to try out one of the many, many, peanut-butter-and-chocolate-themed recipes I've pinned to Pinterest.  This one is Buckeye Bark from Live Sigma Kappa.  Go ahead, take a look at the original recipe on that site.

I have to say, this is a pretty great little recipe.  It comes together much faster than traditional buckeyes, which require rolling the peanut butter balls and then hand-dipping them in chocolate.  This peanut butter center seems to stay a bit softer than some buckeys, but that might have been due to the peanut butter I chose.  I purposely bought a very creamy brand, but I think if I used my usual somewhat-gritty "natural" brand, I might have come out a bit closer to the center of a Reeses Cup.  That said, this center mixture would make an amazing peanut butter frosting on a homemade chocolate cake.....

One warning:  This bark splits into fairly big chunks, or at least it did for me.  That, and the fact that the peanut butter doesn't really adhere the two big chocolate slabs together indelibly, and you have a treat that can get a bit crumbly and require some finger-licking.  I don't think that's a problem, but you might not want to serve this at your swankiest holiday party.

The Analysis

Fast:  Much faster than traditional buckeyes, with the same good taste.  I'd say you can whip this up in about an hour, counting the numerous trips to the freezer for hardening in between layers.  (Although maybe more patience than I have is a virtue.)

Cheap:  I can't say that this is any cheaper than the traditional recipe, but it is certainly cheaper than buying all of your candy from a gourmet store.

Good:  Oh, my heavens.  I think I gain weight every time I look at the picture of this stuff.  I can't imagine anything nicer than making some of this for my family; this might be a really good time to make up a batch of this decadence, and then let those you love lick the bowl when you're done.
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Thursday, December 13, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: November

I thought you guys might get a kick out of our Christmas card picture for the year, featuring the seldom-seen Mr. FC&G doing his best American Gothic microfarmer pose. You will notice that I am wearing my very expensive, lined, homemade apron that I slaved over last spring.

But really, there you have it.  November's harvest slowed to a trickle, as you would expect it to.  A little bit of greens, a couple ounces of leeks, a couple of peppers salvaged before I dumped the plants in the compost.  This time of year makes me so sad, as a gardener.  I mean, yeah, I get the whole "circle of life" thing.  I've seen The Lion King.

"Look, Simba -- everything the sunlight touches is our kingdom.  Except, over there, that's the neighbor's yard, so we can't microfarm there.  And that's a suburban intersection, so the city will have a fit if we dig that up.  But across the street is a nice, respectable microfarm garden, and nearby are the bike paths we will ride again in spring...."

Something like that.

Anyway, with less than a dollar of harvest this month, I present you with the tallies.  The only thing I can really point out is that I'm sailing along at about a 237% return on investment, which isn't too shabby.

2012 Tally to Date
158.0625 lbs. total harvested
$466.17 value of harvest for 2012
$196.65 expenditures for 2012
$269.52 profit to date

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Friday, December 7, 2012

Not Quite Hemingway: The Office Tour

About two years ago, I wrote about my attempts to weed out my clothes closet, and I asked the question Is Organization Frugal?  I do think it is, and this time I wanted to share with you my attempts to clean out my office for its multiple purposes.
Bookshelves on the entry wall for work reference, and cube shelving for
Carrot Creations sewing/crocheting supplies.

Full disclosure:  my office had become a mess.  While I was running Hilltop Communications, working as a college administrator, starting Carrot Creations, and running a household, I operated on the "bag system."  Every job had a bag or rack or something, and I picked up what I needed to work.  But my work was growing less and less efficient, and it was time to do more with my time through the power of organization.  Once I quit the second shift job at the college, I thought the time was right to reorganize.

I have been taken with Ernest Hemingway's writing room in Key West since I toured it.  (And if you couldn't see that coming, given my love of Key West, you must be new here -- so welcome!)  Away from the main house and surrounded by vegetation, it was an ideal oasis.  His writing room, at least as it is now displayed for the public, features his typewriter in the middle at a table from which he could have viewed hunting trophies on the wall, books, and the magnificent view from the windows.  I really wanted something similar for myself.

