Thursday, 22 May 2014

Deerhurst Revisited - This time ALONE

    As I write this a thousand lists are running through my head.  I need to pack for the kids, for ourselves, clean the house and stock the fridge for the dog sitter, make sure all the laundry is caught up.... you get the idea.  Christopher and I are going back to Deerhurst, but this time ALONE!  I know,  I can't believe it either.  It was supposed to be a couples retreat with our friends, but one by one life happened for them and they weren't able to make it ... and then there were just two.

    There was a time not too long ago that I would never have entertained the idea of going away without the kids, that's just not something that good parents do.  I have come to realize that good parents need to have time to themselves to be good parents.  In the almost 20 years that we have been parents we have only been away from the kids overnight three times. 
    We have invested heavily in our children's well being and their future, and felt like it would dishonour them to be so selfish as to take for ourselves.  This was our mistake.  We need to invest in our marriage as heavily as we do in our children.  If we don't have a marriage, then our children's futures become irrevocably changed.  Our almost 21 year marriage has sheltered many storms that other marriages could never have withstood.  All of the heartache that we have endured has brought us more together than we ever were.  I can honestly say that I am more in love with Christopher now than I ever was, even in that giddy dating stage.  It will be nice to take off our mantles of "Mom" and "Dad" and just be Christopher and Tristan for just a little while.

    This week-end the kids are having a wonderful week-end with Nana and Papa.  They are so excited.  It's funny to think how excited they are because we see my parents almost daily.  It is easier to leave happy children, it makes our little adventure seem less selfish.

    I am looking forward to spending time with just my husband.  He is my best friend (and I don't mean that in a corny way, even though it may seem like it).  We never run out of things to talk about, and laugh about.  It is so rare that we get ten minutes together without either interruption of the kids or his work.   I am looking forward to walks throughout the beautiful Deerhurst grounds.  I am looking forward to coffee in the Muskoka Chairs at The Point.  I am looking forward to hot meals, and not cutting up anyone's food before I get mine.  I am looking forward to sleeping in.  I am looking forward to remembering all the reasons why I fell in love with this wonderful man of mine.  I am looking forward to the luxury and beauty of Deerhurst Resort.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Peanut Butter Mousse Cups

    Ever wonder what to do with all of that left over holiday chocolate (other than eat it and tell the kids that they should have lifted their bags because 'the dog ate all their candy')?  I have created the most amazingly frugal, crowd pleasing treat.  For the record, this is Easter chocolate, not Christmas chocolate.  I think this will go down as my most requested treat of all time.  It is so good that I sometimes debate giving out the recipe.  Why do I debate?  Mainly because I am not as nice as I pretend to be!  

    I begin by melting down a chocolate bunny, I suppose that chocolate wafers would do, but it just wouldn't have that same Fatal Attraction feel to it.  I use the double boiler effect.  I say double boiler effect, because I use my dutch oven filled half way with water, and a sauce pan on the top.  I like to bring the water to a boil before I put the chocolate pot on the top.  I then turn it to low heat.  The micro wave is technically faster, but the double boiler effect is really the way to go.  By going old school, it allows the chocolate to remain soft and melted, without needing to constantly reheat it and then usually burn/ harden it.  

    A while back I bought these adorable silicone muffin liners for the kids lunches.  I have to admit that putting silicone in the oven makes me nervous, so I have never tried that.  I bought these to put into the kids lunch containers and brighten their lunches up.  What I didn't know when I bought them, was that they make awesome chocolate molds.  I put about a large tablespoon of chocolate in the bottom of each mold.  I then placed a second empty silicone liner on top of the wet chocolate and gently pushed down. The last thing that I did was put them in the fridge.  It took about 10 minutes for them to harden up.

    I made a peanut butter mousse to fill the chocolate molds next.  I used...

1  8 oz pkg. of cream cheese                                     1 cup of icing sugar
3/4 cup of smooth peanut butter                                1/2 cup of cream (or milk would do)
1 tsp of vanilla                                                           1 pkg. of dessert topping (dream whip)

This is a recipe where I really love my Kitchen Aid stand mixer, but a hand mixer would do just as good of a job.  The first thing that I did was to make my dessert topping mix.  I like the no-name brand because it costs $3.50 for four envelopes of mix.  I made it according to the instructions on the back of the box.  When it was finished I scraped it out of the bowl and put it to the side for later.

