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.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sharing a Recent Layout

Recently, I've been trying to learn how to take good digital pictures of my 12x12 scrapbook layouts for posting online and sharing with friends. Sadly, I haven't been able to do it. I have a great camera, a tripod, and good lighting. I've watched online tutorials with tips and tricks. I can get a pretty good photo and I know how to crop the edges to straighten them, but having previously created images by scanning and stitching, I just didn't feel that my digital photos had the same quality. I'm sure I could fix my digital images using Photoshop, but that seemed like overkill for what I wanted to use the images for. So, I recently bought a new dedicated scanner (Canon didn't update the driver for my old scanner so that it could be used with Vista, thus rendering my hardware inoperable when I got a new computer) and within 10 minutes of installing the software, I produced the image above.

The scanner that I bought is a Canon CanoScan LiDE 100, one of their least expensive models. In fact, it was under $60 at, which is an amazing price. I went with Canon because my previous scanner had been a Canon, both of my DSLR's are Canon, and my main printer is a Canon, also. Components usually seem to work better together when they're made by the same manufacturer. What's great about this scanner is that it is totally powered through a USB plug-in; no separate power cord to add additional congestion to my computer area! Also, it's small and light and completely portable because it locks closed.

The software that I used for stitching the two halves of my image together is called Photostitch. It's a program that came on the software disk that I received along with my most recent DSLR. I had just never installed or used it. I have to say, it's a really great program because it's simple. All it does is stitch images together; it doesn't do photo editing tasks or other kinds of image manipulation. Thus, the program is easy to use as soon as you open it up. Previously, I used a somewhat complicated stitching program that gave fantastic results, but took much more effort. I had to adjust all kinds of settings before stitching and then make many additional adjustments to the final image after it was stitched. Because the Photostitch program does limited things, it's much faster and easier to use. What I like best about the Photostitch software, though, is the results. Look at the image of the layout above. Can you see where the software stitched my two scanned images together? I can't, and believe me, I've looked!! I find it amazing that I can get such a good "stitch" with this very basic program. My new scanner has a lot of settings to adjust colors and so forth, and I'll certainly start playing around with those because I'm sure I can make the colors on my layouts a little better. For the moment, though, I'm very pleased.

The layout itself is one I did fairly recently of my younger son participating in his Cub Scout pack's Raingutter Regatta. The pictures I had were rather poor, so I wanted to make the best use of them that I could. There are two things about this layout that I really like. First, the red star border on the lefthand side of the page. This is a glossy red, chipboard border that came from a package of mixed borders made by L'il Davis that I bought at Hobby Lobby a couple of years ago. Although I love borders, I could never quite figure out how to use the L'il Davis borders effectively. The colors never seemed right for my page. But I thought of those borders when I was doing this page, and I'm glad that I did. The red works with the rest of the page, and something about stars combined with Scout pages always seems appropriate to me, too.

The second thing is the journaling area. I love all of the journaling options that manufacturers have been coming out with lately, from stamps to tags. But I do 99% of my journaling on the computer, so I like to have journaling options that I can use with my computer. The journaling on the Raingutter Regatta layout was printed onto a blank sales invoice. You can buy little pads of these invoices at Wal-Mart (in the office supply section) for less than a dollar, and they come in different sizes, too. I simply adjusted my journaling in WordPerfect to be the right size, printed it out on a scrap piece of paper, peeled off one of the invoices off the pad, laid it on top of the printed journaling, adhered it at the top with a temporary (and easily removable) adhesive, and ran the sheet through my printer again. When attaching the journaling to the layout, I decided that it looked better with the top edge folded over and pinned down with a mini-brad. Anyway, the point is that you sometimes find great items that can be used for scrapbooking in the most unexpected places. So take a look around the office supply section the next time you're at a place like Wal-Mart or Target. You may just run across a treasure!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More Cards from Scraps

I've been spending the last few evenings organizing some of my digital pictures on the computer, and tonight this particular image caught my eye. I took it a couple of months ago. Seeing it again inspired me to stay on the subject of using up scraps for one more post.