Not hunting trophies, but the view of a few "wild animals" -- actually
stuffed animals from my father -- cheers me up considerably.
So the first task was surrounding myself with books.  I sorted through every single book in the office, and I sold about a box full.  But I was left with quite an amount!  (Do you know how many books you accumulate when you are both an academic and a writer?)  So, I did actually spend some money and replaced some old prefab office store shelves with these nice teal shelves with a narrower profile, and then I more or less lined parts of the room with them.  I can see from my desk where the reference book I need is for any project.

I also rededicated a pretty bookshelf I have to the Carrot Creations production efforts, along with a small desk and filing cabinet.  This allows me to work on these projects and wrap shipments without destroying my writing work.

The main workstation is well-lit and features a huge monitor -- a luxury.
My main desk is finally available for actual writing, although I will always have piles of projects around -- that's just the way I work.  But I am happy to say that I can look out one of my two windows, see the television and my stuffed animal "coworkers" and use my wide screen monitor in comfort.  I made sure I had good task lighting all around to cut down on the headaches.

Another luxury is the workspace desk, which includes a nice large blank space for me to write longhand (yes, dear children -- Palmer penmanship and all), edit hard copies, and conduct phone interviews.  Although I do keep a few things on this side of the office, I try to keep it fairly organized so that I'm not taking interview notes on my lap.  If you look closely, what was once a pull-out keyboard tray on that desk has been converted to a charging station for my laptops and AlphaSmart, so I can pull any of those out and go.

Workspace (project in progress in large red folder), "ego wall," and hidden
laptop charging shelf in view.
Finally, I do have a corner for my papasan lounge chair, affectionately known around here as the "narcolepsy chair" because of its ability to put anyone to sleep at any time.  More than once, I have been unable to sleep at night in my bed, but coming in to sit in the papasan has done the trick.  It is kind of a routine around here for Mr. FC&G and I -- if you wake up alone one morning (and didn't go to bed that way), start checking comfy chairs, couches, and the spare bedroom for the party who drifted overnight.

I am loving the peace and quiet of my office.  Not just the literal quiet, but the intellectual quiet that comes from organization.  Even if I get up at 5:30 in the morning (which has happened now and again) and decide to go to work, I have a space that doesn't jangle my nerves and which lets me be productive.  In fact, I think I am working faster and more efficiently than ever before.  It may not have a view of palm trees, but my take on a Hemingway office has turned out just fine!

A nice place to sit and read.



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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Friends are the Best Renewable Resource

Well, I had my post all planned today, and I even hit the office early to write it, but I had a surprise waiting in my mailbox from an amazing woman:  Katy Wolk-Stanley.

I've never met Katy in "real life," but I feel I know her well through her blog, The Non-Consumer Advocate.  It is a wonderfully-entertaining blog; seriously, go check it out.  We'll wait.

Katy writes about her journey following The Compact, a lifestyle that minimizes the amount of new things one purchases.  Although this has Katy darning her share of socks, it also leads to some highly-entertaining visits to Goodwill, and some DIY furniture spruce-ups that are worthy of HGTV.  If you only looked at the "after" pictures on Katy's blog, you would swear she spends all of her time and money shopping in high-end stores.  Instead, she spends her time working as a nurse, blogging, and raising her family, and she spends extra money allowing her sons life-changing trips to Japan.  How's that for a cool mom?

Recently, Katy offered to run a 125x125 ad, for free for the month of December, to anyone with an Etsy store.  I took her up on the offer, and I had my best sales day to date the day she posted the ad; traffic figures suggest that she is in part responsible for this.  Then, when I couldn't seem to get text to appear on my ad image, she altered it so that my shop name appeared, as you see above.  She gave of her time to help out a stranger, and that is a pretty amazing thing.

When I send out notices from my Etsy store, I say "friends are the best renewable resource."  I really have received some tangible demonstration of this through Katy, and I plan to follow her popular blog for as long as she cares to write it.

Won't you help me show her some love and click over to her site?  I can't wait to see what she's done with her latest Goodwill find, or to learn more about how she is living one of the richest lives you can imagine on the resources she has available.

Thank you, Katy!
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