Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Birthday Banner

My dad celebrated his 80th birthday this past June 27th, and all three of us (his daughters) traveled across the country with our families for the big occasion. My sister Carol planned most of the party details, and she decided on a racing theme with a black, white, green and blue color scheme. I got it into my head to make some kind of birthday banner that we could hang outside near the festivities, and the banner that I came up with is shown in the photos above.

I started with a banner template set that I purchased online from Oriental Trading Company. The set has various templates to make banners in a number of different shapes, but since I was just using basic triangles for my banner, I probably could have done without the templates. Or, I could have easily made my own from heavy plastic. But, since I had the templates, I used them. The triangle template had two different cutting lines, so I used the "inside" line to cut my colored cardstock, and the larger, "outside" line to cut the black cardstock pieces. For the black pieces, I traced the template onto black cardstock and cut the penciled shape out with decorative "zig-zag" scissors. I then mounted the green and blue pieces on the inside of the black pieces.

My kind neighbor cut out the "Happy Birthday" sayings for me using her Cricut. We played around with a couple of different sizes to see which would work best and fit closely within the triangles. I used glue to adhere the "Happy Birthday" pieces to the triangles. The beach ball and package die cuts were made with my Quickutz, using scraps left over from cutting out the green and blue triangles. The "80" on every other triangle was also cut using a Quickutz font. After I finished decorating all of the individual triangle banner pieces, I set an eyelet into the two top corners of each piece. Since I had to travel with my banner, I wanted to be able to store it flat and then actually put it together when we got to my dad's house and were setting up for the party.

To assemble the banner, I simply tied pieces of white curling ribbon through each set of eyelets, and tied the pieces in knots. I wanted the banner to be flexible because I needed it to fit the space that we had available.

As you can see from the photo, the finished banner ended up looking very nice hung along the edge of my dad's covered patio. The bright and contrasting colors made it very easy to see, and it really added a nice touch to the party atmosphere. A couple of words of warning, though. The first is that paper, particularly multiple layers of cardstock, can get REALLY heavy. My banner was quite long (about 25 individual triangle pieces) and as we were putting it up, we discovered that it was simply too heavy to hang across a large open area with just the ends supporting the weight of the banner. So we ended up using a support in the middle, as well, but that wasn't something I had expected. The second warning is that it sometimes rains in the summer, and paper gets . . . wet. Yep, we had a late afternoon thunderstorm and even though the banner was partially protected from the elements, it got wet enough that eventually a few of the eyelets ripped out and down the banner came. In hindsight, we should have hung it either inside near the cake table, or across a more protected area. However, the banner served its purpose and it wasn't supposed to be a cherished keepsake, just a fun party decoration, so it didn't upset me too much when the whole thing collapsed.

Since my dad's party, I've made a couple of variations of this banner, including one to cheer on a gal at work who was selected to run in a special Labor Day race in our area. Since I needed to produce that banner virtually overnight, I just used pre-made embellishments and letter stickers to decorate the triangles. Also, I fastened the individual triangles together at the corners with mini brads rather than eyelets, and I found that the banner still had a lot of flexibility, but was quite secure when it was hanging up.

So the next time you have an occasion to celebrate, forget the pre-made banner from the party store, and make one of your own, using your scrapping supplies and little bit of creativity.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Marinated Mushrooms

One of the things that I was thankful for yesterday was having a really great marinated mushroom recipe to rely on. It's one that I found a number of years ago in Good Housekeeping magazine. I always make a relish tray for holiday dinners, and these mushrooms add a delicious and elegant touch to any relish or appetizer presentation. It's funny. Marinated mushrooms are one of those things that people mindlessly buy in jars at the grocery store, and they tend to think that's the only way to get them. As though they're not something you could ever make at home. Salad dressing, applesauce and pancake mix are kind of like that, too. (Remind me to share my pancake recipe sometime -- I promise that once you try it, you'll never go back to buying boxed or prepared mixes again.) Anyway, the point is that these marinated mushrooms are lots better than the jarred ones you can get at the store, probably because the mushrooms are only lightly cooked and therefore don't turn out all rubbery and tasteless.

The other great thing about this recipe is that it's quick. You can make these in just a few minutes the night before a holiday, pop them in the fridge, and they're ready to go for dinner the next day. Like most marinated things, the longer they stand in the marinade, the better they become. So, if you've been looking for something to add a little flair to your holiday relish tray, give these a try. They go great with turkey, ham, pork roast, or most any meat.

Marinated Mushrooms

1 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
12 oz. container fresh whole white button mushrooms (small if possible)
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper (I use a black and red pepper blend)
1/8 tsp. salt
1 T. pimentos (from small jar)

Clean mushrooms, trimming stem ends and halving any large mushrooms. In large saucepan, heat vinegar and water to boiling. Add mushooms and cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring the entire time. Remove mushrooms from liquid with a slotted spoon and place in a glass bowl. Add 1/2 cup of the mushroom cooking liquid, then stir in remaining ingredients. Cool slightly; cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving Menu Cards

Aren't these the cutest Thanksgiving menu cards? The best part is that they took less than an hour to make, from start to finish. I used an A2 (card-sized) Quickutz embossing folder and did the embossing using my Epic Six machine. The folder dry embosses the turkey at the top and the "Happy Thanksgiving" at the bottom of the card, resulting in a textural, raised image. The second photo shows a close up of one of the embossed areas. I achieved the different colors by using Co'ordinations cardstock in two different colors, then sanding lightly over the embossed areas to reveal the core color of the cardstock. If you aren't familiar with Co'ordinations, it's textured cardstock that has core colors that are different (sometimes slightly different, sometimes startlingly different) than the surface colors. They have several color lines, including whitewash, which is what I used for the light card, and vintage, which I used for the green card.

After embossing, sanding and trimming the blank cards, I typed and formatted my Thanksgiving menu on my computer using a graphics program. I could have used Word or Word Perfect, as well. I sized my text box to be about 3-1/4" square, so that it would fit nicely onto the blank card. I printed the text box onto plain printer paper, making sure that I didn't print the "outline" of the box. Then I carefully positioned and adhered one of the blank cards on top of the sheet with the printed menu on it (using a temporary adhesive), and ran the whole thing through the printer again. I repeated the process with the remaining blank cards.

I then inked the edges of the menu cards and matted them onto dark brown cardstock. I'm going to put one on each person's dinner plate for Thanksgiving dinner. If you wanted to make cards that stood up, you could emboss the front of a folded piece of cardstock, instead of using a single, flat piece, as I did.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Perfect Menu for a Crisp Fall Evening

I'm happy when fall rolls around, because as I often say to friends, I'm always at a loss as to what to cook in the summer months. Besides throwing something on the grill, I can never seem to come up with yummy, yet summery, fare. Nope, I'm much more of a fall and winter cook, since some of my favorite dishes to make (and eat!) are soups, stews, and comforting casseroles. I generally make a pot of chili on the first weekend that, temperature wise, I can possibly justify a cold-weather menu.

One of my favorite cool-weather dinner entrees is White Bean Chicken Chili. I first had a white chili that I really liked at a friend's house in a neighboring state, but when she shared her recipe with me, I found out that it used a commercial seasoning mix that isn't available where I live. So I started trying other, similar recipes, and when I found this one, I knew I'd hit the jackpot. My older son insists that this Southwest-inspired chicken chili "tastes like tacos," and it's become one of his favorite dinners. It's an added bonus that the recipe is pretty healthy and very low-fat. Although the recipe itself doesn't call for using a slow cooker, that's how I make mine, and I've included a couple of tips about that at the end of the recipe. And, I pretty much always accompany the white chili with Grandma's Cornbread, hands down the BEST cornbread I've ever eaten. In fact, this recipe turned my husband, who is a confirmed cornbread-hater (he says it's always dry), into a multiple-piece cornbread eater. The cornbread from this recipe comes out moist and delicious, and it's just as good reheated the second day, as well (if the pan lasts that long!).