Next I put in a room temperature brick of cream cheese.  I have discovered the hard way that if you don't let it sit out on the counter before using it, the cream cheese does not properly incorporate into the mixture.  It leaves tiny little unmixed balls of cream cheese throughout the mixture.  Next I very carefully poured in the icing sugar.  Once again I learned a lesson about why you should either shut down the stand mixer or put it on low when adding any dry ingredients.  I looked like a ghost (as did my kitchen) with that thin layer of powder everywhere the time I was too impatient to get my job done. The icing sugar flew everywhere!  The peanut butter is the next thing to add.  I use smooth peanut butter, but really you can use any.  Chunky peanut butter would give it a really nice texture.   Mix it all into together.  Add the milk and vanilla next.  I took the bowl off of the mixer and then gently folded in the dessert topping (who am I kidding, I just poured that bad boy in, even though I was supposed to 'fold it in gently'.  I used my stand mixer and just went to town).  

I spooned my peanut butter mouse into a pastry bag, and piped it into my chocolate molds.  If I was just making these for my own family, I would just spoon the mix in.  I made these for an occasion, so I wanted them to look pretty (and for people to be impressed by my mad skills, if truth be told).

The last thing to do is to grate some chocolate onto the top of them to make them look extra pretty.

    So there you have it, a way to use up extra children's holiday chocolate, and impress your friends with your amazing culinary skills.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Left Over Magic - BBQ Chicken on the Run

   You may have noticed that I seem to go on and on about making my dollar stretch.  For those of you who are sick and tired of reading about it, to you I apologize.  Making the dollar stretch should not however feel like "making the dollar stretch".  I like to eat well, and savour every single bite of food that I take.  This may sounds slightly mental, but I like to make a game out of how to stretch a meal without being skimpy.  I like to live large on a small budget.

    This week chicken breasts were on for a phenomenal price.  I bought two family packages.  I cooked them all up.  For that night's dinner I made roasted chicken breasts, roasted potatoes and baby carrots. They were large breasts so we needed only one each, and for some of the kids (o.k. and me) a whole breast was just too much.    This left lots of extra meat.  Waste not want not.  I broke the remaining chicken into small bits and stored it in a tupperware container.

    For the next night's dinner I mashed up the left over roasted potatoes and made a mashed potato salad (maybe later this week I will share that recipe).  I cut up raw vegetables for a vegetable tray with dip.  I also made a double batch of barbecue sauce.  I LOVE this barbecue sauce!  I would like to make you think that I am ever so clever and came up with this recipe, but I got it from my favourite cookbook series Company's Coming Cookbooks.  Honestly they are the only cookbooks that I use.  I have never ever had a failed recipe from those books.

    To make the barbecue sauce you will need...

1 Tbsp of butter                                              1/2 Cup of chopped onion
1 Cup of ketchup                                            1/3 Cup of vinegar
1/3 Cup of water                                             3 Tbsp of brown sugar
1 tsp Worchestershire sauce                            1 tsp prepared yellow mustard

Melt the butter in pan.  When it is melted, add the onions.  You want to cook these until they turn a little yellow and get soft.  At this stage I recommend taking your pan off of the heat while you add the next ingredients.  I say this because I get very easily distracted, and more than a few times I have feared that I would burn the onions, it hasn't happened yet, but honestly it's just a matter of time for me.  Next you add the ketchup.  I really like this recipe because you don't need the "good" brand named ketchup to make it taste amazing.  I just use the store brand ketchup, and it always tastes great.  Add the rest of the ingredients.  Here's another quick note, the recipe calls for Worchestershire sauce, but it's one of those items I use the last of and forget to add to my grocery list.  I am pleased to tell you that you can use soy sauce in it's place and it does not effect the outcome.

When all of the ingredients are in and mixed let it simmer for about twenty minutes on medium heat.  You will want to stir it so that it does not stick to the pan.  This makes about 1 1/4 cups of sauce, so I will double it.

