College Ready: sharing what I’ve already learned (part two)

17 Aug

We spent one full day and shopped til we dropped, hitting three major stores to get the bulk of what we needed. We scored deal after deal.

Earlier this week I shared Part One of my College Ready posts. I don’t know it all, I don’t even know as much as other people know, but in a short time, I’ve learned a lot that I can at least share out. Those who need to know can add it to what they’ve learned, save it for later when they need it, or toss it.

Here’s what I’ve learned: college is expensive, and college needs are expensive. We hear a lot about tuition, room and board, and books all being expensive, but what people don’t really talk much about is the huge expense of getting a student ready to live on campus. Not everyone lives on campus, but if your student is going to, start early saving some money for dorm expenses if you can, and start saving coupons and watching for deals. Get those deals when you can and put them aside if you have to. Shopping for something big like this is like a sport. You need a strategy. Here is our strategy.

Many people know that Bed Bath & Beyond prides themselves in being a go-to for college dorm shopping. (And no, I don’t make any commission off of these posts from them.) When you tour dorms there are often BB&B advertisements in the rooms which have been outfitted by the local store, and you see their ads often on social media, television and in print. Their coupons arrive in the mail regularly: 20% off one item, $5 off your total purchase over $15 and $10 off your total purchase over $30. You can even order all of your dorm room supplies online and have them shipped to the local BB&B near your school so that you can pick them up when you arrive for move-in day.

My advice is simple: save every single coupon. Don’t ever throw them away. They have expiration dates on them but they don’t actually expire. They  will accept them forever, and they let you use more than one per shopping trip. Take every single one of them with you if you choose to shop at BB&B for college dorm needs. More importantly, save every coupon to every store that you get during this shopping time and make the most of the deals that pop up as you see them. You may not realize you need something and you don’t want to throw away a good deal.

We opted to first use any store gift cards our daughter had received as graduation gifts towards her college shopping needs. We advised her to save any visa gift cards for books, since we had a little bit of money put away for shopping already, and to save any Amazon gift cards as well, unless we found something cheaper on Amazon (which we didn’t).  We would combine any gift cards with coupons and then after exhausting that option, we’d use the money I’d put aside from January to June with coupons next. This would not touch the money in her savings account at all, which would be saved for when she was living at school.

She had the most in gift cards at BB&B, then at Target, and although we did not have a gift card to At Home, it was my birthday in August and I’d received a “15% off your whole purchase” coupon. She signed up for their loyalty program and received a “10% off your whole purchase” coupon too, but we didn’t need it. Additionally, we visited Five Below, where everything is $5 or less, and looked to see what we could get there since she had a small gift card there and they have some cute dorm decor items. We planned to save our trip to Walmart for last because although it’s slightly cheaper than Target or BB&B, we would be paying entirely out of pocket with no coupons or gift cards at all, and it ended up being cheaper for us to shop with gift cards and coupons first, exhausting all of those before Walmart.

You can make money-saving magic happen with your coupons if you’re strategic.

Just in our BB&B shopping alone, we saved $100 in coupons (we used a total of 14 coupons in two visits, six one time and eight the next time, and we have some left if we need them) and we used $150 in gift cards, only paying $165 out of pocket total-and only on the second trip-the first trip was totally free. We got the bulk of what we needed there, from a comforter set to all of the under the bed, next to the bed and above the bed storage items. We also got a few decorative items there. We saved $21 at the At Home Store with my birthday coupon, and used $30 in Target gift cards before paying anything out of pocket at either store.

Since we don’t know if we’re 100% correct in everything we’re getting, we are saving every receipt. At BB&B they also told us to save all the packaging for returns as well. A good friend once said to me, “You know, it is possible to over-shop,” and I can totally see how that can happen. There is SO MUCH out there and there are so many suggestions of “must haves.” I tried to look at several lists and compare them to each other, and to listen to other people’s advice as well as knowing what we already had or didn’t have before we shopped. If I saw something come up on every single list and it matched up with what other people told me we’d need, it definitely went on to our list as well. If it was something we already had at home and could spare, we tried not to duplicate. We looked at her room layout to see what we thought would fit, and where. Some things just seemed over the top, or extra. We tried to balance having some cute decor items with having the more functional items first and foremost. Some nice-to-haves are okay, but the must-haves had to come first. We were lucky too, that a friend gave us her daughter’s memory foam mattress pad, which everyone now calls a “must have,” but which is very expensive. (Those didn’t exist when I went to school, I had a foam egg crate topper.) I found this type of shopping to be very similar to when we outfitted our RV for the first time. Function was first and foremost, space-saving was key, and money-saving was of the utmost importance.