White Bean Chicken Chili
8 servings

2 T. vegetable oil
2 lbs. diced, cooked chicken
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can chicken broth
1 can tomatillos, drained and chopped OR
1 jar salsa verde (such as Archer Farms)
1 (16 oz.) can diced tomatoes
1 (7 oz.) can diced green chiles
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
2 cans small white beans, drained
1 can corn, drained
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

Heat oil in a Dutch oven, and cook onion and garlic until soft. Stir in broth, tomatillos or salsa, tomatoes, chiles, and spices (except salt and pepper). Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add corn, chicken and beans; simmer another 10 minutes to half an hour. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and garnish bowls with chopped cilantro. Serve with an assortment of toppings, such as lime wedges, shredded cheese, avocado, sour cream and tortilla chips.

Slow cooker instructions: Combine all ingredients except salt and pepper in a large slow cooker. Cook on low for 7-8 hours, until flavors have combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve as noted above.

Note: I like to buy big "family packs" of bone-in chicken breast when they are on sale at my local grocery store. Sometimes they are as inexpensive as $1 per pound! I load the breasts into a large stock pot, cover with water, and simmer for a couple of hours. I remove the chicken breasts from the pot and, once the pieces have cooled, I pull the meat from the bones and cut or shred it. I package the cooked meat in meal-sized portions and freeze it. When I'm ready to make this recipe, I just grab a bag of chicken from the freezer and add it to the slow cooker along with all of the other ingredients. Then I skim the wonderful broth that's left in the stock pot, cool it, and put it into 2 cup containers for the freezer. There's NOTHING like homemade chicken stock!

Grandma's Cornbread
Makes 12 pieces

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
2/3 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 9" square baking pan. In mixing bown, mix together melted butter and sugar. Add eggs and beat until well blended. Combine buttermilk with baking soda and stire into mixture in bowl. Stir in cornmeal, flour, and salt until well blended and few lumps remain. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Note: I often make this cornbread in a pan that's a little bit larger than the size called for in the recipe, so that the pieces aren't quite as thick. If you decide to do the same, be sure to adjust your cooking time, because cornbread made in a larger, shallower pan won't take quite as long to bake. Oh, and can I just say -- this recipe is worth buying a carton of buttermilk for. You can use sour milk but it just isn't the same. I've found that buttermilk (because of it's very low fat content) will keep quite awhile, and it's a great addition to many kinds of baked goods.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Note Cards with Flair

I love making cards with my leftover scrapbooking supplies, especially note cards. Even with e-mail and cell phones, I'm one of those people that never abandoned communication via the U.S. mail service. As much as I like opening my in box and seeing an e-mail from a friend, there is nothing like finding an unexpected envelope in my real mailbox, addressed to me in a familiar hand. I figure that other people enjoy surprises as much as I do, so I like to send notes and cards to family and friends. I'm pretty big on written thank-you notes, as well. I know, I know, I'm old-fashioned. I get e-mailed thank-you's from my young adult nephews, and I'm fine with that, but nothing can capture the charm of a handwritten thank-you. So when it's my turn to write the thank-you, you won't find me using e-mail. Besides, making cards is a great use of paper scraps and embellishments that I have left over from scrapbooking. Reuse, recycle, be green, and all of that.

The picture above is a few of the cards that I made recently. I love the dollar bins at Michael's, and I often find perfect card embellishments there. All of the 3-D embellishments on the cards in the photo came from the dollar bin, and I used dollar bin stamps from Studio G on both the green card and the pink and yellow card with the hearts background. The Studio G stamps are small, so they're just perfect for cardmaking. Oh, for the background of the green card, I ran a piece of white-core cardstock through an embossing machine using the Cuttlebug "Swiss dots" embossing folder. After the dots were embossed, I sanded the outside of the card so that the white core of the cardstock would show through a bit. I love the way it came out.

Ok, the ADORABLE pumpkin card is NOT my design. Yeah, I wish! In fact, it was designed by Kristina Werner and it, along with two other great cards, constituted the September version of her free online class, A Year in Cards. You can get the instructions and the downloads to make all three uniquely-shaped Halloween cards here: Halloween cards. As soon as I saw that pumpkin card, I knew I had to make it. It came out so cute that I decided to make up little kits and do the card as a make-and-take at my scrap group's October crop. Just a note if you decide to make some -- if you position the pieces carefully, you can get two entire cards from one 12x12 sheet of pumpkin-colored cardstock.

As you can see, my pumpkin cards didn't turn out exactly like Kristina's, but that, of course, is the wonderful thing about paper crafts -- you can make them your own. I sent a few of these as note cards, but in addition to making perfect Halloween and "just because" cards, I thought this design would also make a fantastic Thanksgiving card. You could change the greeting to say "Happy Thanksgiving" or maybe "Give Thanks," and add a meaningful quote inside. I'm also toying with the idea of reducing the size of the .pdf download on a copy machine, and using the reduced size design to make place cards for my Thanksgiving table. The white banner would have each person's name on it. How cute does that sound? Ok, right now I'm working on Christmas gifts for my sisters, but if I end up doing the place cards, I will definitely post a picture.

So, the moral of this post is, be green and use your paper scraps and extra embellishements to make some cute note cards and thank you cards that just might make someone else's day.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Halloween Treat Bucket

I wanted to share this adorable Halloween treat bucket that I just finished! I just love the way it turned out. I got the inspiration for this project from Tami Sanders, who is a designer for Reminisce. (Ok, so it wasn't just inspiration, it was more like I copied her project wholesale.) Here is a link to Tami's blog where she featured this project last month: I fell in love with the project and rushed down to Hobby Lobby to buy everything I needed for it.

Like so many things in life, this ended up taking much longer than I expected, but it's finally done, and it's not Halloween yet! Anyway, the shot above is the front of the treat bucket; the two opposite sides use different papers and trims. Here is a shot of one of the other sides:

Although Tami didn't post actual instructions for her project, I just kind of figured it out using the picture that she posted. Like Tami, I used a small, unfinished wooden waste paper basket from Hobby Lobby for the base. I adhered a purple dot paper to all sides of the wooden base, then added the shaped paper pieces along the middle of each side. The border trims were precut and self-stick, so all I had to do was measure the length I needed, peel the backing off, and stick. You could use about any border sticker for this, or you could use borders you cut yourself with a Cricut, Quickutz or other die cutting system.

Once the borders were in placed, I inked the edges of everything with a black ink pad, then coated all four sides of the container with glossy Mod Podge, putting on three coats until the whole thing was shiny and beautiful. Can I just say that I LOVE glossy Mod Podge? It is the greatest stuff! For the pleated trim along the top of the bucket, I tore long strips from a sheet of coordinating paper, and placed the strips on a sheet of waxed paper. I then gave them a couple of coats of Mod Podge. Once they were dry, I pleated them in a random fashion and ran a line of stitching down the middle to both hold the pleats down and to keep the pieces together. When I was done with this step, I had one long strip of pleated trim. I attached it to the top of the bucket with a hot glue gun, following the line of the wooden container.

