Thursday, February 26, 2009

Update on the hamantaschen

While the hamantaschen look pretty in the picture in my earlier post, they are rock hard. I think I learn this lesson every year I make them. Take them out of the oven when the recipe tells you to - they will continue baking on the cookie sheet and achieve a perfect consistency. Don't doubt the recipe. Like I did. And now I have dozens of rock-hard hamantaschen. I still eat them, but I much prefer the chewier ones (the kind that don't challenge my teeth).

I think this year, my innovation will be writing this nugget of info in the cookbook so I don't repeating this mistake. Hopefully my first batch will come out better next year.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Adar is here!!

And we know what that means!

(Not referring to the countdown towards Pesach.)

It's hamantaschen time!!!

I love baking hamantaschen. I just love it. And I only like poppyseed filling. Call me old-fashioned, call me whatever - poppy seed is where it's at. Yes, I will tolerate other fillings (except prune or chocolate and I will eat apricot if there is nothing left) but I am a purist at heart and I only make hamantaschen with poppy seed. I have distinct memories of baking hamantaschen with my mom and sister, and most of the time my sister and I would sit on the kitchen counters eating poppy seed filling out of the can. Yes, it is that good.

I can't wait to bake with my kids.

So since today is Rosh Chodesh Adar, I decided to begin the new month with the first 2009 batch of hamantaschen. Unfortunately, I think that part of the first batch is sacrificial until I get into the groove of it (not too much filling or the filling will overflow in the oven, make sure there enough flour on the surface or else it will stick to the counter, etc) but the "sacrifices" are just as tasty as the pretty ones, so I enjoy eating those.

I love excuses to bake.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Challenge of the week

Over the weekend we made a few returns to stores that instead of crediting our account, the cashier gave us cash because we made the purchases using our debit card. I'd much rather have the money credited back to our account because I don't like carrying cash, but it is what it is. Also, my account is connected to my checking account so I can track my spending, which is something I can't do if I am spending cash. My husband challenged me to not spend more than the cash I have on hand this week - to see how long it can last.

I want to think that I'll be able to do that. The money is supposed to be enough for groceries and any other items I wish to purchase. That means that I need to think even more analytically about what I am spending money on (or delay my purchase until next week when the challenge is over :-) .

We did a very good job of spending a minimal amount on groceries lately and focusing on using up the items in our pantry; after all, we did buy those items so they may as well be used. However, now that we are running low on staples it is time to stock up again, and I was hoping to do that this week. Since I am home now I like to provide my husband with nutritious and filling lunches, so that takes a bit of brainpower for me. I like making interesting dinners - or at least rotate dinners so that we are not always eating the same thing over and over again. We've also found that theme nights are helpful - they can simplify the menu planning and assist with planning meals in advance by ensuring that we have the necessary ingredients on hand. By themes, I mean like a weekly grill night, weekly taco night (which really is more like Tex-Mex night), weekly stir-fry night (stir-frys are GREAT for using up leftovers!), and that's as far as we got. Sat night has, by default, become mac and cheese night lately. We don't always stick to these plans though, but when we do, I have noticed that it makes it so much easier to plan for dinner.

But the spending is not limited to food. I need to think about clothes, my hobby, and any other "miscellaneous" items that may come up. Obviously I can still use my debit card, but this is a good challenge for me to check my spending habits and help me further parse out my "needs" versus my "wants".

Friday, February 20, 2009

Beldens beats Walmart on price!!

I know - that is an attention-getting headline. It sounds preposterous. But it is true. Beldens has actually beaten Walmart - WALMART - on price.

How? Where? On what product? Oh, so many questions.

On bananas. Yummy, portable, nature's perfect food - bananas. Walmart grocery store sells them for 48 cents per pound. As does HEB.

Beldens sells them for 39 cents per pound.

