My first specialty cake!

This month, Pooh turned 3, and we decided to celebrate his birthday with the family when we went to my parents’ house for the holiday weekend. I thought about buying a cake, but I’ve recently been inspired to try some cake baking of my own, so I googled around and found a couple cakes that I thought Pooh would like. Ultimately, I went with a train theme, complete with a little Thomas on top.

This being my first cake, I didn’t want to be overly ambitious in my baking, so I went with boxed cake mix and canned frosting. Here are my expenses:
2 Aldi cake mixes: $0.99 each
1 Aldi cream cheese frosting: $1.29
6 eggs: a free gift from my mom’s chickens
oil, food coloring, etc: shamelessly stolen from my mom’s cabinet
various and sundry small snack items: gathered from my kitchen
Total cost, not including labor: $3.27

I’ll let you decide how much my labor is worth!

First, I baked all the cake. One white cake mix made 2 round cakes, one 8″ and one 9″. One chocolate cake mix made 2 small (6X9, maybe?) oblong cakes. Once they were all baked and cooled, I gave the round ones a crumb coat and stuck them in the fridge overnight.

One oblong one I cut into 12 smaller rectangles, and gave each of those a crumb coat too. This was much more difficult since they’d been cut! It would have been much smarter to bake them all separately, or use a heavier cake mix, or even let them sit out and dry for a while before attempting any icing, even a light coat. I’ll know better next time.

The second oblong cake was extra. Since we were also celebrating my dad’s birthday, and he loves German chocolate cake, I just iced it with coconut pecan icing, which was as close as I could get (okay, as close as I could find at Walmart) to German chocolate.

The next morning, I gathered bowls, the food coloring, and my “freight”, and got to work. My sister and her daughter had arrived by then, and they helped. Here’s my niece, ready to get to work – isn’t she a cutie?!

First we iced the round cakes in white, and placed them, touching, on a cake board (we used a piece of wood covered with cake paper). My sis (who has made lots of great cakes) suggested we cut out a small portion of one cake so that the two would fit together better = great idea! Then I took a toothpick and drew two half-circles on each cake, about 1.5 inches apart, to create a giant 3, then I traced the 3 with icing. I could have just started with the icing, but I’m not that brave. With the 3 made, I used pretzels to create railroad ties on it.

We decided the juncture of the 3 needed a stop sign, and luckily we had a red Jolly Rancher handy.

That was the easy part! Next came the freight cars…

Each of the small rectangular cake pieces we iced in a different color, adding 3 cheerios along the bottom of each side to form wheels. On the top, we used pretzels to create a box, and then filled the box with some kind of freight.

Ultimately, our freight included fruit snacks, smarties, a swiss cake roll, mini chocolate rice cakes, cheeries, chocolate waves, sand (crushed up cookies), and a mixture of them. The freight cars were placed around the larger cake, with pretzels connected each one to the next.

It was impossible to hide the cake from Pooh when it was done, and once he saw it, he kept climbing up on the kitchen stools asking for some. When I told him we could not have cake until after we sang happy birthday, he happily sang the entire song for me.

I’m pretty sure this cake was a huge hit – at least Pooh seemed to love it!

Nature’s Bounty

Yesterday I mentioned talked about our produce co-op and showed what we got in it this week. What I didn’t mention is the fact that we are overflowing in veggies right now! We hosted a potluck on friday night, and part of our contribution was veggie strips. Of course when I purchased them, I bought way more than we needed. Plus, rather than taking their contributions home with them, lots of people left them for the rest of the party-goers to enjoy. This meant that at the end of the night, we were left with a ton of food! That’s both good and bad. Luckily, I was able to pawn off share the desserts with my sisters and their families, leaving us with just a few cookies and brownies that we promptly froze (except for this really incredible cinnamon coffee cake that I forced myself to finish).