So now, we wrap up, picking up the last few little things over the next week or so and then start to pack up and move on out. We’ll see how well we did once she moves in; how on the mark we were, what we still might need or what needs to be returned. Keeping our fingers crossed that we are more on the mark than off!

Fingers crossed…

 

 

College Ready: sharing what I’ve already learned (part one)

15 Aug

What exactly do they need?

They say you don’t know what you don’t know, and that is so true for so many situations throughout life. As a mom to a new, soon-to-be-on-campus college freshman, that saying could not be more true. As an educator to the core, I feel the need to share with others what I’ve learned so far along the way so that I can help other parents the way that others who’ve gone down this path first, have also helped me. Last fall, I wrote an article called Navigating a family’s first senior year. I feel like I am now ready to write the next article in that series.

So, here goes. I’m separating this information into two blog posts so that it’s not too long or too overwhelming.

Here is what I’ve learned so far, that I think is worthy enough to pass along to you.

First and foremost: ask around. This process is all new since we parents went to college, if in fact we parents went to college, as not everyone does. Social media is new, technology is new, online ordering is new, memory foam is new, HIPPA is new, it’s all new. Everything. So other than remembering what my dorm looked like and my basic needs, lots of other stuff isn’t the same. Ask those who have done it before, and research. Read blog posts, read other people’s experiences-good or bad-and then take from them what you wish, and discard the rest. That’s the same advice I always have for new moms: Everyone will give you a ton of information, so listen and use some and politely ignore the rest. We are parents who are starting all over again at the new mom and dad thing, just in a different way. Beginning I’m not sure when, but really focusing this past school year, I did just that. I read, I researched, I asked and I listened, and I made lists.

I also began to put a little bit of money aside after Christmas. This sounds obvious, and it’s way easier said than done, believe me, I know. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was putting money aside for yet either, but I knew we’d be needing it, and I was right. It wasn’t for the college fund, and it wasn’t her savings account money for living on during college, it was different money. Each time I got paid, I’d put some random amount into her checking account from mine, whatever I thought we could spare at the time, and she’d move it over into her savings account. I’m sure that it made me lacking some other money somewhere else for something else, but it allowed me to have a stash ready, designated for expenses for whenever we needed it.

“What is this money for?” she’d ask.

“I don’t know yet,” I’d answer. “But I know it’s going to be for something.”

In the spring, the college deposit was due. Some of the money went to that. In July a small registration fee was due for a September activity, so some of the money went to that. The rest would be spent on dorm supplies when we shopped. (That will be in my next post.) These were things a college loan wouldn’t necessarily cover, they didn’t fall under tuition or room and board, but they were needed, and they were costly, and they had to be done. I wish now that I’d put more money aside, starting sooner, as I found the last month of senior year to be extremely expensive with all of the graduation events (she had three different ceremonies) and clothes/shoes/jewelry needed for each, as well as for her prom, and even things like the meals we hosted for family after the graduation events and the party itself, so keep all that in mind as you go forward.

Additionally, throughout the year, I started picking up random things and putting them aside in her college laundry bag that we’d given her already for her 18th birthday, filled with a few college-ready gifts. Soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, laundry and dish detergent etc., all went into the bag during the year, even more frequently as the spring approached. At my CVS, any time I saw a “buy one, get one half off” deal, I’d buy one for us and throw the “get one half off” item into her bag. If I saw something on clearance she’d need, I’d grab it and throw it into her bag. By the summertime, her bag was full, having started off half-full at her birthday.

This is a great gift for recent high school grads who are going to be living on campus.

Before the summer even hit though, I asked people whose kids had “been there” already, what she’d really need. I got two great tips that I want to pass along to you. I used them both as graduation gifts for her and for others.