    When the barbecue sauce was finished I poured the previous night's left over chicken into my beloved Pampered chef dish.  I then poured in the barbecue sauce and gave it a little stir.  I threw a layer of tin foil on the top and popped it into the oven at 250 degrees to heat, but not over cook.  When it was heated I served it on a nice soft bun.
    The nice thing about this recipe is that the chicken bits go farther than the chicken breast, so it's a perfect meal for left overs.  I was being thrifty, but no one in my family even knew they were eating leftovers ... score!

Sunday, 18 May 2014

How I Plan a Budget Friendly Vacation

    When I talk about my family vacations I often get "How do you do it?"  Sometimes this "how do you do it? is in wonder and appreciation (my ego really prefers those).  Sometimes it is a snottier "How do YOU do it?", meaning that somehow we don't deserve nice holidays.  On the surface a family of six living on a single income should not be able to afford as many nice trips as we take.  Christopher does not make a huge income, and we are not in huge debt.  The easy answer... I plan.  An amazing vacation does not have to put you into debt if you plan it properly.  The word spontaneous is not in my vocabulary.  Our vacations require hours and hours of planning time (by me) and research.  This may sound like it takes all of the fun out of a family vacation, but honestly for us it enhances it.  My research educates me about what there is to see, and that way we don't miss anything.

1.  Plan Where To Go
    I begin our family vacation planning with a destination in mind.  A few years ago we took a trip to Boston, Massachusetts.  That trip came from an unlikely source.  At that time Gracie loved American Girl dolls, movies, books and of course the magazine.  Childhood is this beautiful glimmering thing, but it's gone so quickly.  I take the attitude that we have to live and love as much of their growing up as we possibly can.  Christopher and I will have time when the kids are all grown up to take vacations that are just about us.  Right now our philosophy is that life is about the kids.  Vacations are a chance for us to be together with no distractions from the outside world.  It allows us to explore their interests, and give them fun educational experiences.  We planned a trip to Boston because it had the closest American Girl Store to us.  From there I researched Boston and it's surrounding area.

2.  Set Your Budget
    The next, and most important decision is to set a budget.  The budget determines where we stay, what we eat, what activities that we do.  The budget is everything!  We set our budget and then we divide it into how many days that we will be somewhere.  For example if we have a budget of $1000.00, we would decide that $600.00 would go to accommodations.  That leaves $400.00 for food, activities and souvenirs.  I will then further divide that into envelopes for the day.  It sounds type A, but it really helps us to stay on budget and have an amazing vacation.

3.  Book Your Hotel
    Once we have decided on a destination, and a budget,  I get to work getting us accommodations.  I learned the hard way how important this part of vacation planning is.  If you leave your accommodations to the last minute you will not get the best deal.  Having said that .... when we travel in the States we like to pick up discount hotel booklets at the rest stations.  These booklets contain coupons that get you great hotel rates.  One time we stayed at the Four Points Sheridan in York, Pennsylvania for $60.00.  Normally that same hotel room would have run us $140.00 at least.  The premise for this booklet is that if the hotels have not sold their rooms by a certain time, they will give it to you at a discounted rate.  It is better to get some money for a room, than none.  This saves a lot of money... but and there really is a big but to this one, but it's a fickle system.  I have seen us travel to five different hotels and none of them can honour that price.  To get that price you have to arrive after a certain time, and it depends on how many rooms they have left.  Basically what it boils down to is if they are having a slow night you can get that rate, if not, well you pay full price.  By calling and booking ahead you have bargaining power.  I have found that the earlier I book, the better my rate is.  To get my best possible rate I play a little game that I call "the best rate game".  I do not call the 1-800 number.  That puts me in touch with a central booking system, they know as much as you do about that hotel.  They only know the facts are that are written down.  I call the actual hotel that I am interested in staying at.  I ask for their rate, then I ask for their "best" rate.  Next I ask for their CAA / AAA rate, and finally I ask if they are currently running any promotions or have any managers specials.  It feels often times like you have to ask the right question to get the answer.  For some reason they never give you the best rate right off the bat.  Quite often I will ask if they can include breakfast if it is not already included, more often than not they will.  Not paying for breakfast saves us a lot of money and makes our stay a little more fun.  Free breakfast sounds stupid to say it's 'fun', but it's outside of our norm.  It's a little adventure for the kids to eat breakfast in a restaurant.  Another important thing to ask the hotel is what kind of amenities are included.  This sounds silly, but it tells you a lot about where you are staying.  For example if they do not have a pool, we will not stay there.  When I booked our Virginia Beach vacation, I found out that the hotel/ resort offered free laundry service.  You read that correctly... "FREE".  This little piece of advice allowed me to pack light for our vacation, and not return home with that dreaded bag of dirty laundry that you really don't feel like doing after an amazing vacation.
Our hotel also boasted a movie theatre and was right on the ocean.  Those amenities allowed us to save a lot of money, and still have an EXCELLENT time.