I know it's crazy. I know it won't last (no, it's not a sale price, but all good things must come to an end). But it's a beautiful thing.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

(For those who live out of town, Beldens is an upscale grocery store that carries an extensive kosher selection, including fresh meat and poultry, so it's a routine stop on the grocery store circuit. It has excellent customer service. And there's never a line at the checkout. However, to purchase staples there, it is a bit expensive.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I was listening to the pop radio station this afternoon in the car and this song came on that was new to me. As far as I could tell, the song was basically about dancing and having fun. For whatever reason, that song generated a flood of memories for me of times when my girlfriends and I would go out dancing during the college years. I vividly remembered every part of it:
  • The "getting ready" part: This was almost was as much fun as going out itself. Since we all lived close together (yay strategic dorm/apartment hunting!), we spent a huge amount of time picking out the best outfits (half the time I had to borrow clothes since I didn't own anything "appropriate") and doing hair and makeup, all to achieve just the right look. We had the discussions on which place to go to, how to protect ourselves from unwanted strangers (weird guys, bad dancers, etc), and what signal to give each other if we needed help. It was also a good time to share our "club names" - or maybe I had the only one - since I did not want to give out my real name.
  • The "getting hyped up in the car" part: Of course, this assumes that a car was available. If not, then we either had to take a taxi (expensive!) or use the campus shuttle (totally not cool) or walk (if we were going to a frat party, and that meant we had to wear comfy shoes that was dance-worthy). Either way, we had to psych ourselves up for whatever potential the night had in store for us. This included much giggling, reminiscing of earlier experiences, and resolutions of not to do stupid things.
  • The "dancing" part. Once we reached our destination, we just danced. That was our whole goal. We literally danced like no one was watching (very easy to do in a club or dance party; the darkness and strobe lights make it very difficult to see anything).

I don't know what was so special about the dancing, but literally my friends and I loved it. The freedom, sometimes playing an alter ego, not worrying about an upcoming exam/paper/project, listening to fun music - all of that was just a release.

So today, when I heard that song, that's what came back to me. All those memories I hadn't thought about in years, certainly not since I had my daughter. I thought about it - what if my friends and I were to get together now and and just go out dancing? I still don't have the clothes (I would just have to make do with what I've got), and my shoes double up as work shoes, but hopefully I still have the moves. But do I even want to? I have to say, most of the time, the thought never crosses my mind. I'm pretty content with my life. But sometimes, every so often, maybe I am inspired by something I see or read - I get this feeling, this itch to go out and party with my friends again. Just to have fun without worrying about the bills or work or planning the next event or a holiday or what my next Shabbat menu will be.

Don't get me wrong - I have plenty of fun. But those college days...always a good memory.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Cash flow considerations

Last week we had a bit of a cash flow problem so I was limited to utilizing only the cash I had in my wallet for any purchases I needed to make. We are lucky in that this was a (very) temporary problem, but it was a new experience for me in the sense that I couldn't just whip out the ol' debit card (already a step up from the credit card) and make my purchases.

I already consider myself a fairly conscientious shopper so that I don't spend needlessly and only buy the things that we need. We are certainly not deprived of anything, and the category of "things we need" can be fairly broad, like certain snack foods, or another set of pajamas for the baby, or something.

Last week I had to rethink my "needs" because I was literally limited to what was in my wallet, and that was courtesy of a return I did at a store and they gave me cash back instead of depositing the funds into the checking account. I had to make that money last until the next cash inflows came. I broke down my "needs" list even further, into two categories: what is needed RIGHT NOW, and what can wait (although still needs to be purchased). I also needed to ensure that I had cash for an emergency if one should come up, so I really didn't want to spend ALL of the cash. This really forced me to think and evaluate my shopping. At the grocery store, did I REALLY need this or that RIGHT NOW? Can it wait? Can I make do with what I have at home?

This exercise forced me to examine my refrigerator, freezer, and pantry for meal ingredients and think of how I can use them in fresh ways without buying more food. With the pantry stocked and food in the fridge and freezer, I really thought it was unnecessary to continue buying food - surely I could come up with something. One night we had pasta with bottled sauce and goat cheese we had in the fridge (no point in buying pasta sauce in bulk if it's not going to be used); another night we had salmon patties with mushroom-dill latkes (sounds gourmet, right? I had all the ingredients already). I intended to use up every option available to me before heading out to the store for necessary items (like milk for the baby, etc).