The first is a gift they need to have, but you hope they won’t actually need. The mom of student finishing her freshman year recommended a well-stocked first aid kit. She listed off a bunch of items kids need that they don’t necessarily want to go to the health services building for, like a band aid or a cough drop, but that they don’t always think to have. I loved this idea. We get sick all the time over here, and have a ton of bumps along the way too, so I decided to definitely do this as a gift for my own daughter, as well as some close family members. I bought $3 buckets at Target that I found in the “under $5” bins, and I filled them. I did generic things everyone needs, like a digital thermometer and band aids and cough drops, cotton balls, ice packs, etc., much of which can be found at a Dollar Store, for just $1 each. Several things came in multi-packs of individual items, like a three-pack of hand sanitizer, which I’d break up into three individuals for three gifts. For my own daughter I added in additional items, or full-sized items, some more costly, like the certain sunscreen she uses, or a big tube of stain stick, and bug spray. I filled the bins and wrapped them in cellophane with a ribbon (all found at the Dollar Store too) and gave them out.

My daughter took off on that idea, and for her own friends, she gave them buckets as well, but filled them with school supplies (markers, pens, pencils, paper clips, ruler, white out, etc.,) and threw in some band aids and cough drops as well, all for under $20 a bucket, including the bucket. We wrapped them the same way and they made great gifts.

This reminded me that she also needed her own school/desk supplies, so we later made her a bin of those as well. Everything we always have here, on hand throughout the school year, she’ll need there.

This was a fun gift to make and to give.

The next great gift idea, I received from a co-worker whose son was about to graduate college as my daughter was graduating high school. I was stumped as to what to give her for gifts at the time we spoke. Her son had also attended an out of state school, so she had given him gift cards for places that were in the city where he’d be attending school. I thought that was a fun idea, and since our daughter’s school was out of state, but not too far away, one of my best friends and I took a day’s ride up and back, grabbing a bunch of little gift cards to places that were near her school. Some were to places that we don’t have here, but we also spotted some places that we do have here, so I continued to shop for gift cards even after that day trip. Some spots were less expensive, so we got $10 gift cards and some were more so we got $15. One place was a sit-down restaurant she likes, so I got a $25 gift card there.

I filled out the front sections for our gift cards, and she filled out the rest for others she’d received.

Once I had them all, I decided to get a cute organizer from Target for her to keep all her gift cards in, as I knew she’d be getting more from other people and she had been saving a bunch at home as well. I added in restaurant menus if they had them, and figured she could throw in coupons to the places she had gift cards for, if she had any.

This was a great gift, a fun day trip for me, and it made me more familiar with the area in which she’d be spending her time. My friend was my co-pilot that day and she kept a running list of local places we saw so that as time goes on, if someone were to ask me what she needs for a birthday gift or a holiday gift, I can say, “There’s a CVS right next to her campus, get her a gift card there,” or to any other place I now know is up there. If we want to add to her collection ourselves for gifts in the future, we can.

There are so many great gift ideas out there, and I know that there are different philosophies on gifts. Some feel that helping to pay for college IS the gift and that’s what they give. Others take a big trip as a gift or send their child off on a trip with someone else as their gift. For us, this worked out well and it made for a fun afternoon after graduation when she opened her gifts. They weren’t expensive to pull off, and during a super-expensive time of year, that was a blessing in itself. It was just enough and will last her throughout her school year(s). They were fun, but they were functional too. Even the gift card holder can be re-purposed in the future. The labels can be labeled over, and the hashtag sign is on there with removable tape. I really tried to think ahead and be practical. (By the way, in case you’re not sure, HANGRY is a combination of Hungry and Angry, which is a popular word with kids now, but also didn’t exist before. I’ve also witnessed Hangry with my own kids, and it’s real and a perfect description.)

Stay tuned for my next post, and I’ll pass along anything I can about dorm room shopping that I’ve learned so far. I’m not a pro, and we’re not even to the point of moving her in yet, but I’ve already learned a ton and I will pass it on.

What’s for dinner Wednesday: A new recipe and a new Cave Tools cooking tool

8 Aug

This was a favorite new meal of ours, thanks to our new Cave Tools BBQ Grill Pan, and I can’t wait to have it again.

Happy August!

This summer seems to just be flying by. We had just finished the whirlwind couple of weeks surrounding graduation when I last wrote a blog post, and that was followed by two weeks of vacation. We came back from that and went right into the final days of planning and then hosting our second daughter’s 16th birthday party here, a sunflower-themed Sweet Sixteen on a beautifully sunny day. Now that we’re back into a regular routine again, albeit a summer routine, we’ve been trying out some new recipes and even a brand new Cave Tools product.