Next step was a few coats of glossy black craft paint for the big wooden letter "T." (The big wooden letter came from Hobby Lobby, too.) Once that was dry, I used a white pigment marker to make stitching lines around the edge, and tied a few pieces of colorful ribbon to the stem of the "T." I made the white base for the rest of the word "Treats," inked the edges, and adhered that to the container. Then I hot glued the "T" into place, and hot glued on the other letters, which are just black chipboard. The little wooden pumpkins came in a package of about 20, already painted and ready to be used. I hot glued those on, along with some Making Memories "Word Fetti" word stickers, to finish the focal point of the container, the word "Treat."

Here is a close-up of the big wooden "T" and the chipboard letters:

Finally, I hot glued two wooden pumpkins on the other three sides of the container, and put a couple of coats of Mod Podge over the sticker words, the white word base, and the chipboard letters. I did that simply because they would have looked sort of weird if I hadn't done it, since everything else on the container had a glossy finish.

I left everything to dry overnight, and that's it! So, I guess I need to go out today and buy some Halloween candy, huh? I'm super glad this project is done, because this afternoon the kids and I are going to carve pumpkins, and I'm going to try a "medium" level design of a grim reaper kind of skull. The last time I tried something more complex than your typical Jack-o-lantern, I got some of my cuts too close together the whole face of my pumpkin collapsed. Which actually didn't look that bad. So, maybe I'll have a cool carved pumpkin picture to post in a day or two. In the meantime, thanks again to Tami Sanders for the inspiration for this fun candy bucket!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Peanut Butter Brownies

This is my favorite non-chocolate brownie recipe. Prior to finding this recipe, I'd never liked "blondie" recipes all that much. Not because they didn't taste good, but because it seemed that a non-chocolate bar cookie could never have the texture of chocolate brownies, and that moist, chewy, fudgy texture is one of the things I love most about "real" brownies. Enter this recipe. These peanut butter laden bars come out flavorful, sweet and delicious, but just as importantly, they've got a dense and almost fudgy texture, very similar to the best chocolate brownies. Throw in some chocolate chips, and you'll have people swooning. Even if you're an inexperienced baker, this easy recipe will be successful.

Before I get to the recipe, though, a quick word to less experienced bakers. Unlike cooking soups and casseroles and meats, baking is much more of an exact science. You can't do the Rachel Ray "just eyeball it" when you're measuring ingredients for baking, and RR herself will tell you that (and it's one of the reasons she doesn't really like to bake). Flour and sugar should be measured with nesting cups meant to measure dry ingredients, and after measuring, you need to level the top off with a knife.

I realize how basic all of that sounds, but years ago, I had a friend who was a pretty good cook, and only a fair baker. Once, when I was at his house, I discovered why. I happened to stop by one afternoon just as he was starting to make cookies for a friend's birthday. As we chatted, he pulled out a bowl, a canister of flour, and a measuring cup. One of those glass measuring cups with a lip on it. I shrieked. Why was he about to use a liquid measuring cup to measure flour? He looked at me like I was crazy. That was the cup he used to measure everything, he told me. Flour, oil, water, sugar -- he measured it all in that same cup. After some poking around in his kitchen, I discovered that he did in fact own a set of dry measuring cups, but he used the glass cup for convenience. He figured a cup was a cup, so if you're making cookies, might as well only dirty one measuring cup. I'm all for efficiency and fewer dishes, but a LIQUID cup (8 fluid ounces) is not the same as a cup measured by volume. (Mixing up measurements is surprisingly prevalent. On QVC, they frequently boast that containers of Philosophy shower gel are "a full pound." But they're not -- they're 16 FLUID ounces, not 16 ounces by weight, which is what a pound is.) Remember what I said about baking being an exact science? To get the right measurements of the ingredients you'll be using, you need a liquid measuring cup for liquids, and dry measuring cups for dry ingredients. It can be the difference between a baking success, and a failure. Oh, and "solids," like the peanut butter in the recipe below, are measured using the dry ingredient cups, as well.

Peanut Butter Brownies

1 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup margarine, softened
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar, packed
3 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup chocolate or peanut butter chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 13x9 baking pan. In a medium bowl, cream together peanut butter and margarine. Gradually blend in the brown sugar, white sugar, eggs and vanilla; beat until fluffy. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt; stir into the peanut butter mixture until well blended. Fold in the chocolate chips, if using. Turn into the prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, until the top springs back when touched. Do NOT overbake! Cool, then cut into squares. Makes about 2 dozen.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Layouts

Just wanted to share a couple of layouts that I did this weekend. Seems like I have been working on a lot of special projects in the past couple of months, including keeping up my Project 365 album and doing three small baby albums, so I confess that it had been awhile since I'd scrapped any pages for my regular old family albums. Finished both of the above layouts at my scrapbook group's crop this past Friday night, and boy did that feel good! I've always been one of those people that, the more I scrapbook, the more I WANT to scrapbook, so hopefully getting these two layouts done sparked my mojo.

Love the Halloween Parade layout! That's my little guy in the photo on the left, in the green metallic alien costume. I made that costume a number of years ago when my older son was 8 or 9, and what I remember most is that sewing the alien head was quite an ordeal! The head is actually oversized and has stuffing in the top, and I had to buy some special black fabric for the eyes, too. Oh, and the costume has boot spats that fit down over the shoes, as well. The layout uses my all-time favorite paper line, KI Memories. These papers are from their Halloween line from several years ago -- you can't even find them anymore. There are SOOOOOO many KI papers that I would just love to have more of -- these Halloween papers, the Grateful line (autumn colors and Thanksgiving theme) and all of the Colorful line. The glittery 3-D postage-stamp shaped stickers are from the Michael's dollar bins. I've found some of cutest embellishments in those bins! I cut the title using the Quickutz Nutmeg font, one of my newer font purchases. I like it because it's a nice in-between size, not too big and not too small, and it has just enough flourish.

The Scout page was fun because I ended up playing around with a sheet of rub-on stitches made by Die Cuts With a View. I do stitch on my pages for real, using a sewing machine, but rub-on stitches are great for taking to crops, or when I'm just too lazy to sit down at the sewing machine. This particular sheet of rub-on stitches was all primary colors, and the various colors went perfectly with my background paper. I own a whole set of rub-on stitches (like, 12 sheets of them in all colors and patterns), and I hate to say it, but this was the first time I've used them! It won't be the last -- they went on very easily (but not too easily), didn't break or lift off, and they look great. The scalloped border is thin chipboard that I painted with white craft paint.

It's cold here today, so I have split pea soup with ham in the slow cooker for dinner, and I'm planning to make Grandma's Cornbread to go along with it. I'm going to try to post a recipe or two this week, but in the meantime, keep warm, and Happy Fall!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Photo Planning

Do you get Creating Keepsakes magazine? I do, and I still love it as much as I did when I first started subscribing to it. Granted, there are usually a few features each month that I'm not crazy about, and sometimes some of the layouts aren't really my style, but in general, I still gets lots of ideas and inspiration from this magazine. And every now and then, an article or tip or project published in CK makes me take a step back and say "Wow! Fantastic idea! Why didn't I think of that?"

A month or so ago, I had just such an "aha!" moment as I was sitting out on our sunporch, my CK spread open on the table in front of me. The source of my mental commotion was an article from the special 2009 Top 10 issue entitled "10 Can't Miss Photos to Take Each Month," by Joannie McBride. The simple, straightforward article consisted of a list of each month of the year, with 10 ideas for photos bulleted under each month.