One thing that was left was a gorgeous (and huge) veggie tray, with zucchini, yellow squash, cucumber, carrots, snow peas, broccoli, cauliflower, yellow pepper, and I think there’s more that I cannot remember. That, plus the extra carrots and peppers that we already had, plus our co-op shop, means that we are swimming in veggies! This is only a small portion of what we’ve got:

While this many veggies sometimes means that some goes to waste, we are really trying right now to use our resources well and not waste food. Plus, it’s the beginning of the school year, which is the most stressful time for me. So, I decided to take advantage of all the veggies and prepare lunches for this week. Here’s how it went:

First, I chopped up onions, peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, and tomatoes to make a chunky veggie sauce for noodles. I got the sauce going on the stove and the water boiling for noodles, and then started on the rest.

Second, I washed and chopped up cabbage and peppers, and portioned them and some carrots out into 5 individual servings. When the noodles and veggie sauce were done, I made 5 individual servings of them as well.

When I stored those in the fridge, I grouped them by day, so that I can just grab a stack and toss them into my lunchbag:

With that, I can add an apple or tangerine (no prepping needed), and I have a super-healthy lunch and snacks for each day of the coming week, that includes my 5+ servings of fruits and veggies.

Third, I washed and chopped the rest of the carrots, celery, cucumber, and cabbage, and packaged them so that they are ready to eat (or cook) whenever we want them. I washed the green and black grapes, removed them from the stems, and packaged them, so that they are easy to grab for a snack for Pooh. I also washed and chopped mango and nectarines so they are easy to add to smoothies or yogurt. P-daddy and I have been talking about pickling lately, so I decided to cut some carrots into matchsticks and pickle them as well. Then I prepped homemade french fries for the freezer and diced red and yellow peppers to freeze for later. Once I added the rest of the noodles in veggie sauce, we had quite an array:

Now my fridge is full, I’m ready for the week, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment! And Pooh is asking for grapes so I must run – luckily I’ve got a few all ready for him!

Our Veggie Co-op

I have this distinct memory of grocery shopping with my sister shortly after returning from Guatemala. We walked through the produce department, where tomatoes were $0.99 a pound. My sister thought that was a good price, and suggested we buy them. “What?! 99 cents a pound?! Are you crazy? That’s almost 10Q a pound, and I can get them from the woman at the corner stall for 2Q.” [Note: Q = Quetzal, the currency in Guatemala, at that time roughly 8Q = $1]. I didn’t buy the tomatoes. We moved on. Onions were too expensive, because I could get them 2 pounds for 1Q at my favorite vendor. Carrots, apples, and pretty much everything I wanted to buy was the same; outrageous “gringo” prices. um, yeah, gringo prices, since gringos would pay a lot more in the markets in Guatemala since the expensive prices were still less than what they would pay at home!

Adjusting to what I considered to be the outrageous prices on produce in the US, in comparison with the incredible prices I had seen all over Central America was really difficult for me. And yes, I look forward to seeing great prices again when we move. But for now, I’m in the US, and I am simply never going to find tomatoes for 20 cents a pound!

While we’ve started growing a few (very few!) of our own veggies, we don’t produce nearly enough for our needs, so I’m constantly looking for fresh veggies at good prices. When I lived in California, I was part of a CSA, but where we are in Texas, we have not been able to find a CSA in our area with pick-up days/times that work for us. Instead, we’ve found a veggie co-op that buys in bulk from the local farmers market every two weeks.

This co-op is run by a woman in my sisters’ homeschool group, and most of the members are also members of that group. In an effort to save on cost, everybody contributes $30 every 2 weeks, and one or two people in the group do the shopping every time, then come back to the organizer’s house and split the goods:

At 8 am (yes, that means that the veggie buyers have to hit the market before the crack of dawn!), the rest of the members of the co-op arrive, pack their veggies into their boxes, pay for their portion coming in 2 weeks, and head home to enjoy the bounty.

When we first started this, we shared a portion with my sister, but we found that it was more veggies than we would sometimes eat before they were going bad, and we hated for them to go to waste. Now we share our half with another sister, and we end up having to buy a little more, but we prefer that over wasting food.