We were asked to try out a newly launched product, the Cave Tools BBQ Grill Pan in July, around the same time that I kept seeing a recipe go by on social media for Sheet Pan Chicken, which consisted of oven-roasted veggies and chicken all tossed together in a homemade marinade and cooked in the oven. When we agreed to try out the BBQ Grill Pan, we opted to use the inspiration from the recipe we’d seen online, but to do it our own way, utilizing our new pan. It seemed to be made for such a meal because it had a slotted side and a flat side, with the slotted side designed to allow the BBQ flavors and smoke to come up through the grill pan while excess grease falls through, keeping our grill grates clean.

One pan cooking is my favorite, especially for clean up.

We tossed our chicken in some bottled Italian dressing for a quick marinade, and sliced up our veggies: asparagus, zucchini, squash, Brussels sprouts and carrots. We weren’t sure if we had more veggies and chicken than space, but it was a perfect fit, with the veggies on the flat side and the chicken on the slotted side.  We also liked that the stainless steel pan had grips on three sides so that it was easy to handle.

The new Cave Tools BBQ Grill Pan is designed to cook more than just chicken and veggies, though. It’s perfect for other types of meals, including breakfast, which we’d like to try out next. Cave Tools suggests using the griddle side for sautéing peppers, onions, eggs, bacon, cheesesteaks and any other food that would typically fall through the grill grates, but the idea of eggs and bacon really appeals to us, having never cooked like that on the grill before.

Cave Tools 3

This stainless steel grill pan features a flat side and a slotted side, with grips on three sides.

I’m sure you’d like to know how you can get this great new product!

To order your own Cave Tools BBQ Grill Pan, you have two options:

  1. You can order from Amazon
  2. You can order directly from Cave Tools and use the code GRILLPAN15 to receive an additional 15% off your purchase.

As I always say, the Cave Tools products have a 100% money back guarantee, but I’d be surprised if you ever needed it. Their products are second to none. We also saw this post in the information on the grill pan’s website that we thought was worth noting, and that also speaks to the value that Cave Tools puts on the quality of their products for their customers:

A Note From The Manufacturer

We specifically designed this grill pan after seeing the popularity of PTFE (Teflon) Grill Mats. At normal grilling temperatures we concluded that the grill mats were in fact extremely toxic and potentially cancerous. Your health is more important us than the money we could make selling grill mats which is why we designed this safe stainless steel grill mat alternative.

As always, I encourage you to try out this great new product and to enjoy the fun of cooking outdoors. The cleanup is easy, especially with the Cave Tools products, and the food is flavorful.

Have a great rest of your week and keep enjoying this beautiful summer!

*I was given a free product in exchange for my review.

However, as always, my thoughts and opinions are honest and my own.*

Monday Musings on a Wednesday: Onward and upward

20 Jun

She’s off and running

Well, we made it. We made it to and through our first child’s high school graduation week. It’s taken me a while to be able to sit and think about what I wanted to write, as I definitely wanted to mark this life event (for all of us) in writing.

It’s the craziest roller coaster of emotions–happy, proud, sad, thrilled. When our kids were babies, I was constantly feeling this need for life to slow down. They grew fast, they conquered milestones one after another. They rolled over, crawled, walked, ran, rode bikes, drove a car.

I kept wishing that the merry-go-round would slow down a little bit so we could stop, bottle up what we were seeing and doing, and then restart, but we couldn’t. It just kept going.

And going.

And here we are.

High school was hard. Lots of things were hard, but hard prepares you for real life. Life is hard. Throughout these past four years and the years leading up to it, we often said, “In the end you’ll be better off for having worked hard. Do you best, try hard, and most of all, be a good person, because that is what matters most in the end.”

In the end.

That’s the weird thing. As we drove to pick up the graduation cake and flowers on the morning of graduation, my husband said, “It’s weird, for us this feels like the end, but for her, this is just the beginning.”

If that didn’t make me cry, nothing would. (Or so I thought.)

But it’s true, what he said. We were finally finishing high school. There were days of high school that not only did I think we’d never get through the year, I questioned how we’d get through high school three times, but we did. This was the end. She had finished, made it, seen the success and reward of all her hard work and stress, and yes, she’d come out better for the grit and perseverance.