While I always seem to have an abundance of scraps, at the moment, I have a plethora of scraps of a certain kind -- strips of lightweight cardstock in a specific set of colors. These are the scraps from my Project 365 layouts. (If you're not familiar with the so-called "Project 365," stay tuned, because I intend to post more about it soon, and hopefully include a sample of one of my weekly layouts, assuming I can get my new scanner up and running.)
Because I
had so many of the same size and colors of scraps, I decided to come up with a card design that would use several colors of cardstock on one card front. Having just gotten my new Quickutz cupcake die in the mail a day or so before, I decided to use that, too (isn't it the cutest?).

So here's the rundown on the cards in the photo. The cards themselves are pink packaged cards from Michael's; the brand name is Simply Paper. I bought them with a 40% off coupon so they were fairly inexpensive. The cards are A6 size, which is 6-1/4 inches x 4-1/2 inches. I wanted to make birthday and congratulations cards, so I needed the cards to be bigger than typical notecards. To start, I cut (from my cardstock scraps) many strips of cardstock, all different colors, each 4-1/4 inches long but three different widths -- 1-1/2 inches, 2 inches, and 2-1/2 inches. I selected these widths because one strip of each width fits nicely together on the front of the card, with just a little room on each side. After cutting a small pile of each width, I went through with my trusty corner rounder and rounded the edges on all of the pieces. I then went back and inked the edges of all the pieces. For the darker colored pieces, I used a brown ink, but for the lighter colored pieces, I decided that it looked better to use an ink that coordinated in color. Thus, the light purple pieces have a purple inked edge, and the pink pieces have a dark pink inked edge.

Using my Revolution die cutter, I then cut the pieces of the cupcake, generally using yellow or green cardstock for the cupcake "wrapper" (I chose these colors because they looked best with the various colors I had used for the strips), cream cardstock for the inner cupcake piece, pink for the "frosting," red for the cherry and brown for the cherry stem. [Here's the best die cutting tip ever: before cutting your shapes, run pieces of cardstock through your 5 inch or larger Xyron. THEN cut your shapes, and they'll essentially be peel-and-stick stickers.] I then cut small pieces of cardstock, about 1-1/4 inches by 2 inches, to use as a mat for whatever greeting I was going to use. I then went through my stacks of cardstock pieces and assembled groups of three pieces in colors that looked good together (remember, one piece of each width fits together on the card front). I then assembled the backgrounds by adhering a set of three pieces to each card front, varying the positions of the different width pieces depending on how the colors looked next to each other. I inked the edges of the cupcake "frosting" pieces, and also the "wrapper" pieces simply because with the light colors I was using, they needed a bit of definition. All of the inking could have been eliminated, though, if I had wanted to save time.

I then assembled a cupcake onto each card front on the right-hand side, with the cherry stem going to the left. I varied the greetings I used on the front, from a computer-printed "Happy Birthday" to a die-cut "Thanks" and "Celebrate." (Later, I got the brillant idea to use a stamp that I found that says "You're so sweet." Goes great with the cupcake theme and works for a birthday card, thank-you card, or thinking-of-you card.) Finally, I stamped an appropriate sentiment inside each card.

I think the cards came out really cute, and making a bunch of them enabled me to get rid of a really big pile of those Project 365 scraps. I also packaged up a set of these cards and included it as part of my end-of-year gift to my younger son's teacher in June. I'm thinking also that that cupcake die was probably one of my better purchases. Cupcakes are very trendy right now, so it has that going for it, but more importantly, a cupcake lends itself to almost any kind of card you need or want to make, except maybe a sympathy card. Like Alton Brown (do you watch him on Food Network? LOVE that man!), I greatly prefer a multi-tasking tool to a uni-tasker. That cupcake die is definitely a multi-tasker.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Making Use of Scraps

I'm an avid scrapbooker and paper crafter. If you are too, and you're anything like me, you have piles and piles of paper scraps laying around waiting for new life. Like many people, one of my favorite things to do with paper scraps is make cards. However, I'm more in the "keep it simple" camp when it comes to cards, simply because in general, I'd rather spend my time scrapping. So I like cards that are quick and easy to make, yet accomplish my goal of getting some of those scraps out of the scrap box.