This week, this is what our quarter portion looked like:

Once it was all laid out and grouped together, it looked like this:

We got:
- 1 head of leafy green lettuce
- I head of broccoli
- 1 head of red cabbage
- 1 large baker potato
- 3 red bell peppers
- 2 yellow onions
- 4 tomatoes
- 1 huge nectarine
- 3 apples (one is not in the pic since Pooh already ate it)
- 2 oranges
- 5 tangerines
- black grapes (maybe 1/2 pound?)
- 1/2 bag of baby carrots (also not pictured)

For $7.50, I think that’s a pretty good deal! I’m trying not to imagine how much better it would be in El Salvador! I admit, though, that I’m intensely curious as to how much this would cost me at the local grocery store – I think I may have to do a little cost comparison later today!

Bulk Cooking

Next week, classes begin and we all have to hit the ground running for a new semester. For me, in times of stress, my good eating habits can often fly out the window in favor of convenience. I really don’t want that to happen, for several reasons:

1) My health – While I may love Taco Bell and french fries, they are not the healthiest choices. My normal diet consists mostly of lean meats, whole natural foods like beans and grains, and lots of fruits and veggies. I think this contributes significantly to my overall good health.
2) My weight – I’ve been a Weight Watcher for a while now. I hit my goal weight about 6 months after goal, and maintained my weight for several years, though I did gain a bit while marathon training. When I moved to Texas 2 years ago, to start a new job, I gained again, and have just finally gotten back on track and am down to about 5 pounds above my goal weight. I refuse to let stress de-rail me this time!
3) My budget – Convenience food is expensive! While a $2 meal at Taco Bell may sound cheap, I can actually prepare a nice home-cooked meal for less than that per person!

So this evening, once Pooh and P-Daddy hit the sack, I’m going to work on some food prep. I’m setting a goal for one hour, and I’m going to try to do the following:

1) cut and boil potatoes for french fries
2) cook a couple cups of brown rice
3) cook a pound of angel hair pasta
4) chop and cook peppers and onions
5) clean out the fridge

Hopefully, this will put me in a good spot in terms of getting the week going with nutritious home-cooked foods that are easy to grab and go!

Life on the water

That was part of dinner for P-Daddy and me recently when we headed out for sushi. We both love sushi, but it’s not the norm for us anymore. When we were in San Diego, we ate it a LOT, probably way more than we should’ve. Actually, we ate seafood a lot in general. There’s something about living so close to a huge body of water that makes me feel like seafood will be good to eat. Fresh. Tasty. Not having sat in someone’s freezer for months. I am fully aware that there are such things as planes, and they fly fast, and that the fish that we can get at some places here in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is as fresh as what we got in San Diego, but I have a mental block about it. Here in Dallas, I’d have to drive a heck of a long way to see a coastline. The thought of my “fresh” fish traveling that far just isn’t too appealing.

Growing up here in DFW, we didn’t eat a whole lot of fish, and I first learned to love it when I lived in Guatemala. We’d head to the beach regularly, all year round. Our favorite place was about 4 hours from where I lived, so we’d go early and spend the day lazing in the sand, people-watching, strolling on the beach, maybe swimming, and plying ourselves with cold beer (Gallo, how I miss you!) and fresh seafood. And when I say fresh, I do mean fresh – as in, caught fresh that morning by the comedor owner’s husband or one of his friends. It was incredibly good!

Living in San Diego fed my seafood addiction further, especially with the addition of sushi to my list of well-loved foods. But we’ve now been back in DFW for about 2 years, and I miss having a steady diet of fresh seafood. I know it’s possible, it’s just my own personal opinion that things that live in the ocean taste better when you are close to an ocean.

Yesterday I was lazily looking through my pics when I happened to see this one of our go-to map:

Now, take a look again – do you see that coastline? I cannot wait to explore its entire length, and when I do, I’ll make sure to let you know the best possible places to get fresh fish. And cold beer. Yum!