I have reflected in these recent months that you work so hard to get to a point that you see as a major goal or milestone. A benchmark: their first birthday, their 10th, 13th, 16th, 18th birthdays, and you think to yourself, “Whew…we did it. We made it. We survived.” And you think you get a break. We’re done. It’s done. She made it.

But, you don’t. That merry-go-round doesn’t actually stop. You don’t get off and take a break, a rest, a breather. You wake up the very next day and keep moving forward. I think I equated it to a wedding, all the anticipation and the build-up and then you’re done. It’s over. But you’re not, and I think that’s a good thing because there’s so much yet to come.

On graduation day I found myself to be more happy than sad. Proud, thrilled. On the next day afterwards, I found myself to have a bit of a delayed reaction, crying unexpectedly during a song at my youngest’s dance recital (In My Daughter’s Eyes) that I hadn’t expected to hear that day, or to be crying through in the audience as I saw my oldest at three in my mind’s eye, dancing on the stage for the first time and graduating high school in what seemed like the next instant. (In my defense, the mom next to me was teary too, and her daughter hadn’t graduated the day before.) I find that weird things get me emotional, and yet my biggest emotion is happiness and the events where I thought I’d be sad, I’ve been the most happy.

I am so happy for our daughter and what she achieved when she thought she couldn’t, what goals she set and then met, and most of all, what a good person she’s turned out to be at 18. As we read through her yearbook and read through various poster boards from culminating events for various year-end activities, over and over the most common theme was thankfulness for her goodness, her leadership, her help, her time, her kindness.

In the end, that will get her furthest.

There is a graduation speaker I hear at our city graduations each year, and he uses the same line, year after year no matter what else he writes in his speech, and I was so glad to hear him say it again this year. Each year, he tells the students that it is their talents, their grades, their GPA that has gotten them through high school and to graduation day, but that it is their character, their values and their morals that will get them through life, and I truly believe he’s right.

The merry-go-round does not stop now.

As we embark on this summer in between the end of high school and the beginning of the rest of her life, I am reminded of many things, as I have been all year long, and for the past 18 years. My own high school graduation quote in my yearbook was from a song from the campfires at summer camp, “The Circle Game.” The song has stayed with me since my days at camp and through my years as a young mother, through to today-and I know through to the days beyond today. It has run through my head day after day and week after week as I imagined this merry-go-round of our lives.

I think that ultimately, it’ll stay with me for the next forever and a day.

It’s not the end, it’s just the beginning.

The Circle Game
Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town
And they tell him,
Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Songwriters: Joni Mitchell
The Circle Game lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing

Just in time for the long weekend: beer can chicken and a new Cave Tools product

26 May

This was such a fun meal to make!

It’s Memorial Day weekend this weekend, a time to remember all those who have given the ultimate sacrifice to their country, and to remember their families as well. Over the years I have had the opportunity to cover many Memorial Day remembrances for our local newspaper, and I am cognizant of the fact that this weekend is not just a long weekend made for cookouts and good times, but rather it is a time to remember and be thankful for our service men and women who lost their lives for our country. To them I am grateful.

While I take some time to reflect today, I thought I’d share a new product with you that we tried from Cave Tools. We are big fans of their products and have never tried one that we didn’t like. Although we are given the products to try for free, our opinions and experiences are our own and are not influenced in any way by the company. This product is a great one and I couldn’t wait to share it this weekend.

Recently we had the opportunity to try out the Beer Can Chicken roasting rack and vegetable spikes. We were very excited to give this new product a try, as the method of cooking a chicken over a can of beer was intriguing to us. When we opened the box, we learned that we could either cook the chicken on the grill or in the oven. We opted to try the oven method this time and to utilize the grill method the next time- and I can tell you, there will definitely be a next time!

It said to choose your favorite beer, so our local Narragansett beer was our first choice.

The directions instructed us to choose our favorite beer which we’d be pouring into the can-shaped container that came in the box. We have a great local beer, Narragansett, so that was our chosen beer.

My husband found a recipe online for a rub which he rubbed all over the chicken after he put it on top of the beer can. That recipe consisted of: 1/4 cup paprika, 2 tablespoons salt, 2 tablespoons white sugar, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tablespoons ground cumin, 2 tablespoons chili powder, and 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper.