One of my favorite types of cards to make is thank you cards. In addition to using them myself (yep, I'm one of those people that still sends a thank you card in the mail after I've received a gift or someone has done something crazy-nice for me), I've found that sets of thank you cards make really great and inexpensive gifts. They are superb gifts for teachers, because teachers use tons of thank you cards. They often get heartfelt gifts from students, such as at Christmas or at the end of the school year, and those gifts usually require acknowledgement. If you're in the habit of doing something a little more elaborate in the way of teacher gifts, consider tucking a ribbon-wrapped package of homemade thank you cards in the gift basket along with whatever other goodies you've decided on. Thank you cards also make good gifts for friends and family, and it goes without saying that a set would be wonderful and much-appreciated addition to a wedding or baby shower gift, or a graduation gift.

I usually make thank you cards and note cards using pre-made boxed cards that come with envelopes. While I know that many people like to make their own card bases with inexpensive cardstock, I just don't find this to be worth the time or money, since you then have to purchase envelopes separately. I like to buy the boxes of cards made by Die Cuts With a View that are sold at Michael's and JoAnn's stores. Usually there are 50 cards and envelopes in a box, and the cards come in a huge variety of themes. For general card-making, I tend to buy the solid color cards, but I've also purchased boxes of printed cards and Christmas-themed cards. The solid color cards are made with textured cardstock, which adds a nice tactile quality to the finished card. Anyway, a box of these cards retails for $9.99, but using a 50% off coupon, you can snag a box for under $5.00. The cards in the photo above were all made with the boxed DCWV cards.

Here are the super-simple instructions for the cards pictured in the photograph.

For the two cards on the left: Cut strips of patterned paper (from scraps) measuring 5-1/2" x 1-1/2" (obviously you can make the strips wider or narrower to suit your tastes). Position a strip of paper on a solid colored card base near the bottom of the card front. I like to have about half an inch of card showing at the bottom. Adhere the strip to the card using just one line of adhesive down the middle of the strip. Avoid getting adhesive along the sides of the strip. Using your sewing machine, zig-zag stich along both long edges of the strip. DO NOT use the backstitch feature on your machine! Simply start and stop your stitching, leaving longish tails of thread. Feel free to play with the zig-zag settings to make the stitches wider or narrower, closer together, etc. You can get a ton of different looks with just this one utility stitch. You can also match your thread color to the card and patterned paper, but if I'm doing a bunch of cards, I usually just use an off-white color that goes with most anything. If you don't have a sewing machine, you can adhere the strip onto the card in the usual way and then use rub-on or stamped stitches, or leave off the stitches and ink the edges of the strip instead. But I love the way real stitching looks on paper, as it adds an additional bit of texture and makes the card a little bit more special.

Turn the card over and pull both ends of the thread through to the back (a seam ripper is good for this task) and tape them down with a small piece of regular tape. Alternatively, you can simply cut the thread ends close to your stitching for a more shabby, homemade look. You can add a "thank you" sentiment using any number of resources. In the cards pictured, I used "thank you" stickers that I found in the card making section at Michael's. There were a billion different colors and fonts in the package, and I figured they'd match about anything. Using a Quickutz circle die or a punch, cut a circle just a little bigger than the sticker from scrap cardstock, ink the edges, and stick the sticker in the middle. Adhere it to the card, close to one of the edges, using a pop-dot. Instead of using stickers, you could run the strips of paper through your printer (you'd have to do this before you adhere them to the card fronts) using a cute font for the "thank you," or you could use stamps or rub-ons, either applied to a separate scrap of cardstock or not. Finish the card with a small embellishment, such as a Prima or other paper flower in a coordinating color with a mini-brad through the center. (Making cards for a teen girl or fashionista type? Use fake jewels as the flower centers.) Using different colors of cards, stickers, flowers and brads, you can get many different looks from the same supplies.