Okay, call me crazy, but the proverbial light bulb went on in my head as I read this piece. I've often carried ideas around in my head for a special picture or two that I wanted to take on different occasions, but I have to admit that it had NEVER occurred to me to actually write down all of those photo ideas, much less organize them by month. This simple idea was pure genius. I just love the idea of thinking about each month ahead of time, contemplating the events and photo opportunities it might bring, and listing ideas for photos that I want to make sure I don't miss for that month. I'm a fairly organized person, but I never thought of bringing some kind of organization to the wealth of random photo ideas fluttering around in my head. When I look at scrapbook magazines, I often mark layouts featuring interesting or unusual photographs, noting in the margin "photo idea." But most of the time, those notes never make it out of the margin of the magazine page. (That's why it took me several years to get around to taking the photos for a layout about our family's most cherished Christmas ornaments -- I'd never remember to take the necessary photos while the tree was up!) Now those margin notes would have a home under the appropriate month on my "Photos to Take" list, where they'd be much more useful.

Now, unlike the CK article, I don't plan to map out a year's worth of "can't miss" photos ahead of time, although you could certainly do that if you were so inclined. Instead, what I plan to do is sit down on the first day or so of a new month with a cup of coffee, my calendar and that inspirational "Top 10" article, and really think about the upcoming month. I plan to make a list of photos I'd like to take that month (and I'm not limiting myself to 10 ideas!), taking into consideration seasonal changes, what my family is going to be doing, the kids' school activities, holidays or celebrations that might be included in that month, and other factors. Once completed, I'm going to keep my list for that month right in my monthly planner, so that I can see it and refer to it often throughout the month. Will I end up taking every photo on my "Photos to Take" list for a given month? That's pretty unlikely. But with the list as an easy reference point, I have no doubt that I'll do a better job of remembering to take my camera to more "everyday" kind of events (isn't that half the battle sometimes?), and I'll be more conscious and deliberate about capturing images that are important to me, both for my family's enjoyment and simply to make scrapbooking easier and more fun. Am I ONLY going to take photos from my list? Of course not. The "planned" photos will simply take their place alongside all of the spontaneous, everyday photos that I also take each month.

Seeing as how it's the beginning of October, I thought I'd go ahead and share my list of photos for the coming month with you.

Photos to Take -- October 2009

Jack 'o' lantern before and after (this cool idea is from CK)
Fall baked item on new pumpkin serving tray
My family, all wearing sweaters
Stack of my favorite sweatshirts, folded
Colorful fall foliage -- both landscape shots and detail shots
High school football game
Marching band at "light show" halftime performance
Brian holding a jack 'o' lantern and imitating its expression (from CK)
New fall wreath on the front door
Baskets of apples at a farm market
Kids at the pumpkin patch (need to plan a trip to do this one)
Cases of Boy Scout popcorn stacked up in my garage
Bosses' Day food spread at work
* Kids' costumes
* Groups of ToT'ers going around the neighborhood
* New treat bucket I intend to make
* Halloween decor
* The candy haul
* Brandon with his friends

Well, that's my list. Are you ready to create yours?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Easy (and Delicious) Money Saver

I don't have a picture of the recipe I'm sharing today, so I thought I'd start my post with this photo that I took at Waldumar Nature Center toward the end of the summer, when my younger son was attending day camp there. I'm not sure why, but black-eyed susans seem to have been incredibly prolific around here this year! And purple coneflowers are one of my favorite perennials. By the way, notice the extended depth of field in this photo. The flowers are in acceptable focus pretty much from the front of the image to the back. That's not always what I want when I'm shooting flowers. In fact, more typically, I like to focus closely on one individual flower and "blur out" the other flowers and scenery behind the subject flower. But for a whole garden of beautiful blooms, there's nothing like capturing the image with an extended depth of field. In this case, I used a fairly narrow 8.0 aperture to achieve the look that I wanted. I'll talk more about depth of field and how to manipulate it in a future post.

So, this post is about an easy way to save a few dimes. These days, who isn't looking for simple money saving ideas? I'll preface the recipe by saying that sometime last winter, I started eating oatmeal every morning for breakfast. I'd only recently started eating breakfast at all, and I'd typically bring a yogurt in to my office and eat it at my desk. But once the weather turned cold, oatmeal was much more appealing. I started bringing in envelopes of instant oatmeal in my favorite flavor, brown sugar and cinnamon, and cooking them in the office microwave. At the time, my teenage son was also on an oatmeal kick and, being a still-growing young man, he would usually eat two envelopes of oatmeal each morning. Accordingly, I started buying the industrial sized box of instant oatmeal at Sam's Club, which was a pretty good value.

And then a friend of mine asked if I knew of any cake-in-a-mug or brownie-in-a-mug recipes. She was making up some "comforts of home" type gifts for a few college students who lived in the dorm and who would have access to nothing more than a microwave for cooking. Well, in the process of searching for cake and brownie recipes for her, I ran across a number of websites with recipes for all kinds of dry mixes and convenience foods that you'd typically buy in the grocery store for a lot more money. Things like taco seasoning and onion soup mix. One of the recipes that immediately jumped out at me was homemade instant oatmeal mix. Looking at the simple list of ingredients, I couldn't believe that it had never occurred to me to make my own oatmeal mix instead of buying the pre-portioned envelopes. Since my favorite flavor of oatmeal was brown sugar and cinnamon, I tinkered with the basic recipe on the website a bit until I came up with a spice blend that I liked. I've never looked back. These days, I mix up a big container of this oatmeal mix and keep it right in a drawer in my office. I'm never without a healthy breakfast or a quick snack, for a fraction of the cost of the envelopes of instant oatmeal that I'd been buying.

Homemade Instant Brown Sugar and Spice Oatmeal Mix

5 cups quick oats (NOT old-fashioned oats)
4 Tblsp. brown sugar
3 Tblsp. dry milk powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. gound cloves
Small Ziploc bags (optional)

In large bowl, combine all ingredients. Transfer to an airtight container until ready to use, or portion into Ziploc bags for single servings (use 1/2 cup mixture per bag). To serve: Place 1/2 cup of oatmeal mixture into bowl; add about 1/2 cup (or more, depending on how thick you like your oatmeal) boiling water. Let stand until thickened. For microwave: Place 1/2 cup oatmeal mixture into a microwave safe mug or bowl. Add about 1/2 cup water and microwave on high for one minute. Note: I love raisins or other dried fruit in my oatmeal. I usually add a tablespoon or two of raisins, dried cranberries, or mixed dried fruit to my mug right after I take it from the microwave. Then I let the oatmeal sit for just a minute, which softens the fruit. If you're using the boiling water method, put the raisins in the bowl with the dry oatmeal mix, then add the boiling water.

With fall officially here, an oatmeal recipe seemed appropriate. I'm planning to post a pumpkin bread recipe in the near future, too, so be on the lookout for it!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stitching on Layouts -- Two Favorites

Stitching on my layouts used to be one of those things that I'd do every once in awhile. My friend Sandy has always done a lot of stitching on her pages, and I really liked the way the stitched borders and other elements looked on her pages. (It didn't hurt that Sandy is a fabulous designer, too, but that's a post for another day.) Stitching seems to add a textural element to a layout, but in a subtle and interesting way. But, it was cumbersome to drag my sewing machine out every time I wanted to stitch on a page, so invariably my zest for stitching would wane, and I'd forget about doing it for awhile, until Sandy's work or someone else's page incorporating stitching would get me revved up again.