Ready to eat!

We cooked our chicken in the oven until the temperature reached or exceeded 165 degrees, about an hour and a half. We opted to add baked potatoes to the stands which were included with the product and we were thrilled that there was absolutely no mess in our oven. We had placed the whole thing on a baking sheet covered in tin foil, just in case, but the tray included in the box contained any slight dripping that may have occurred.

The end result was amazing: fully cooked, tender, juicy chicken that was delicious and easy to make. This was such a different way for us to cook a chicken, and we would definitely do it again in the future. The entire product is dishwasher safe, so after dinner we loaded it in and cleanup was a breeze.

In my personal opinion, this would make a great Father’s Day gift for the men in your lives who seem to have everything and are looking for something fun to try over the summer months. I hope you’ll give it a try.

The mess was self-contained.

You can order this product two ways: through Amazon by following this link. or through the Cave Tools Website, utilizing the coupon code BEERCAN15 for an extra 15% off.

As with all Cave Tools product, they are high quality products that come with a lifetime guarantee. The product is made from stainless steel and the spikes can be used to hold ears of corn or potatoes, or anything else you can think of. The canister can be used for Beer, Wine, Cider, and any other liquid or herb combination you’d like to try.

Fully cooked!

Tender and juicy.

DONE!

Monday Musings: Childhood inspiration, revisited

14 May

I have never forgotten this childhood book.

I’ve always been a reader and I’ve always been someone who loves to cook, especially when it comes to baking. To me, there is nothing more exciting than reading a new cookbook and dreaming about all the new things I want to make. There is also nothing as relaxing for me as being in my kitchen with no place to be in a hurry, baking the day away. Additionally, I love the challenge of a good cooking contest, having entered my first ones back in the days when I was a young Girl Scout, entering and sometimes winning their annual “Girl Scout Bake Off.” I’ve also married someone who loves to cook, and together we turn some amazing meals out of our kitchen, and we enjoy creating great meals together. These are all passions that we have passed along to our children, who all love to cook and to bake, starting off when they were very young. They too have entered cooking contests over the past years, and have often won, which have given them some amazing opportunities, attending special events, such as luncheons with the First Lady or with our state’s governor.

When I was young, I remember reading a book called “Ginnie and the Cooking Contest.” It was written by Catherine Woolley, and I have remembered this book forever, since the time I read it, until now. I have never, ever forgotten it, and I have remembered very specific parts of it very clearly. It was a book I really loved, and it definitely inspired me in many ways. The book was published in 1966, and if I had to guess, I might have read it in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. As my kids have grown up, I have always talked about this book and referred to it, and I often think of it when I’m baking in my kitchen or thumbing dreamily through a delicious new cookbook.

This book was just as I remembered it.

A while back, I tried searching the internet for this book, but I didn’t find it. Then later on when I talked about it yet again, my daughter found it for me on Amazon. I mulled it over in my head for quite a while before deciding to purchase it. Once I hit the “order” button, I was instantly excited, and I couldn’t wait for the book to arrive.

Last week, it finally came. I was so excited to open it up, it looked exactly like I had remembered, and this authentic vintage copy that I’d ordered had crisp yellow pages. My only disappointment was that the company I’d ordered it from through Amazon had put a UPC code sticker right across the front of the book, which I thought was just a terrible thing to do to a vintage book. I was able to peel it off carefully, and only a little stickiness remained. I could deal with that.

I decided to read it again, knowing that I was between books and that this one would not take me very long to read.

I settled in to start reading one night, and I was so happy. The story was exactly as I remembered it to be. I read along all over again as Ginnie decides to take a risk and enter a cooking contest, needing to create a menu and choosing one item from it to prepare for the contest. I got excited myself, as she poured through cookbook after cookbook, trying to choose a contest-worthy recipe. My mouth watered as she considered her choices, and I was surprised by some of the more vintage recipes that were being made then, that aren’t made now, such as a chicken loaf, for example. I followed step-by-step as she made a homemade bread for the first time ever, and I could almost smell the aroma that she described as it filled her kitchen. I smiled as she read aloud recipe after recipe from a cookbook to her little babysitter charge, knowing I’d read cookbooks aloud to my own kids as well.