The card on the right is made the same way as the other cards, except that the strip was cut from plain cardstock and adhered onto a printed card front. If placed on the card front vertically, the strip should be cut 4-1/2" x 1-1/2" and sometimes a wider strip, say 2", looks even better. The only other difference is that instead of mounting the thank you sticker onto a circle of cardstock, I used a 7 Gypsies stamp and stamped onto the card front, then positioned the sticker inside the stamped image. On the pictured card, I added two flowers rather than one for a little extra oomph.

For gift-giving,
I usually make sets of 12 cards, with each one just slightly different than the others. Sometimes I'll use only two colors of card fronts, but lots of different patterned papers, and other times, I'll use all different colors of card fronts but use the same or coordinating patterned papers. And, of course, these don't have to be "thank you" cards. They could just as easily be "thinking of you" or "hi there" cards. Because the expectation with these kinds of cards is that the recipient will write inside the card when they actually use it, I don't stamp a sentiment on the inside, but you certainly could if you wanted to. I like to make sets of cards look finished by stacking them up and tying them together, envelopes in the back, with a length of pretty sheer ribbon tied into a bow.

So, the next time your scrap drawer threatens to get the better of you, take an hour and use some of those scraps to make a batch of "thank you" cards or note cards, either to use yourself or to give away as a gift.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The BEST Fudgy Brownies

I wasn't going to do a cooking post today, but at my scrapping group last night, we got to talking about brownies, and then I couldn't stop thinking about them. So, I decided to post about brownies. I suppose a post can't be all bad if it involves chocolate.

Those of you who cook or bake surely already know this, but if you don't cook or bake much, here is a good reason to start. I've discovered that, because convenience foods and fast food and deli items are so popular these days, and everyone is so busy working and toting their kids around from activity to activity, lots of people don't really cook AT ALL. Therefore, those who do are treated as though they have some special and unique talent. Bring a homemade baked good into work on Monday and you'll see what I mean. "You MADE these?" someone will ask, with an incredulous look on their face, biting into one of my infamous Peanut Butter Brownies. Although I love it, I feel a little guilty accepting the praise. I mean, it's not like I slaved for weeks in a hot kitchen developing the recipe myself. Nope, I find most of my recipes either online or in cookbooks, and I pretty much make recipes as written. Sometimes I'll tweak a recipe to suit my family's tastes, but I don't really have time to reinvent the wheel every time, and if I like the recipe as written, there is no need to fix what isn't broken. So, if you have the "talent" to follow a recipe, you too can receive heaps of praise from family, friends and co-workers.

Now, about brownies. The photo above features my "special" brownie pan which, while it looks kind of crazy, works like a dream. It's called Baker's Edge, and it's available in many places, but I ordered mine from because I got free shipping. If you do a Google search on this pan, or read some of the reviews on Amazon, you'll quickly see that this pan has a sort of cult following. Some people love the chewy "edge" pieces of brownies, and because of its unique configuration, this pan gives you an entire batch of "edge" pieces. While I'm not necessarily an "edge" snob, I can tell you what I DON'T like, and that's soggy brownies from the middle of the pan. With brownies, it always seems like, if the edges are perfect, the middle is underdone, and if the middle is perfectly baked, the edges are hard and overdone. Well, this pan solves all that. Whether you like your brownies super gooey or super chewy, the true beauty of this pan is that every single brownie comes out the same. Moreover, the pan is very heavy and high quality; you really don't even need to grease it although I usually spritz it with a little Pam. As long as you use the plastic spatula that comes with it, the pan won't scratch and the brownies will come out like a dream. I like to take a whole "row" of brownies out at a time and cut them into perfect pieces on a cutting board. Oh, and the pan works great for anything else that you'd normally bake in a 9x13 pan, such as cornbread and other bar cookies. (Speaking of other bar cookies, I promise to post the Peanut Butter Brownie recipe in a not-too-distant future post.)