So, finally, I made a permanent space for my sewing machine in my craft room. It's not ideal, I'll admit that. My sewing machine shares a long table with my computer, keyboard, and a CD organizer. But it's there, and it's readily available pretty much anytime the mood to stitch on a layout strikes me. The result, not surprisingly, is that I stitch on my pages more often than I used to, and that makes me happy. (I do actually sew clothes and things, too, and having my machine out has made that interest easier to indulge, as well.)

If you've never stitched on a layout, there's really nothing to fear. You can use your regular old sewing machine without any special techniques or attachments. Just be sure to use a different needle than you use for fabrics, and you may need to adjust the tension if the bottom threads tangle on the back of your layout. But other than that, there's nothing to it. Oh, do be sure to have an idea of what you want to do before you slide that layout under the presser foot. Unlike fabric, the holes made by your sewing machine in paper will be permanent, so you can't really undo something you don't like. But the great thing is that stitching doesn't have to be perfect to look fantastic; in fact, a stitched border around the edge of a layout generally looks better if it's NOT perfectly straight and aligned. The handmade look and all of that.

The layout above is one of my all-time favorite layouts where I incorporated stitching. On this layout, I zig-zag stitched the edges of all of the photographs, and on the bottom photos, I used the stitched edge to kind of bring the photos together visually. I also stitched the strip of patterned paper at the top along both edges. But the stitched wavy lines in the middle of the layout are my favorite design detail. I got the idea of adding the tiny flowers and brads along the lines from a layout I saw in a magazine, and I'm just crazy about the way it came out. If you can't see the detail of the layout very well (it's white stitching on a white background, after all), click on the photo and you can see an enlarged version.

Here's another layout that uses stitching in a different way:

On this layout, which features my handsome nephew at his graduation from Texas Tech University a couple of years ago, I stitched the patterned paper along the side using a zig-zag stitch, and then I made a "frame" around the photo using several rows of straight stitching, which almost, but not quite, meet. I left room along the bottom to journal the year. This is a great example of "messy" stitching actually looking better than perfectly straight stitched lines would have looked. I think that the "messiness" of the stitched frame adds a certain charm to the page. Obviously, in this layout, I was going for a random, slightly wavy look on purpose, but I've occasionally aimed for straight and managed to mess it up, so I try to keep an open mind about that "handmade" look. In any case, if you haven't tried stitching on your layouts, what are you waiting for? Give it a go!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Menu Staple -- Dal

That's my nine-year-old in the picture, happily gobbling up a plate of dal, one of his all-time favorite dinners, and a menu staple in my house. Dal has a lot going for it. It's low in fat and calories, and extremely high in fiber, something most people get far too little of. I try to make at least one vegetarian meal per week for my family, so I like the fact that dal is meatless. The fact that it's meatless also means that it's extremely easy on the budget. And, it uses turmeric, a spice that's recently been found to help protect against various cancers. Besides all that, it tastes great, and the leftovers are good for lunch the next day, too.

Although I've tried others, I've been using this particular recipe for dal for at least 15 years, possibly longer. I found it in the back of a Good Housekeeping magazine at a time when ethnic foods were still pretty far off the radar for most people (including me). Something about its combination of spices sounded good, so I tried it (it was just me and my husband back then), and I've been making it ever since. I toned down the spices a bit when my kids were toddlers, but both of them have pretty much grown up on it. I make no claims as to the authenticity of the recipe, but a good friend of mine who spent several years in Fiji, a country with a large Indian population, also uses this recipe, and has said that it tastes more like the dal she remembers from Fiji than any other recipe she's tried. For me, it's enough that it's a healthy, meatless meal that I don't have to beg my kids to eat.

Oh, one more note. This recipe uses dried lentils -- the cheap, everyday brown kind that you find in a bag at the supermarket. If you want to go a little more gourmet, you can certainly try red lentils, or fancy green ones, but plain 'ole brown lentils are actually my favorite, as they give the recipe an earthy, robust taste. And, I like that fact that brown lentils become tender but still hold their shape -- smaller lentils or ones that have been cut will often fall completely apart as they cook, giving the dal a very different texture and consistency. If you want a creamier dal with a milder flavor, try yellow split peas instead of the lentils. Whatever legume you use, you really can't go wrong. Also, since fresh ginger wasn't readily available when this recipe was published, it calls for ground ginger. Feel free to substitute a couple of teaspoons of minced fresh ginger for the ground, if you have it on hand.

Finally, don't be put off by the rather long list of ingredients. Most of them are spices. Oh, and if you haven't used turmeric much, be careful with it. Turmeric is what gives curry that orange-yellow color, and it will stain things like rubber spatulas and plastic ware.

Dal (Indian Lentil Stew)

3 Tbsp. cooking oil
1 cup chopped onion
1-1/2 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. ground coriander seed
3/4 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 tsp. ground cumin seed
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1/4 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1 cup dried brown lentils, rinsed
3 cups water

In a large saucepan or skillet, heat oil over moderate heat. Add onion, garlic, and all spices, including the bay leaf. Saute 5 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently, til onion is translucent. [It's really important to add the spices to the hot oil, rather than later, because heating the spices in oil is what releases their flavor.] Add lentils and continue to saute another 5 minutes, stirring often. Add water and bring to a boil. Cover pot; reduce heat to low and simmer for about 50 minutes, til lentils are tender and sauce has thickened. Discard bay leaf. Serve over hot cooked rice.

Makes 4 generous servings.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Leading Lines

Sometimes rules about composing photographic images just seem like way too much effort. The problem is, even if you understand the rule thoroughly (and some of them can be hard to understand), it's just not a natural impulse to think about following obscure rules right before you press the shutter. I mean, there you are, snapping photographs of your kids playing at the park on a bright spring afternoon. What's running through your mind is probably not missing that great shot of Billy on the swings, or how little Amanda's hair is blowing in the breeze so adorably while she's playing in the sandbox. What you probably AREN'T thinking is, how can I make this shot more compositionally pleasing?

Well, sometimes it's worth it to think that way. There are any number of elements with respect to your photographs that are squarely within your control. While you can't change things like the weather or the time of day, you can move closer to or farther away from your subject, you can change the vantage point from which you're shooting, you can turn the camera horizontally or vertically, and so forth. If doing some of these things at least some of the time can produce photographs that you find more pleasing, that you're happier to share with people, or maybe that make you want to grab your scrapbooking supplies, then there is really no downside to trying them. The trick, though, is to learn and practice some of the so-called "rules" of good composition, so that they become second-nature. It's when they become second-nature that you'll find yourself using them to compose those everyday shots of your kids playing at the park. And when that happens, you'll also notice (not coincidentally) that you're getting a greater number of really good, and really compelling, images. Also, the more you know about compositional rules, the more you'll understand that, like all rules, sometimes it's better to break them.

Over time, I'll make an effort to discuss several different rules of image composition in my blog posts. But, since the overall goal is to make thinking about and applying the rules second-nature, I think it's important that they be introduced and discussed individually. That way, you'll have sufficient time to practice using one rule before trying another one. Oh, and by the way, these rules are by no means exclusive to photography; they're actually basic principles of design. As you learn them, start looking out for real-world examples of their application. After awhile, you'll notice these principles being used in print advertisements, in movie scenes, and many other places.

I thought I'd start with the rule or principle that I consider one of the easiest to learn and apply -- the use of a "leading line." What is a leading line? Well, when you take a photograph, you want your viewer to focus on your subject and, more generally, you want to "draw the viewer in" to the scene that you've photographed, whether that's a landscape or Amanda in the sandbox. A "leading line" is simply some line-shaped element in your frame of vision, whether real or man-made, that you purposely position along the bottom edge of your image in such a way that it acts as a kind of "line," effectively drawing the viewer's eye into the photograph. The "line" can be straight, curved, or squiggly -- it doesn't matter. It will still have the effect of drawing the viewer's eye into the image.

