Sunday, March 28, 2010

Banana Muffins (and Some Tips)

I am a banana snob. There, it's out in the open. It's true. I love bananas, but I am uber-picky about their ripeness. In short, for me to eat a banana out of hand, it has to be PERFECT. It has to be perfectly yellow, with no weird areas on the skin, and NO black spots. I know those are called "sugar spots" but I don't care. To me, they mean the banana inside is too ripe for my tastes. Oh, and as bad as my banana snobbery is, I've managed to pass it down to my children. Neither of my kids will eat a banana with a black spot either. My husband is a little more flexible, but even he doesn't like overly ripe bananas.

So what does my "true confession" have to do with the picture above? Well, because no one in this house will eat a banana that's less than perfect, we tend to have a lot of leftover bananas, no matter how carefully I've shopped for them. Despite being a banana snob, I can't just throw the overripe ones out. (I can pretty much hear my mother whispering in my ear "Why, that would be WASTEFUL!") So, I try to use up the reject bananas in recipes, and probably my favorite thing to make with them is the banana muffins pictured above. In fact, these muffins are so good that my family never really gets tired of them, even though I make them pretty often.

Before I share the actual recipe, I thought I would tell you where the recipe came from. The only problem with that is. . . I have no idea. The recipe card in my recipe box is in my own handwriting, circa 1985 or so. The white index card the recipe is written on became so covered with grease spots and other food spills that I finally laminated the thing about 10 years ago. I'm thinking that it's possible that I got the recipe from my mom. I remember once, when I was visiting at her house, I got out her recipe file and copied down a bunch of my favorite recipes from when I was little. The others I have are on white index cards, so it's possible that the banana muffin recipe was copied down during that session. But, I can't really say for sure. All I can say is that these are really great muffins!

Banana Muffins

3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 cup mashed banana (1-2 med. bananas)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)

In a bowl, combine flour, salt, baking powder and soda. In another bowl, combine sugar, eggs and oil. Beat hard til frothy. Add bananas and nuts and blend well. Fold into flour mixture until blended. Spoon batter into muffin cups. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, until muffins are golden brown on top. Makes about 16 muffins.

If you want, you can make the batter into a loaf of banana bread instead, which I promise is equally delicious. Just pour the batter into a regular sized loaf pan, greased, and bake the loaf at 325 degrees until the crust is brown and the loaf tests done with a toothpick, about 1 hour.

Doesn't that muffin in the picture above look yummy, split open and spread with a little bit of butter? I promise, these taste as good as the picture looks. And one thing I especially love about this recipe is that I can make it when the mood strikes. Since it calls for vegetable oil rather than butter, I don't have to wait around for a stick of butter to soften. I do use canola oil rather than regular vegetable oil for its more-healthy aspects, but either works fine in this recipe.

Ok, I'm going to finish up this post by giving you my two very best muffin hints. The first is to use a scoop to get the muffin batter from the bowl to the muffin tin. For many years, I did not do this, and of course I would spill bits of batter on the muffin tin, no matter how careful I tried to be. Worse was that my muffins wouldn't all be exactly the same size, so they wouldn't bake up the same way. Using a scoop is the perfect solution. For regular sized muffins, what you need is a #30 scoop, which holds 1 ounce. Rather than trying to figure out whether some scoop you find at Wal Mart is the right size, go to a restaurant supply store or food service store and get an actual "size 30" scoop. Restaurants use spring loaded scoops in various sizes that hold standard amounts of food. As mentioned, a #30 scoop holds exactly 1 ounce. It will have the number 30 right on the scoop somewhere, and probably also the 1 ounce measurement. A scoop purchased from the restaurant supply store will probably be a little more expensive than one from the discount store (about $10 or so), but it will last a lot longer and never rust, due to the better materials that it's made of. So it's a worthy investment. A #30 scoop will yield muffins like those in the photos -- rising just a bit over the top of the muffin cup. All of the muffins will look the same, and your muffin tin will be a breeze to clean!

The final tip is about storing muffins. I put mine in a shallow plastic container, but I DON'T USE THE LID. Instead, I cover the muffins loosely with a clean kitchen towel. Why? Because enclosing muffins in a plastic container, top and bottom, makes them sticky and sort of "wet" on top, after a very short time. Once the stickiness starts, the muffins still taste okay, but they are rather unappealing. Covering your muffins with a clean towel keeps them reasonably fresh, but it's not airtight storage, so the muffins will never get sticky or "wet" on top. They won't last quite as long as muffins stored in an airtight container, but frankly, that hasn't proven to be much of a problem in my house. The muffins are usually gone after a day or so.