So now that you know about my pan, I'll share my favorite brownie recipe. I have to be honest, though. I make brownies all the time from a mix. You absolutely cannot go wrong with a box of Ghirardelli brownie mix! But, when I want to make brownies from scratch, the recipe that follows is the one I use. It came from an old Good Housekeeping cookbook, and it's my favorite partly because it produces delicious brownies, but also because of a memory that I associate with it. I first tried this recipe when my now 6'2" son was a newborn, some 15-1/2 years ago. Brandon was my first child, and my mom came to stay with my husband and I for a couple of weeks after he was born, to dote on her new grandchild and also help us get the hang of being new parents. One afternoon, baby Brandon was napping soundly, and I decided that brownies and coffee sure sounded good. One problem, though -- no brownie mix in the house. It was late January, and my mom asked whether I had any baking chocolate left over from Christmas baking. I did. She suggested that we could make brownies using that, so I searched through my favorite cookbook and ended up finding this wonderful recipe. I've made it many times since, but the finished brownies have never tasted quite as good as that first time that I made them with my mom. I hope you enjoy them, too!

The BEST Fudge Brownies

1 c. butter or margarine
4 squares unsweetened chocolate
2 c. sugar
4 eggs
1 c. flour
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
2 c. walnuts or pecans, roughly chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 and grease a 9x13 pan. In a 3 quart saucepan over low heat, melt butter and chocolate, stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat and sugar into the chocolate mixture. Allow mixture to cool slightly. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in flour, vanilla and salt. Add nuts if using, and stir to blend. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake in oven 30-35 minutes. Do not overbake. Cool in pan on wire rack. Cut into pieces and serve. Makes about 2 dozen brownies.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

QK Cookie Cutter Storage

First of all, I need to apologize for not posting in an entire month. My goal when I started this blog was to post at least twice a week. However, shortly after my last post, we embarked on a 16-day family vacation out West. My plan was to post a couple of times "from the road" using my son's laptop. However, we discovered that there is no publicly available internet anywhere in Yellowstone National Park (we never had cell service, either), and by the time we left there, I had kind of given up on the posting from the road idea and resigned myself to just taking as many great pictures as I could. (I hope to post some of those soon.) After we got home from vacation, I found out that our wireless home network was all messed up and I couldn't access the internet from my computer. Finally, just a couple of days ago, we got that problem resolved. So, that's where I've been, and I'm happy to say that I'm back!

Okay, I'm just going to put this out there -- I LOVE all things Quickutz (or QK, for short). I was probably one of the first scrapbookers to purchase that fat blue hand tool along with the Venus font, complete with shadow. I don't remember how much I paid for that set, but it was a lot! I remember that I used part of a bonus I got from work, and it was truly treating myself to get this new die-cutting system. Since then, I've become the proud owner of two of the Squeeze hand tools (black and purple), a Revolution, and just a couple of weeks ago, an Epic 6. Along with all of those various die-cutting tools, I've managed to amass quite a haul of fonts, some on the 2x2 dies and others on the 4x4.

When QK first introduced the "cookie cutter" type dies (each letter of the alphabet is a separate piece of metal, kind of like a cookie cutter), I was skeptical. They looked weird. But after I got my first cookie cutter font (I think it was Magnolia), I understood the advantage. To make a title for a page, I could simply gather the letters I needed, and ONLY those letters, place as many as I could fit on the platform of the Revolution, and in just a few spins of the handle, I had my die-cut title with no extra letters and no wasted paper.