In terms of natural leading lines, a river is the easiest example to visualize. A road is probably the quintessential man-made leading line -- after all, a road is perfectly line-shaped and it was built to lead somewhere! But the truth is that all kinds of things can act as leading lines. It all has to do with where you position yourself so that you can take advantage of the linear properties of the element that you've chosen.

In the photograph above of my son Brian playing at the park, the tires embedded in the ground are the leading line. Brian was having a blast jumping from tire to tire; using the line of tires to draw attention to his activity gives the photograph a dynamic component that would be missing in a simple photograph of him standing on one of the tires. It's almost like you're jumping along the trail of tires right behind him. Here's another example. This photograph was taken at Lake Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park:

In this photo, I used a fallen tree along the shore of the lake as my leading line. I noticed the tree near me as I was standing there taking photographs of the lake, and I simply positioned myself a bit behind it so that the tree was "pointing" toward the horizon in the resulting image. I found the almost eerie-looking shapes of some of the fallen trees at Yellowstone to be fascinating, so this shot allowed me to showcase both the shape of the tree and the serene beauty of the enormous lake. Landscape photographs are perfect for using leading lines, although as illustrated by the photo of Brian on the tires, the use of this technique certainly isn't limited to landscapes. But, generally, in a photograph you've composed using a leading line, you'll probably want everything in the frame to be in focus. This is as opposed to, say, a close-up, detailed image of a flower, where the flower likely looks better with a slightly blurred background. This means that you want great depth of field in your leading line photograph -- you want everything that the viewer sees, or almost everything, to be in acceptable focus. The easiest way to accomplish this is to use the "landscape" setting on your camera. Usually it's an icon of a mountain with a cloud over it. Using this setting will narrow the lens opening (aperture) of your camera, which will cause things both far and near to be in focus.

Remember how I said that a road is pretty much the quintessential leading line? Well, as the leaves start to turn beautiful fall colors (in my area of the country, at least) here is a great exercise for you to try. Drive along a country road (or any non-busy road lined with trees) and find a stand of trees sporting the beautiful yellows, reds and rusty browns of autumn. If fallen leaves litter the road, as well, so much the better. Set your camera on the landscape setting as described above, then experiment with using the road as a leading line into your photograph depicting the colorful trees. You can stand along the edge of the road, or right in the middle of it (if you're sure traffic won't be a factor). Take several different shots from several different perspectives, each time positioning the road along the bottom edge of your framed image. You'll see pretty quickly that it's an easy technique, and one that naturally lends itself to landscape photographs. If you're ready to branch out, think of a few other non-people photos that you'd like to take. Try to compose those images by looking for leading lines that can be incorporated into your photograph. Remember, a leading line can be almost anything -- a river, a tree branch, a sidewalk, the edge of a path, a row of flowers, etc. Have fun, and pretty soon, you'll be seeing potential leading lines everywhere!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Banana Bundt Cake with Caramel Glaze

I admit it. I am a banana snob. I love bananas, but I won't eat just any old banana. Nope. It has to be perfectly yellow and perfectly ripe, sweet but still firm, and without any of those icky brown speckles on the skin. I know that bananas with those speckles are just fine to eat (my father-in-law has told me this a million times), but I just like bananas better before they get to that point. Even worse, I've transferred my banana snobbery to my older son, as well. As a result, we often have bananas sitting around the house that are unsuitable for eating out of hand. But, being rather frugal in matters of food and cooking, I hate to toss overripe bananas. Until recently, though, I only had one go-to recipe that used overripe bananas and, while I like that banana muffin recipe, there have been times that I wanted to make something besides muffins.

Well, I recently found the recipe below for Banana Bundt Cake that uses overripe bananas, and in addition to being super easy (it starts with a boxed cake mix), it really tastes great.

Banana Bundt Cake with Caramel Glaze

1 package butter-recipe cake mix
3/4 cup sour cream
2-3 large, very ripe bananas
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla
3 eggs
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt pan. Mash bananas with a fork and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the cake mix and baking soda. Add the mashed bananas, sour cream, softened butter, eggs and vanilla. Using a hand mixer, beat at low speed until combined (about 30) seconds, then beat at medium speed for four minutes. (Yes, the amount of time really does make a difference. I just set my kitchen timer for four minutes to be sure I don't shortchange my batter.) Fold in the walnuts, reserving a couple of tablespoons for the garnish. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for about 50 minutes, or until center of cake tests done. Allow to cool on a wire rack. Remove cake from pan, invert onto serving platter, and drizzle with caramel glaze (recipe follows). Before glaze has fully set, sprinkle reserved chopped walnuts over the top of the cake.

Caramel Glaze
: Ok, there is no "recipe" for this glaze, but there is a little technique. It's a GREAT tip that my friend Pat shared with me, and I'm so grateful that she did. Here's all there is to it. Start with a can of caramel frosting, the kind you buy in the grocery store in the baking aisle. Scoop about one-third of the frosting into a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on medium power for about 20-30 seconds. Take the bowl out of the microwave and stir. You want the frosting to be a thick liquid (like a glaze). Don't overheat! Start with 20-30 seconds. If it needs ot be a little thinner, just microwave it for another 10 seconds and check it again. Once your frosting has reached the desired consistency, simply drizzle it onto the baked, cooled cake, allowing some of the glaze to drip down the sides. Ideally, the glaze will be just thick enough that the drips won't reach the serving platter, but will fall beautifully to mid-cake and stop there. Keep in mind that the more glaze you spoon on any one area, the bigger and heavier the drip will be. So start small and experiment as you go along the cake. This glaze "recipe" will work with any flavor or brand of frosting, but just remember that whatever amount you microwave will be forever changed, so you don't want to use the whole can of frosting if you don't need a huge amount of glaze. Using one-third of the can should give you plenty of glaze for the bundt cake.

By the way, this is a great cake to make for a work function, because it's the kind of thing that LOOKS like it took a long time and lots of effort to make. The fact that it was really super-simple to make can be your little secret!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Cute, Quick Baby Album

I love making scrapbooks as gifts when someone I know has a new baby, but a full-blown scrapbook can be incredibly time-consuming. Often, I need to come up with a gift in a short time frame, like over a weekend. So, I've developed a method of making small baby albums like the one pictured, which are cute, but are also so simple that they can easily be put together over a weekend.

I use the printed 6x6 American Crafts albums. These come in lots of different prints, including seasonal ones, and they have 10 page protectors already bound into the album. The binding is permanent, so you can't add additional pages to these, but frankly, the fact that you're limited to 10 page protectors is one of the reasons these albums are so quick to put together. I got a mixed set of twelve or so of the American Crafts albums from QVC for around $20, but you can also buy them individually. Of course, any 6x6 album would also work. I like to decorate the cover of the album with a painted wooden embellishment in an appropriate shape. For the album above, I picked a moon and stars. I added some stick-on rhinestones to the stars to bling them up a little bit, and I used rub-ons to add Preston's name to the cover. You can buy the wooden embellishments already painted at places like Michael's and Hobby Lobby for around 50 cents each, and they have tons of cute shapes.