I knew that this book had inspired me, I knew that I had read it and never forgotten it, but I truly had no idea just how much it had influenced my life, even to this day. I was so glad that I’d ordered it to read it again.

I’ve been inspired to read even more.

That said, I was inspired again, when I recently covered a story for work where middle school students were given the opportunity to hear a picture book read aloud every single day of the school year so far, and on Thursdays, had the opportunity for a “Throwback Thursday” book choice, a chance to request a favorite from their own childhoods. I thought the whole concept of revisiting childhood books we love was a great idea, and the teacher I spoke with said her students loved hearing the picture books read aloud.

In somewhat of a twist on that idea, I decided that there were some books that I’d never gotten to read, like “The Phantom Tollbooth,” for example. Published in 1961, this book was given to my daughter by my mom in 2010 as it was about to turn 50 years old in 2011. I decided that I would like to read that book too. Another book I’ve decided to read is “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” by Kate DiCamillo. It is not a book from my childhood, but it is a book that one of my daughters read and loved so much, I was sorry I never got to read it. Kate DiCamillo is a favorite author in our family and I follow her on social media. The number of people that she posts about who stop her to talk about this book have really inspired me to read it. It was one that we saved as a “we can never give this book away,” book, and my daughter found it for me right away.

I’m excited to read these books, even though I am a grown adult, and I look forward to being inspired by them, as much as I was by “Ginnie and the Cooking Contest.” I am amazed by how much that book influenced me and helped to fuel my passion of cooking and baking over the past decades. I am looking forward to seeing how these “new” books will influence me in the days and maybe even for decades to come.

It makes me wonder, do you have a childhood book that has stayed with you forever? If so, share it in the comments. I’d love to know what some of my readers’ favorites are.

 

Monday Musings: It’s not always about winning

30 Apr

This recipe took at least five tries and a lot of perseverance to perfect.

Early this winter, I saw a cooking contest pass by in my newsfeed on social media. A local New England applesauce brand, Simply Wholesome–recently re-branded with a new name: Our Family Garden– was sponsoring a cooking contest. The participants would receive a six jars of their applesauce (two each of three different varieties) and they could submit as many recipes as they wished, as long as they utilized the applesauce in their recipes, which had to be previously unpublished, original recipes.

We love cooking contests here, we have won several of them between us, and I decided to enter the contest. The winter months are a little bit slower for me work-wise than the spring and there was enough time allotted for some trial and error as I went about figuring out how to create an original-never-been-published-before recipe.

My box of applesauce arrived within a few days of letting them know I’d be entering the contest. I was shocked to find six, full-sized samples of applesauce in the box, along with a jar of their blueberry jam as a gift for entering.

I had already decided that I wanted to try to create an apple pie type of muffin with a streusel topping. I just had to come up with a recipe and incorporate the applesauce. I began researching basic muffin recipes so that I could see what ingredients I needed and approximately how much of each  it takes to make a muffin, a muffin. Then, I added in their cinnamon applesauce, at first adding it in just to the actual muffin mix, to give them the apple pie flavor I was hoping for. As I created my streusel topping, my youngest daughter, who was home and doing a lot of cooking at the time, suggested that I add the applesauce to the topping as well. I thought that was a brilliant idea. I was creating a topping that included brown sugar, butter, quick oats, and now the applesauce too. My entire recipe was gluten free, using gluten free flour and gluten free oatmeal as well.

I made the muffins, following the recipe I’d come up with. We waited with great anticipation for them to come out of the oven. It was very exciting as we watched them cook through the window of the oven.

This wasn’t quite the result I’d been anticipating.

As we looked inside though, we saw a big mess. The muffin topping was oozing all over the place. They tasted delicious, but they were a mess. The topping was oozing and the centers were sinking.

Hmmm…not really contest-worthy.

I hadn’t thought about the fact that this really might take more than one try.

My family said the muffins were good enough to try again, so I did.

Again, and again, and again, and again.

Now I’d gone too far in the other direction.

I was determined to get this recipe right. Although the first time I made them they were too wet, by the fourth time I’d added in flour to the topping and now they were too dry, and my kids were beginning to dread coming home to the latest “after school snack” or waking up to a Saturday breakfast “surprise”  of apple pie muffins—again.

“What did you do to them,” one of the kids asked in distress this particular time. “Go back to the way they were, at least they tasted good.”

I was starting to run out of time and out of willing tasters.