4.  Where To See / Play
    After the hotel has been booked I begin researching things to do while we are there.  Sometimes the best place to start is the hotel website.  Very often the hotel website lists area attractions.  I also will do a generic web search for the name of our vacation destination.  If I discover an attraction that I feel would suit our family, I then search "discounted tickets".  Some museums allow free entry on certain days and after certain hours.  We discovered that with our Toronto Science Centre family membership we gained free entrance to hundreds of other science centres around North America.  Many attractions offer discounted ticket prices to CAA/ AAA members.  Sometimes you can get seriously discounted tickets through your local CAA/ AAA office.  Sometimes the hotel itself offers either room/ ticket special packages, sometimes the hotels have discounted tickets available.   We really love Provincial / State Parks.  The admission to these parks is small, and often they have great activities that are free with your parking pass.  We paid $4.00 to go to First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach.  This had a visitors centre with maps and a display telling the history of the park.  In Myrtle Beach, the State Park has alligator exhibits, with real baby alligators (and no scary alligator mom).  Your admission allows you almost unlimited time during the day and countless things to see.

5.  Meals
    Meals can get pretty costly on vacation.  I like to search the internet for places to eat and restaurant reviews.  I also will post a message on my facebook page asking my friends who has been there and where they would recommend.  I am addicted to Food Network Magazine, and in every issue there is a section that shows must eat places in each of the states, this has given us ideas.  We generally plan, plan, plan.  I almost always get a hotel that offers free breakfast, that in and of itself is a HUGE savings.  For lunches I will pick up a cheap loaf of bread and peanut butter.  These are not luxury foods, but they sure keep the budget down!  I like for us to have one really nice dinner out at a nice restaurant.  To do this we skimp on the other meals.  If there is a barbecue on the premisses, we will make burgers.  Sometimes we will pick up a "meal to go" from the local grocery store (you know the baked chicken with rolls and a salad and sometime pop or water).  In Virginia Beach, we discovered this really amazing grocery store that offered gourmet meals to go, at really inexpensive prices.

6.  Explore Where You Are
    Although I am really prepared on our vacation, I do leave a few things to chance.  Very often in the lobby most hotels have racks of brochures of local attractions.  Sometimes they have coupon booklets, these often have really great coupons.  We have often saved as much as half price.  We will also ask people at the hotel what places they would recommend going.  We ask them where they like to go to eat.  This allows us to skip the tourist traps, and most times save money.

    So there you have it, my budget friendly vacation planning tips.  The most important thing about planning a family vacation is to plan it to suit your family and their likes.  Not everything has to be the cheapest thing out there.  Some splurges are completely worth it, if it brings you joy.  I just try to mix our splurges with economy in almost equal doses.  The bottom line is that we always have amazing vacations without breaking the bank.  We are making memories.

 If you have any great tips, please feel free to share them.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Ouchie Cloths

    All winter I dreamed of summer.  Every time I looked outside my window and saw the almost endless drifts of cold white snow, and even more so when I was forced to venture outside, I would fantasize about green grass, walking around without a parka.  That dream is here.  Summer is awesome (other than the oppressive heat), but it is also the time that my kids sustain most of their injuries.  If you think about it, summer is the time we expose the most skin.  Clothing is what protects that skin during falls from bikes, insect attacks, stray poker hot embers from a camp fires, you get it.  At all times of the year I have several ice packs in my freezer ready to go (my kids, and myself are super accident prone).  I have now discovered an amazing tool to add to that pain pack arsenal... witch hazel cloths.