To keep the album simple, I choose just a few different colors to work with, and some simple embellishments. For the baby album pictured, I found a set of K & Co. baby embellishments at WalMart for around $4.00. The set included flat, glittered stickers (ABC theme), word stickers, and some really cute 3-D embellishments. The set was more than enough to complete the whole album. Although I sometimes used patterned papers for these kinds of albums, I chose cardstock this time, limiting myself to just a few solid pastel colors that went well with the embellishments I'd picked -- green, lilac, yellow, and a couple of shades of blue. One reason I like to use the 6x6 albums is that I can get four 6x6 pages from one 12x12 sheet of cardstock, which is very economical. I generally make all of the layouts for the album using the same template, just varying the colors and embellishments used. I like to put a baby-related quote on the lefthand side of each layout (do a Google search for "baby quotes"), and the righthand page is left mostly blank for the recipient to add a 4x6 photo. That's another reason I love the 6x6 album size -- a 4x6 photo fits perfectly on the page with no cropping. It's very user-friendly even if the album recipient has never scrapbooked. You can see a couple of representative layouts in the photo above, but below is a close-up of one layout from the album. (You can enlarge the image by clicking on it, if you really want to see the details.)

I started with two 6x6 squares of cardstock in the same color, then I added the fat pieces along each side by simply tearing a contrasting piece of cardstock into strips about 2" wide. Sometimes I ink or chalk the edges of the border pieces, but for this album, I didn't. I used a stamp to make the narrow word border along each edge; the stamp I used varied with each layout. I adhered my quote (printed out on my computer in a cute font) to the lefthand page, then added a few of the ABC and word stickers in a pleasing arrangment. On the righthand page, I added a journaling block using a stamp from one of the Autumn Leaves collections, then I added a couple more word stickers. The only requirement with respect to the journaling stamp was that it had to be less than about 1-1/2" high, so there would still be enough room for a photo. For other albums, I've attached small, plain tags to the page for journaling, or you could use a plain or lined rectangle of cardstock, as well.

For the inside cover page of the album, I used large die cut letters to spell out the baby's name. I stamped a border, added a couple of cute, 3-D embellishments, and it was done. I like to include a little note to the new mom explaining that the album is designed to hold one 4x6 photo on each layout. If you wanted to, you could also add a journaling pen and some acid-free adhesive squares for a complete gift.

I'm sure it's obvious from the photos and from my description that there are a million different ways you could make an album like this. If I have more time, or the album is for a close friend, I may spend more time on the layouts, making them more elaborate and adding more embellishments. If you have pictures of the new baby, you could go ahead and adhere them to the pages, so that the album is ready to be enjoyed the minute the gift is opened. And, if you choose an expandable album rather than one of the American Crafts ones, you can add pages and make a much bigger album, say, for photos of baby's first year. The point is, a personalized, handmade gift doesn't always have to be expensive or hugely time-consuming. It can be fun and very rewarding to keep things simple and throw together a cute gift album in just a few hours.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Fun with Sparklers!

My kids just love it when I take fun photos like this of them. How about yours? Or maybe you've never tried taking a light tracing photo like this one. It's surprisingly easy.

You really only need three things. The first is a camera that allows you to make some manual adjustments to the settings such as shutter speed and ISO. All digital SLRs and, these days, most digital point-and-shoot cameras, allow these kinds of basic manual adjustments. Second, you need either a tripod or a flat, sturdy surface on which to rest your camera. You CAN'T handhold your camera for this kind of shot. It just won't work. The final thing you need is a "mobile" light source -- something that can be moved around to create the tracing effect. Here, my son is holding plain old Fourth of July sparklers, but a flashlight would work, as well.

If you're shooting outside, the best time of day to take this kind of photo is when it's just starting to get dark. That way, it's light enough that you'll capture sufficient detail to be able to tell that it's your child holding the sparklers, but it will still be dark enough that the light tracings will show up. If you want just the light tracings to show up in kind of an eerie way (in other words, you want it to look like there isn't a person in the photo), then try taking your photos when it's really dark outside. In any case, the first thing you'll want to do is set up your tripod. Start getting set up while it's barely dusk, so that you're all ready to go as the sky gets darker. I have a full-size tripod that I use for shots like this, and frankly, that's what will give you the best results. If you have a small point-and-shoot type camera, you can certainly use a small "tabletop" tripod, but you'll have to set it on something so that the lens of the camera is the right height and your camera is capturing exactly what you want it to capture. Similarly, if you don't have a tripod at all, you can simply set your camera on any reasonably sturdy surface that's available, such as a stool or the top of a fence post. It can be a bit tricky to set up a shot this way, but hey, that's what's great about digital cameras. If the shots don't come out, you can just delete them and try again another time. If you're not using a tripod, it's best to get the camera set up first, and then have your subject get into position so that you're capturing the right part of the subject's body for the image that you want. If you're using a tripod, get your subject into position first and then adjust the height and angle of the tripod.

Now, the key to getting a good light tracing is a long exposure time. The shutter has to be open for at least a couple of seconds so that your subject has enough time to wave his arms around and make a cool pattern with the light source. If you're not sure how to manually set the shutter time on your camera, check your manual. It's usually pretty simple. Most cameras have a program or "P" mode where you can adjust some settings manually, and whatever settings you don't adjust will automatically be set by the camera's computer. Even if you're not used to shooting in anything but automatic mode, using "P" mode will be a simple transition. (Another great thing about using "P" mode is that the flash will not automatically fire, and you don't want flash for light tracing photos.) Most cameras will allow you to pick from any number of pre-set shutter speeds, from super-fast (say, 1/2500 of a second) to super-slow (several seconds). Make sure you understand (and again, your manual should tell you this) how your camera differentiates between shutter speeds that are a fraction of a second, and those that are one second or longer. In most cases, it will be clear. My camera uses whole numbers with no symbols (such as 250 or 1000) to indicate speeds that are a fraction of a second. Thus, 1000 indicates a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second. To indicate speeds greater than one second, my camera utilizes the second symbol [ " ]. For the photo above, I used a shutter speed of 1.60 seconds. On my camera, this is expressed as 1"6, but it may be slightly different on your camera. You certainly don't have to use 1.60 seconds, either. You can try two seconds (this would be expressed as 2" on my camera) or four seconds. And that brings us to ISO.

Stated simply, changing the ISO adjusts the sensitivity of the digital image processor in your camera to light. A low ISO lets LESS light into the camera (your processor is less sensitive to light), and a high ISO lets MORE light in (your processor is more sensitive to light). Therefore, you'd choose a low ISO when there is lots of natural or existing light to illuminate your picture (outside during the day, for instance), and you'd choose a higher ISO when there is less natural or existing light (indoors, or at night). However, ISO and shutter speed are related. Because light enters the camera for the entire time that the shutter remains open, you have to take shutter speed into consideration when choosing an ISO. Thus, if you'll be using a slow shutter speed (as you will for the light tracing shots), you need to use a lower-numbered ISO than you would normally pick under nighttime circumstances. This is why you have to make the adjustments yourself, manually, on your camera. If you stay in automatic mode and let your camera choose the settings, it will assume that you want a brightly-lit shot of your child holding sparklers, and it will choose a high ISO, a fast shutter speed, and the built-in flash will probably fire. If you're shooting just as it's starting to get dark, as I've suggested, and you have your shutter speed set at, say, 2 seconds, try using an ISO of 100. Since you'll have the shutter open for a long time, this low ISO (which would normally be used outside in bright daylight) will allow enough light to enter the camera over that 2 seconds to make the shot. If you set the ISO too high (at 400, for instance), the long shutter time will enable too much light to enter the camera, and your image will be too light.