I talked with my mom multiple times to get her opinion, and I thought and thought about my recipe ingredients and what seemed to be working and what didn’t.

What was I doing wrong??

Over and over in my mind I thought about all of the times I’d learned about scientists and how their hypotheses weren’t always right and how their experiments didn’t always work the first time around and how the learning takes place in the trial and error process, not necessarily in getting it right the first time around.

I was feeling like a kitchen scientist, albeit a weary one. How long did these scientists take to perfect their experiments??

The contest deadline was coming up. I’d had about two months to get this recipe right and I was not going to give up. I wasn’t even in it for the win any longer, I was in it for the personal satisfaction of accomplishing this task of creating my own recipe for the first (and possibly only) time ever. I wanted it to be good, I wanted my husband and kids to like it and be proud of me, and I wanted to get it right. I like to get things right. I like to give 110 percent all the time.

I gave it one final try. I adjusted my ingredients one last time. I begged my family to give them one last taste.

“I hope you get them right this time, they’re good, but I don’t think I can eat another one any time soon,” my oldest daughter said.

If I didn’t get the topping right this time, I really thought I might give up.

I put what I hoped would be the final batch in the oven, and I held my breath, literally. I’d added in raisins to one of the trays on the advice of my mother and two of my kids who like them, and left one without, for the one who doesn’t.

I watched them cooking in the oven. The topping seemed to be doing what it was supposed to be doing, spreading out without oozing over, and didn’t seem overly dry.

Could it be that I’d finally gotten the right balance of every ingredient down??

It seems that it could. I’d figured it out. I think I cheered out loud.

I pulled them out of the oven, and everyone took a bite. Again, I held my breath and waited for their responses.

Five thumbs up from my family.

Perfection.

Apple Pie Muffins with a Sweet Streusel topping for the win.

Except I didn’t win.

Not exactly.

I didn’t win one of the top three cash prizes that seemed attractive at the time I started out in this process.

But, I won a lot more than that. I can proudly say that I have created a recipe, my very own recipe, that was delicious, and most importantly I did not give up. I never anticipated this would take this long. I generally don’t have the patience to stick with something this long and see it through, but I could not let this one go, and I’m glad I didn’t.

Additionally, I have to say, we fell in love with this applesauce. I submitted a second recipe to the contest for Zesty BBQ pork chops which also utilized one of the varieties of applesauce, and my kids were going through the six jars like crazy, each variety was just as good as the last. I always have been a homemade applesauce kind of girl, and I have never purchased an applesauce my family has loved this much. I’m glad that we don’t live far from the Big Y markets in Massachusetts where it is going to be on the shelves under the new branding. It’ll be worth the ride just over the state line to get more. Not to mention, I recently ordered a case of their jams, as my youngest daughter finished the entire jar of blueberry jam on her own. When I heard that there were two other varieties, I decided to place an order for them.

In the end, I gained much more from this experience than I ever imagined I would have, and I have no regrets about entering, or about not winning.

Sometimes it just not about the win, it’s about the journey.

Apple Pie Muffins with Sweet Streusel Topping
by Jennifer L. Cowart

Apple pie muffins
*to make gluten free, use 1:1 gluten free all-purpose baking flour

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ tsp salt

2 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
1/3 cup Touch of Honey Applesauce With Cinnamon

2 apples peeled, cored and diced
Optional: use only one apple and add in 2/3 cups raisins.

Sweet Streusel Topping
*to make gluten free, use gluten free oats and gluten free flour.

¼ cup butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup quick oats (not instant) uncooked
1/4 cup flour
1/3 cup Touch of Honey Applesauce with Cinnamon

Directions

1) Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray 24 muffin tins with nonstick cooking spray.

2) In a large bowl whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

3) Add in eggs, milk and applesauce. Mix until well combined.

4) Add diced apples (and raisins, if desired) and mix well.

5) Put approximately two tablespoons of batter into each muffin tin, until ¾ of the way full. Set aside. **If there are empty muffin tins, fill with water, ¾ of the way full.**

6) In a separate bowl, mix together streusel ingredients.

7) Add one teaspoon of topping to the top of each portion of batter, spreading across top of batter.

8) Bake for 15-18 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center of muffins comes out clean.

Best served warm.
Makes 18-24 muffins.

Finally!