So, even if you aren't a banana snob, the next time you find yourself with a couple of overripe bananas on your hands, I encourage you to try this recipe. Hopefully it will become one of your "go-to" recipes, just as it quickly became one of mine.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Journaling First

Ok, here is another layout that I recently did for my DYL class. The challenge this time was to use black and white photos, and a color scheme based on our favorite color. Last time, I wrote about how DYL has forced me to learn a ton of cool things (like printing photos in smaller sizes) that I otherwise probably would not have taken the time to learn. Well, here we go again. The photos on this layout were originally taken in color, and I frankly had NO IDEA how to convert them to black and white. I frequently take black and white photos with my camera, but up to this point, I had never converted color photos. But, in this case, I didn't feel like taking a bunch of new black and white photos just for this assignment, so I opened up a Corel photo editing program that I have on my computer and have rarely used. At first, I couldn't figure anything out, but after exploring for a little bit, I was able to convert my photos to black and white and I even saved them as new files, so I've still got the color versions to play with at another time. So, once again, yay for DYL, for "forcing" me to learn something new!

I've always liked black and white photos, but I find it interesting that they aren't as easy to scrapbook with as you'd think. Since ANY color combo is open to you when you're using black and white, the possibilities almost become overwhelming (for me, anyway). What I realized in doing this layout was that ... I have no favorite color. I'm not kidding. I really don't. I have quite a few colors that I like, but I don't have a single "favorite." So I ended up choosing colors for this layout by finding a scrap of patterned paper that I wanted to use, and working from there. We were experimenting with color combinations based on the color wheel for this assignment, so that's how I ended up with the purple and yellow color scheme.

But, the REAL reason I wanted to post this layout wasn't because I wanted to talk about color schemes. It was because I wanted to talk a little bit about journaling, and my process for doing it. I know that a lot of people have trouble with journaling, or don't like to do it, but for me, it's always been one of my strong suits. I was once told that I could probably write a page of journaling about an empty Coke can. That comment was said in jest, but it still stung a little bit. However, it's probably true. I can find a lot to say about pretty much anything!

On this layout in particular, I feel like I really scored with the journaling. These photos are just shots I took of my older son with his girlfriend before they went out to dinner on Valentine's Day. There wasn't any "event" associated with these photos other than that. So when I sat down at the computer to think about what I wanted to journal with respect to these photos, the kinds of things that I'd call "typical journaling thoughts" started entering my head: "Brandon and Liz look so cute together!" or "Brandon and Liz had a great time when they went out to dinner on Valentine's Day." You know the drill. Or maybe I should say, you know the drivel. It's so easy to get caught up in "surface" thoughts like that, and to end up with meaningless journaling on layouts.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm NOT saying that every layout has to have meaningful journaling, or even that every layout has to have some journaling on it. But, the thing is, when you do want to tell a story, it's nice to be able to come up with something better than "Everyone had a wonderful time!" So I will share with you the tip that I think probably helps me in the journaling department more than about anything else: journal first. Yep, it's as simple as that. Journal first. I implement that "tip" like this. When I get my photos back from the place that I have them printed (I typically print large batches every few months), I spend an afternoon deciding which photos I want to scrapbook, and organizing them roughly into layouts. Each group of photos goes into an acid-free envelope, on which I note the subject of the photos, the date they were taken (approximately), and what album the layout will go in. At the end of the afternoon, I may have 10 or 12 or more "packets" of photos. I file the envelopes in chronological order in photo boxes, and I have a separate box for each album or type of album that I keep. Then, when I feel like journaling, or I feel like doing something scrappy but I don't feel like actually scrapbooking, I'll pull out a few packets of photos and head off to my computer.

At the computer, I open my word processing program, pull the photos out of their envelope, fan them out in front of me, and simply think for a few minutes. In deciding what to write, I try to get past the "Everyone had a wonderful time!" stage of thought, and go a little deeper. Usually, it takes nothing more than really looking at the photos for a couple of minutes. I've found that if I follow my train of thought, it will usually take me somewhere interesting. For example, with the Brandon and Liz photos, my eye kept being drawn to the two photos that are more playful than the others, the ones where Liz, especially, is goofing around. I remembered how surprised I was that she seemed so relaxed and casual during the photo session, when she had barely been around me at all. I liked that -- it said something to me about the kind of person that she is. Then I started thinking about how the two of them talk to each other, and it occurred to me that their relationship was very different than the one Brandon had with his last girlfriend, a young lady who was sweet and intelligent, but extremely high drama and high maintenance. Then I remembered Brandon telling me, before he and Liz had gotten romantically involved, what a good friend she was and how they were so much alike that he felt like they were the same person. And all of a sudden, it was easy to find the "no-drama relationship" focus for writing about the photos -- the words practically wrote themselves. And I can tell you that I like the layout a lot more than I would have if I had stopped with the "typical" journaling thoughts.