Ok, so your tripod is all set up, your camera is adjusted to the right shutter speed and ISO, and you have a willing subject. What now? Explain to your child (or other subject) the kind of image that you're trying to capture. Have them come up with ideas for patterns they'd like to make with the light source (circles, squiggles, etc.). Then instruct them to try as hard as possible to keep every part of their body perfectly still except for their hands, which of course will be moving the sparklers or other light source around. Remember that every movement of your subject's body will be recorded as long as the shutter is open, and the shutter will be open for a long time. Thus, if your subject moves his head all around in addition to his hands, what you'll end up with is a blur in the final photo (although, that can look kind of cool, too!). Notice in my photo that, while you can see my son's face, it's not perfectly in focus. That's because his head naturally moved around a little bit even though he was trying to keep it still, as instructed. So you're not really aiming for a perfectly focused face, just a recognizable one. Also, if you want to see your child's face clearly in the final image, have them keep the light source below the chest area when they're doing their squiggles or circles.

Now, have another adult light the sparklers, tell your child to start moving his hands, and press the shutter. That's it! You can probably get several shots off before even the short sparklers run out of gas. Review the images, make any adjustments, and repeat the process until you have several shots that you like. It's best to get several good shots, because when you look at them later on your computer, enlarged, you're bound to notice things on some of the images such as sparks in front of your child's face, too much blur, or other problems. So take a bunch, and have fun! I promise, unlike with other photo shoots, your kids will be more than willing participants in this one!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Quick Scotch Teas

This past Monday morning, I found myself in a quandry. I was supposed to bring a treat into work for a birthday celebration for a good friend and colleague, but the night before, I'd managed to ruin a batch of Peanut Butter Brownies and I had to throw them all out. Since I didn't know the brownies were ruined until about 10:00 p.m., after they'd cooled, I didn't have time to make another batch. So I went to bed and tossed and turned half the night, trying to think of something quick and easy that I could make on Monday morning. All I could come up with was cut-up vegetables with dip, but that presented a problem since the only raw vegetable I had on hand was baby carrots, and I had absolutely nothing in the fridge to make a dip with.

And then I remembered Quick Scotch Teas. The recipe for these delightful bar cookies was given to me by my good friend Renee many years ago. True to their name, Quick Scotch Teas can be thrown together quickly, and the delicious topping is "created" immediately after the hot crust is pulled from the oven, so there's no waiting around to finish the cookies. Long story short: I made the Scotch Teas before work on Monday, brought a pretty platter along with me, cut them into bars when I got to my office, and collected raves and compliments on them the rest of the day. Yep, they're THAT good. So what's not to like about a recipe that's quick AND delicious?

Quick Scotch Teas

1 cup butter or margarine
2 cups brown sugar, packed
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
4 cups quick oats (NOT old fashioned oats)
12 oz. bag chocolate or butterscotch chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and brown sugar until smooth and combined. Remove pan from heat. Stir in vanilla, salt, baking powder, and oats until ingredients are well-combined and mixture is crumbly. Press mixture into a greased 13 x 9 baking pan. Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes. (Note: Do not overbake, or cookies will be difficult to cut.) Immediately upon taking the pan from the oven, sprinkle the entire bag of chips over the hot crust. As the chips melt, spread them over the crust to make a thick, smooth layer. Allow to cool and cut into bars. Makes about 36.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Project 365

Back in December, I decided that on January 1, 2009, I was going to start the so-called "365 Project." If you're not familiar with this concept, essentially what you do is take one picture a day for an entire year, plus write a few lines of journaling about each day's picture. The idea is to document your daily life and daily activities through pictures. The concept itself has been around for awhile, but it became super popular (and the talk of all of the scrapbooking message boards!) late last year after celebrity scrapper Becky Higgins adopted it and put out a Project 365 kit that she designed. The kit had an album and divided page protectors for each week's layout, with pockets for the photos and separate journaling cards. Although I didn't try to order one, apparently the response to the kit was tremendous and many people who wanted the kit didn't get one. The kit wasn't really my style, but after reading about the whole 365 idea, I was instantly intrigued. I started looking into what other scrapbookers who weren't interested in the kit were going to do. Some planned to do something pretty similar to the kit, using divided page protectors, while others wanted a week's worth of pictures and journaling to fit on one single page.

After exploring a lot of different options, I came up with my own design for my weekly 365 layouts that I would house in a special 365 album that is 8-1/2 inches square. The photo above is a recent example of one of my Project 365 layouts. The big thing to me was to keep the form of the layouts almost exactly the same from week to week, so keeping the album up wouldn't become a huge chore. I mean, I probably have six or seven paper-crafting projects going at any one time, so I didn't want to take on an album of daily pictures if I didn't have a fairly easy way of keeping it up to date. (If I were a digital scrapper, like my friend Becky and her sister Barb, I'd probably have chosen that format for my layouts, as it really lends itself to a project like this. But, alas, I'm not digital (yet).) In any case, I came up with a template that I follow for my weekly layout, using pictures cropped to about 3-1/2 inches square. To keep things simple, I decided to use all cardstock, with no patterned paper at all. Because I'd need a lot of it, I chose inexpensive packaged cardstock from Michael's, the kind that comes with five or six coordinating colors in each package. Each layout uses two different but coordinating colors of cardstock, one for the background of the layout, and one for the mat that encloses all of the pictures for that week. I also bought just a few seasonal types of vellum stickers -- snowflakes, flowers, colored leaves.

I also decided to limit the fonts that I'd use for titles and journaling to my two favorites, 2Peas Flea Market and 2Peas Evergreen. Before I actually put together a layout, I went through my cardstock and picked coordinating shades to go together for the first few weeks' layouts. I opened a document in WordPerfect for my mats, which double as my title backgrounds. My title for each layout is simply the dates of that week. I alternate fonts for the title of each successive layout, and I use the same font for my journaling card, as well. I keep a separate document in WordPerfect for my journaling, and try to catch up on it at least once a week. What I like to do is take my camera right down to the computer with me, go through my recent photos, and write a few lines about each one. I print off photos to make the actual layouts maybe once a month, and get my journaling cards printed out then, as well. (By the way, this is a great project to keep up with at crops, because you have a limited number of things to bring with you.) I use a graphics program to format my journaling box, then I just copy my text into the box from my WordPerfect document. Usually I have to shorten things up a bit, because I need to fit a whole week's worth of notes in a 3-1/2 inch square, and when I write my journaling from day to day, I tend to be wordy. (Let's face it, I'm wordy pretty much all the time.)

I then physically put the layouts together, and embellish them very simply with a few seasonal stickers and three mini-brads along one edge. Why stickers with all of the cute 3-D embellishments out there? Because I wanted to be able to get half a year, or 26 double-page layouts, in one album. The lumpier I went, the less likely that was to happen. So I went flat with stickers, and the mini-brads add just a tiny bit of texture.

If you're intrigued by the idea of doing Project 365, but think you could never take a picture a day, don't worry. It's amazingly easy to find something to take a picture of every day. Have I ever forgotten to take a photo on a particular day? Of course, and it's been more than once. What I do on those occasions is just take two photos the next day. Oh, and I don't necessarily take a picture each day that relates specifically to that day. I also take pictures of things like the front of our house, my van's license plate, our street sign, etc., because I want to make sure I capture the routine details of my daily life in this album. And finally, if I've piqued your interest, rest assured that you don't have to wait until January 1, 2010 to start Project 365. My friends Becky and Barb decided to start on their birthdays, which I thought was a great idea! You could also start at the beginning of any month, or on another day that has personal meaning to you, such as your anniversary, the first day of school, or whatever. If you want to get some ideas before you get started, I recommend simply Googling "Project 365." You'll be amazed at what you uncover.