    If you read yesterday's post, you may recall my sharing that Rowan received a rather painful injury.  When my kids are sick or injured I want to help them.  If I were being honest I want to make the pain go away (and not just because my kids are loud when they are in pain).  Lately, and by lately I mean the last few years I have really been connecting with my Mother Earth side.  For years I fought the hippy values of my upbringing, but as I grow older they seem to have slipped into my life, unasked for, but strangely welcome.  I will at no time soon be making oatmeal, flax and carob cookies (a stable of my school lunches), but I want to use the least amount of chemicals with my kids.  This has lead me to making as many foods from scratch as I can.  It has lead me to begin making my own cleaning products for around the house (which not only work amazingly, but cost pennies to make and use).  I find myself expanding my inner hippy.

   I am sure that many of us are well acquainted with the amazing properties of witch hazel, well those of us who have been pregnant.  You may know it better as "Tucks".  That little pad that you purchased to help ease that pain in your rear, was actually witch hazel soaked pads.  For centuries witch hazel has been used to help swelling, and reduce bruises, apparently it also makes an amazing facial astringent.  Not only does it reduce swelling, it has antibacterial properties.  It falls into the the same category for me as hydrogen peroxide, that category being "Why have I not incorporated you into my life before now?"

    On my laundry room shelf I have a stack of old towels, torn and worn sheets among other things.  Waste not want not.  These items make great cleaning rags.  Of all of those items that I listed, my most favourite item is flannel sheets.  Flannel makes the best everything, in my humble opinion.  I cut long strips of flannel to dip in my tea/ apple cider vinegar mixture to help sooth Riley's poor sunburned legs. 
I use smaller strips of flannel for my kitchen wipes (vinegar and steeped lemons.)
I also use smaller strips of the flannel for my new staple item, "ouchie cloths".  
    What you may ask is an "ouchie cloth"?  I folded up my flannel strips and put them into a small container.  Next I poured some witch hazel on top, enough to soak in without drenching them.  I then put this container filled to the top with witch hazel soaked cloths into the fridge.  Rowan will be the first to tell you that these are amazing!  There is the soothing comfort of the cool from being in the fridge, but also the amazing properties of the witch hazel which helps remove inflammation, and pain.
    The entire summer if you look in my fridge you will now see a jar of these amazing witch hazel soaked flannel.  Witch hazel is also used to treat the itch of bug bites, one more amazing reason it will be on hand all summer.  For more severe injuries that require an ice pack, I think that I will be adding a witch hazel cloth as my thin towel layer.  I just cannot say enough great things about this amazing and really inexpensive remedy.  Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Finally The Sun = Sunburn

    I was beginning to wonder if we would ever again see a warm sunny day.  Do you remember that Twightlight Zone where they lived on this planet with no sun, and they only saw the sun once every ten years... well I was beginning to think that I was guest starring in that episode!  Unfortunately with the sun comes the inevitable sunburn.

    This Tuesday past the kids had track and field.  I was thinking that there was a good chance that I would make mother of the year.  I was prepared.  I had even gone so far as to purchase new athletic type clothing for them.  I had looked out hats and purchased the highest sunscreen rating that I could get my hands on.  Oh I was a really good mother.  That fallacy came tumbling down around my feet Tuesday night.
    Tuesday morning I got the kids up in great time (when I say 'I', I really mean Christopher, but I was technically there... that counts as 'I' ... right).  They were fed, dressed, hair done and ready to go to school.  I sun screened their faces, and necks, ears and arms with a thick layer just you are supposed to.  I didn't sunscreen their legs because it was track and field, their legs wouldn't see the sun.  I think that you know where I am going with this one.
    Rowan came home early with an injury (I will not go into details, but I will say that his injury would make all the men reading this wince).  Riley came home with this weird rash on her legs.  She had been sitting in the grass with her friends while she waited for her track and field events.  It was probably just an allergy.  Right after school I took put Riley and Rowan in the car to take them to their art class in Peterborough.  Riley was complaining in the car on the way there that her legs hurt.  I assured her that I would pick up some rash cream for her while they were in their class.  When I picked them up after their class, her legs looked like someone had painted them scarlet.  It was sunburn.