Initially, QK sold magnetic storage books for this style of alpha. The books were about the size of a regular sheet of paper, and opened out so each side could be used for storage. They came in black and white. Although rather expensive (around $12 each), these were fine, at first. But then, a couple of things happened. First, the storage books began to be rather difficult to find, and second, I bought Diesel. Diesel is the font on the right in the photo above. The letters aren't just huge, they're chunky, too. With much fooling around, I managed to get all of the Diesel letters into one white storage book, but I couldn't fit the numbers, too. So I had those stored in a baggie in a drawer, reasoning that I probably wouldn't use them very much anyway. Some time later, when I received Mary Jane in the mail (that's it on the left in the photo), I knew immediately that I was going to have the same problem. By this time, it was harder than ever to find the storage books, and I rarely used Mary Jane because the dies were stored in a baggie on my scrap desk. At some point, QK started selling a different kind of magnetic folder for the cookie cutter dies, but it was smaller and I didn't like it as well as the storage books (and I didn't even like those that well). So, the end result was that every time I found myself interested in a new font (and that was pretty much every month or two), I'd look first to see if it was the cookie cutter format or if it was on the flat dies. It the font was the cookie cutter format, I thought long and hard about how much I wanted it, because storage was becoming such a problem. Smaller or "classic" size fonts turned out to be okay, because the entire font, including upper and lower case letters, numbers, and punctuation, could invariably fit in one of the "old style" storage binders.

Then I started wanting more of the cookie cutter shapes, such as the sets of nested circles and stars. Those were stored all over the place, with whatever font had a bit of room left in the folder. But I could see that I was eventually going to need a better storage solution if I intended to buy any more cookie cutter dies. I'd been thinking about magnetic sheets adhered to cardboard and put into page protectors, and I'd gotten as far as checking prices online on 8-1/2 x 11 magnetic sheets. But then, a few days ago, I read a thread on the message board of my favorite scrapbooking idea site, Two Peas in a Bucket, and this gal mentioned that she'd lined cookie sheets with magnetic material and used that to store her cookie cutter dies. An enormous light bulb went off in my head. Years ago, I'd used a similar system (without the magnetic materal) to store rubber stamps, and it had worked great. So, yesterday afternoon, I hit a few stores, and the storage "system" I ended up with is shown in the picture at the top of this post. Here's how I made it.

First, I bought two packages of magnetic vent covers at Lowe's. The gal on the message board had specifically suggested these, noting that the vent covers were 8x15 and came in a pack of three for $4.60, versus about $2.00 at most stores for ONE 8-1/2x11 magnetic sheet. The vent covers have the added advantage of having pretty strong magnetic properties, whereas the sheets that they sell at office supply stores tend to have very weak magnetic properties. In Lowe's, the magnetic covers are with all of the decorative and replacement household vent covers. Once I had my magnetic sheets, I went searching for just the right cookie sheets. After visiting a few stores, I found at Target a package of two 14x15 shallow cookie sheets with only two edges. The package of two sheets was $10.99. Upon returning home, I cut two magnetic sheets to fit one of the cookie sheets exactly. Because the dimensions of the cookie sheets were pretty close to the dimensions of two of the vent covers placed side by side, I didn't really have much waste at all (the frugal side of me liked that a lot). Then, I adhered the magnetic sheets to the cookie sheet with my ATG (see my previous post on adhesives if you don't know what an ATG is). The ATG adhesive is perfect for this application because it lays down easily, it's permanent, and it's SUPER strong. Once I adhered the magnetic sheets in place, I got out all of my cookie cutter fonts and shapes, and did a little figuring. I was ecstatic to find that both Diesel and Mary Jane fit easily on one cookie sheet, and I even had room left over on the Diesel cookie sheet to include a couple of nested dies. Even better, the two cookie sheets nest perfectly on top of one another, and they'll soon be joined by a few more because now that I know that this system works, I'm going back to get another package of cookie sheets and some more magnetic vent covers. For just under $35, I'll end up with four very large, flat magnetic storage trays that will hold even the 12" long cookie cutter "border" dies (this is important, because I just purchased one of these, the bracket). Price wise, you can't beat that, and I think this system looks nice, too. But the most important thing is that it's functional. All of the dies for each font are all together, including punctuation, and I've now freed up a couple of those expensive QK magnetic storage binders, which I'll use the next time I purchase a "classic" or smaller sized font. I can easily bring the trays out, find and use what I need, and replace the dies when I'm finished. I have no doubt that I'm going to be using some of my QK fonts more often than I have in the past, simply because they're now stored in a more accessible way.

So, hats off to the wonderful gal on Two Peas who came up with this brilliant solution to a problem that, while not earth-shattering, had been bugging me for quite awhile.