Dec 022012

I’m nuts for gift guides, but the parade of “buy this” messages gets a bit much around the holidays. If you have the time and inclination, it’s also the perfect time of year for handmade gifts. Here are a few of my favorite easy DIY gifts:

Tabletop trees — fluffy yarn around a styrofoam base.

The Web offers approximately one million Christmas stocking tutorials. You can quilt fabrics for interest, cut stockings from unusual textiles like vintage quilts, sew together strips from felted wool sweaters, or go with simple felt-and-fringe.

Also one million options? Tree ornaments. Here are some cute and easy felt stars.

Plain dishware + ceramic marker = a pattern of your own design.

Cashmere mittens from an old sweater.

And while you’re cutting up that sweater, how about these sweet stuffed bunnies made from an old cashmere sweater? Or some quilt squares for an old-school stuffed Scottie Dog? Pieces for a monster stuffie or rag quilt letters and numbers?

If you’re the no-sew type, there’s squishy handmade play-doh or gilded crowns from lace and Mod Podge.

A baking whiz? Here are a few tasty-looking recipes for baked gifts from The Nifty Foodie, with ideas for packaging.

Finally, are you resorting to a gift card but still want to give it a crafty personal touch? Check out these completely adorable gift card envelopes.

Do you plan to DIY crafty gifts for the holidays?

Oct 012012

I wasn’t always a cupcake fan. Don’t get me wrong, I looooove cake. But cupcakes are easy to over-bake and usually come out too dry. Three dollars a pop for buttercream icing atop a bit of crumbly dry cake? No thanks.

And then came Vera. Oh boy, does that kid love cupcakes. And cupcakes are pretty great, if you think about it from a kid’s perspective — a tiny cake that’s all yours!

Vera doesn’t just obsess over eating cupcakes, she loves to watch cupcake-related videos on YouTube. We have watched so many YouTube cupcake videos, so many times, that by now we’re YouTube cupcake video experts. Thought I’d share our favorites for anyone hoping to improve your cupcake game in the future:

The Recipe: Vanilla cupcakes with raspberry buttercream icing, via Laura in the Kitchen. Laura Vitale is completely, perkily adorable and her recipes are easy and approachable. Seriously, if you enjoy cooking (or want to learn to enjoy it), you should check out her site. She makes these cupcakes look so yummy that we had to give them a try. The verdict: thumbs up! The cake was moist, the frosting delicious, and the decorative raspberries a fresh/sour contrast to the sweet buttercream. We modified by cutting the sugar so they wouldn’t be too sweet, using no-sugar-added jam (ditto), and adding a dash of almond extract to both cake and icing. They came out better than the wares at several of our local cupcake shops — not bad for a first attempt from a rusty baker and a 3-year-old!

The Decorations: Vera is particularly obsessed with cake decorating, thanks to a series of videos from Liv Hansen of Betty Crocker Kitchens. Vera loves Liv Hansen so much, she briefly renamed our dog. For a week or two, our house was full of bizarre declarations like, “Mom, tell Liv Hansen of Betty Crocker Kitchens to stop begging for my french fries!”

Anyway. If our girl is going to obsess over something, she could do worse. Liv Hansen is an artist of cake. She comes up with show-stopping kids’ cakes and explains the decorating process so well, you could actually reproduce them at home. She has a bunch of videos on Howdini (Vera loves the castle, the mermaid, and the wild animals) and several well-reviewed “Whimsical Bakehouse” books. If you think fancy kids’ cakes are too difficult to try, checking out her videos might change your mind.

The Runners-Up: Vera’s also a fan of these cake pops, these rainbow cupcakes, and this princess cake tutorial (and I enjoy the funny choice of song). Both seem to hold up well from an adult-who-might-someday-follow-the-instructions standpoint.

Have you gotten into the world of cooking and baking videos? Any favorites?

Nov 052011

Mr T and I are both extremely sensitive to chemicals in products like household cleaners. Luckily, with each passing year there are more — and more effective — choices for less toxic cleaning products. Because the process is usually a matter of trial and error (and I hate wasting time and money on the errors!), thought I’d share some favorites with you.

[Links and prices are based on either or because that's where I buy them. But most are widely available, and you might be able to find them cheaper somewhere else.]

Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap, in Almond ($9.50). We definitely aren’t alone in our love for Dr. Bronner’s mild, natural, vegan liquid soaps. We use it as hand soap (with a little water mixed in to make it easier to rinse and to keep soap from clogging the dispenser), baby soap and shampoo (pumped out of the hand-soap dispenser), and sometimes grown-up shower soap. I have also heard of people using it for household cleaner (I tried it, but don’t like the residue it leaves if you don’t rinse), dog wash, and laundry stain treatment. The peppermint is popular, but it stings my sensitive skin; we prefer the gentle almond scent.

I object to the inclusion of dog shampoo. Down with dog baths!

EarthBath All-Natural Dog Shampoo ($12). The Oatmeal and Aloe version smells great (clean but not overpowering) and leaves our Sheltie’s coat super-soft. Wish I could find something this good for my own hair!

BioKleen Concentrated Produce Wash ($4.50). Removes chemicals and dirt from fruits and vegetables. Simply rub some on (you can use a produce brush, but I just use bare hands) and rinse. For berries, I soak them in a bowl of BioKleen and water for 5 or 10 minutes. I am hyper-sensitive to soap flavors and have never tasted any soapy residue from the BioKleen, plus the fruit itself tastes fresher. Not a fan of BioKleen’s other products, but I can’t live without this produce wash!

Earth Friendly Products Wave Dishwashing Gel ($7). Eco-friendly dishwasher soaps rarely clean as well as their chemical-laden counterparts. We tried several brands and found that Earth Friendly Products left dishes noticeably cleaner than the others.

Charlie’s Soap Laundry Powder ($12). Found this through Amazon reviews (I buy it at a discount through Subscribe & Save on Amazon) while looking for an effective “green” laundry option to tackle stained baby clothes. I haven’t found that it works any better (or any worse) on stains than other laundry detergents, but it cleans well without harsh chemicals or fragrances.

Better Life “I Can See Clearly, Wow!” Window Cleaner ($7). Window cleaners are another category where the green options often fall short. This one works quite well. The company makes several other cleaners that seem well-reviewed; looking forward to trying more.

What are your favorite eco-friendly cleaning options? Always looking for suggestions!

Mar 162010

I am not part of the e-book generation.  You’ll have to pry a bound paper book from my cold, dead hands.  (Or however that quote goes.)  But this whimsical fabric cover is almost cute enough to convert me:

Fabric cover for a leather-covered ebook from Handmade Mommy (as seen on Whipup).  Have an ebook without a hard leather cover?  Check out this tutorial for a padded Kindle sleeve.

Mar 102010

Is spring taking forever to reach your corner of the world? Perhaps these lovely paper flowers could get you by until the real version arrives….

Tutorial and photo from Jeffrey Rudell on CraftStylish (August ‘08).

P.S. Have paper flowers down cold and looking for a more ambitious project? Check out this amazing chandelier that Jeffrey Rudell created for a Christmas window at Tiffany & Co!

Feb 192010

When I lived in Israel, one of my favorite restaurant drinks was a tall mug of hot milk with a pool of instant coffee resting atop the foam.  Stir the powder into the milk, and you had an instant cafe au lait.  The (English side of the) menus never offered a name other than “instant coffee and hot milk,” so I took to calling the drink “Israeli coffee.”

Many years later, I spied instant espresso powder at a grocery store and grew excited about recreating my Israeli coffee memories.  It’s a great way to whip up a coffeehouse-type drink if you’re stuck at home or don’t want to shell out coffeehouse prices.  All you need is a mug of milk, a microwave, some instant espresso powder, and sugar, cocoa, or other flavoring if desired.  Something about it is comfort in a cup — I’ve gotten my mother hooked as well, and we got through so much that we buy jars by the 6-pack!

Just don’t run out of milk — it’s a sad, sad drink when added to water.  However, it does make an extremely tasty addition to chocolate-based baking.  The espresso doesn’t add a strong “coffee” flavor, just somehow deepens and enriches the chocolate.  Cook’s Illustrated baked with espresso powders for this month’s issue, and recommends the brands Cafe Bustelo or Caffe de Vita.  My personal favorite, Medaglia D’Oro, came in third.

Image sources one and two.  A favorite recipe for chewy Chocolate Espresso Cookies (even better with orange or peppermint flavoring, yum!).  And you can read all you ever wanted to know about coffee in Israel right here.