      When we got home I began to research natural sunburn remedies.  There were a few ingredients that kept coming up... tea and cider vinegar.  I decided to make a concoction that mixed the two of them together.  I soaked four tea bags in four cups of boiling water for an hour.  I then mixed in one cup of cider vinegar.  I put a handful of ice into the large bowl to cool it, and put some in containers.  The next thing that I did was cut an old flannelette sheet into long strips.  These strips I then soaked in the cold tea mixture.

    When Riley was settled into bed, I put an old towel under her legs and the tea soaked cloth onto her legs.  She put up a fuss, but in the end she settled down.  She didn't fuss because the mixture hurt, but because it was cold.  As a matter of fact she asked for me to repeat the soaked clothes again for the next two nights, she said that it really took the heat out of her legs.
    I now have two jars of the tea/ apple cider mixture in the fridge.  I don't plan to repeat the mistake of the kids getting sunburned, but lets face it, sometimes these things happen.  I am prepared this time ahead of time.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

My Belated Happy Mother's Day

    No, I have not fallen off the edge of the world.  I have been here the whole time, it's just that life has somehow gotten away from me.  I would love to be able to tell you that I was doing heroic deeds and saving the world, but no.  Have you ever had those times where time just seems to vaporize?  I have the same number of hours in the day, and yet it still doesn't seem like enough.  Here I am, and I am going to try to make a better effort.
    I know that I am late on this one, but Happy Mother's Day.  I have heard it complained that why should there just be one day to celebrate the love you have for your mother?  Shouldn't you appreciate and show that appreciation every day?  The answer is yes, but heck I'll take whatever scraps fall my way.  Motherhood is in many ways a thankless job.  I have had my children vomit in my hair, and in my mouth (not awesome) on more than one occasion, unfortunately.  I have stayed awake all night holding a bucket for them to vomit in, and made numerous trips to the fridge for ginger ale.   At no point did any of them ever say, "Oh sorry about vomiting in your mouth Mom. You really went above and beyond for me... thanks."  To be honest who among us ever thanked our Moms for the hours of sleeplessness they have given to us, or us to them?  When they are tiny they wake us, or in my case, I used to wake to make sure that they were still breathing.  My babies never suffered from any infantile illness that should have caused me to worry, but worry I did.  I would worry if they slept too long, or not enough, I worried (still do).  Worry is the sign of love.  I want the best for my kids.  I want them to grow up well adjusted and at peace with who they are.
     I can give you the corny but true statement that just having my children in my life is gift enough.  I have said this before, but I truly love being a mother.  It is the most important career I have ever had.  Motherhood is not easy, but it is rewarding.  I watch my children playing and on the rare occasions that they are not fighting, but playing nicely together I get this stupid little smile on my face.  I am proud of who they are and who they are becoming.  It is beautiful to watch them grow, beautiful and yet I feel sad because I know that they are slowly letting go of my hand that they once held tightly.  They are growing up and becoming independent.
    Mother's Day is that one day of the year when you get the lip service.  At my house Mother's Day is also about the kids.  Their little faces light up with self pride as they hand me their construction paper cards and home made gifts.  They love to give me breakfast in bed.  This year they were exceptionally proud of themselves because they made me a cup of coffee with the Keurig.  At my house, Mothers Day is not just about "me".
    Although Motherhood is often a thankless job, it's also a club that I feel very privileged to be a member of.  When it all comes right down to it, and we are sitting with our coffee cups complaining about our ungrateful children, why should they be grateful?  At no point did any of my children ask to be born.  None of them have ever asked me to be selfless on their behalf.  I want the very best for them, I make the decision to spoil them.  They are who they are because of the decisions "I" have made.  Every one of my children were very much wanted and adored by everyone in their life.  Motherhood is not a blessing that I take for granted... I know that it is a sacred gift.  It is a gift that I chose not once, but four times (for those of you counting fingers I have five kids, but the twins count as one because they came from one pregnancy).   There are many heavy hearted women with empty arms who would give their very soul to be a part of the motherhood.  
  To those of you who share my philosophy on motherhood I say thank you.  If you love your children as much as I love mine, this world will be a better place.  Those happy, well adjusted children will one day become our doctors, lawyers, political leaders, in other words our future.  If we do our job right, we will help to create a beautiful future.  I'm alright with having thankless children, when they thank me with their deeds and the way they act in their world.