So what does journaling first have to do with journaling well? In the first place, there's no pressure to come up with anything in particular -- you are just letting your mind go. Somehow, when you have an almost-completed layout in front of you, the idea that you "have to" journal something meaningful can become crippling, leading to decidedly UN-meaningful journaling. When it's just you and your photos, the words are free to come out however they come out. Many times, the journaling I end up with is very different than what I thought I might write, and frequently, it steers the entire concept for the underlying layout. The other reason that journaling first produces better journaling is that you can write as much -- or as little -- as you want. You may get on a roll and find that you really have a lot that you want to say. When you're not trying to fill a pre-set journaling space on a layout, your focus will become the story, instead of filling up that box.

And finally, the other really great thing about journaling first is that you can print out your journaling (save it in case you want to change type size or font later) and tuck it right in with your photos (or other page elements if you are the type to make page kits). Then, when you sit down to work on a layout for those photos, your journaling is done and you know that you have everything you need to complete that layout. That's why I make an extra-special effort to have journaling completed for every planned layout that I hope to get done when I go to an all-day crop. Trust me, it's a great feeling to come home from a crop and have COMPLETED pages, right down to the journaling, ready to pop into albums or show your kids.

Go ahead, give it a try. Journal first, and see if it doesn't help you produce journaling that you're much happier with.

Friday, March 5, 2010

"Magazine Style" Layout

I'm sharing this recent layout for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I am just crazy about it! I haven't actually scrapped most of the photos from our trip out West this past summer, so it was really fun to showcase some of them in this layout. By the way, like other layouts I've been posting lately, this one was done for my Design Your Life class through Big Picture Scrapbooking, taught by the fabulous Cathy Zielske. Cathy provided the sketch that we used for this assignment.

Cathy calls this type of layout a "magazine style" layout, and she's right on with that description. If you look at the magazines in your own house, you'll quickly see that it's pretty common for magazine articles to use a fantastic full page photo in this way, to sort of draw you in to the piece, with the text actually beginning on the facing page. Now, I've certainly enlarged pictures in my scrapbooking career. One of my favorite sizes to do is an 8x12 (most places can make an enlargement this size, you just have to ask), because it makes a fantastic 12x12 scrapbook page when I have a really wonderful photo to showcase. And I've certainly used my share of 5x7 photos, as well. But I'm going to confess that I've never before used a photo that took up the entire page. It was an eye-opening experience.

Cathy is definitely right about how the large picture draws you in, and encourages you, the reader, to look at the other photos and read the story. But it's also the juxtaposition of the super large photo next to the smaller photos that makes the large photo that much more emphatic. And that brings me to another reason that I'm posting this layout. Before taking the DYL class, I rarely fooled around with printing my own photos, or printing them smaller than 4x6. I prefer the ease of taking a CD down to the grocery store, ordering regular old 4x6 prints, and coming back in an hour or so and picking them up. Previously, if I wanted to use smaller photos on a layout (and I use small photos all the time), I'd just crop them down from 4x6 prints. That sometimes presented some problems, though. I tend to take a lot of fairly close-up photos, especially of people. It's a habit I've gotten into ever since I first read anything about photography. You're always told "Fill the frame!" and for good reason -- it generally makes a better picture. But a "filled frame" photo doesn't really lend itself very well to being cropped down, unless the photo contains a detail that I want to emphasize.

So, although I did use smaller photos, I'd say that generally I didn't use photos smaller than 3-1/2 x 3-1/2. After taking this class, however, I feel like a new world has been opened up to me. Because we had so many assignments using small photos (REALLY small, sometimes 2x2), I realized pretty quickly that cropping just wasn't going to cut it. I needed a whole new approach. So I started experimenting with printing two photos, each wallet size, on one 4x6 sheet. All of a sudden, those small photos worked on my layouts! I'm not going to lie -- for me, it took some trial and error and messing around with a couple of different photo manipulating programs. But it turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be. And, most importantly, I love the effect so much that I know I'm going to be printing photos in different sizes in the future.

Man, writing that, I feel incredibly old fashioned. I know that tons of people print ALL of their own photos at home, and many, many scrapbookers print photos in all kinds of crazy sizes -- whatever suits the layout. And, of course, there are legions of totally digital scrapbookers who can manipulate lots of photo attributes with a few clicks of the mouse. But, even though I've had a digital SLR for quite a few years, my goal has always been to keep the scrapbooking part of it pretty simple. But through this class, I've learned that some simple photo manipulation -- basic re-sizing, either bigger or smaller, in order to make an impact -- doesn't take that long, and the effects are TOTALLY worth it.

Every time I look at the Yellowstone waterfall layout at the top of this post, it takes my breath away, and the feelings and the sounds of actually being there come rushing back. I love it, and I can't stop looking at it. Isn't that exactly how a scrapbook layout, a layout showcasing your own memories, is supposed to make you feel?