It worked! And fortunately there was no emergency, and I have about $15 left over, so I really didn't spend that much. I'm very pleased. I hope that this new attitude continues because there really is no sense in buying something that I really won't need or use. I just need to be more cognizant of what is already in my house, and how I can use it. Perhaps I can come up with a new use, or a new meal, or a new application for an item. (Thank you Real Simple for the section on New Uses for Old Things!)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Me and Cleaning, Cleaning and Me

The following post does not apply to Pesach preparations.

I *heart* cleaning.
That's lingo for "I love cleaning".

I admit it - I freely admit it. Given my kindergarten diploma, high school diploma, bachelor's degree, and two master's degrees - my overeducated self enjoys cleaning.

I could stay up late cleaning (unless I get tired). I can go ga-ga over new cleaning products. If I won a million dollars, among the many things I would do is buy expensive Mrs. Meyer's cleaning products. I discovered that the Magic Eraser really works, and that gets me excited. I bought a small booklet about how to utilize vinegar to its maximum potential for cleaning (I *heart* vinegar). I love finding natural, basic recipes for cleaning products I can make from the ingredients I have at home, like lemons, vinegar, baking soda, and the like.

Why this adoration for cleaning? Two words: instant gratification. (usually - unless something needs to soak overnight)

When you clean, you instantly see the results: the mirror is free of smudges, the floor shines, the dust is gone. There is no guessing, no waiting, no suspense - it's all right there, right in front of you. The pile of dirty dishes sparkles as it dries, and the sink itself practically smiles at you once you can see the bottom of it. The laundry smells fresh and renewed (ok, folding laundry is a different story and fortunately my husband tolerates that task). Once all the toys are picked up and the rug/carpet is vacuumed, the floor is practically asking to be walked on (ok, maybe I am getting a bit melodramatic here). But my point it is that you immediately see the results of your handiwork, and you can point to it (or stand back) and say, "I did that."

Not to mention, there are many lessons to be learned in cleaning. How to take pride in your possessions, learn respect for your parents (who buy your stuff) (you honor them by helping to keep the home you share clean), learn what a good work ethic is, learn how to manage time (ok - I've got 15 minutes and what should I do first?), the fundamentals of keeping house (and this applies to boys AND girls), how to be organized, etc.

It just makes me feel good.

I may have passed on a gene.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Trash Day

Today is trash day in our neighborhood and, being the "save the earth" type of person that I am, I always take note of how much trash other people have in their trash cans. Trash day is a weekly event, and there are many many trash cans where the lid doesn't close all the way because there is so much trash. Can it be that these families generate so much trash every week that the can is overflowing?

Our trash can, by contrast, is about half empty. As in, a child can fit in there for a game of hide and seek (not recommended. Absolutely not recommended).

Why do we have so much less trash? I can only guess at the answer.

We recycle a lot. I am vigilant about that. All of our glass bottles, our recyclable plasticware, cereal and food boxes, cardboard, paper - all of that is recyclable and goes into a different bin. We don't use disposable cookware frequently; sure it's convenient and definitely has its applications, but by and large, I don't use disposable on a regular basis. Same goes for Shabbat and disposable dishes and silverware. I almost always use real dishes and silverware. (The dishes may not be cleaned until Sunday morning, but that's a different issue altogether.) (Pesach and Sukkot and other holidays and times, like right after giving birth, may call for disposables, and for that I am thankful to G-d for such products.)

Otherwise, I don't know what other explanations there could be. I save lots of items, like tissue paper. I recycle plastic grocery bags (and almost always bring my own to reduce the number I have on hand). I suppose, if I want to reduce my trash output even more, I could make compost out of my kitchen scraps. (I've thought about it but can't get myself to do it yet).

I'm not judging other people. It just makes me take notice every Tuesday when I see the black statues of trash cans lined up on the street with trash piled high. The trash doesn't go to a magical place; it goes into a landfill. So with that in mind, I try to be more conscious of what I consume, what I throw away, and how I relate to the world around me.

For an interesting discussion on this topic, click here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Weekly round-up - Feb. 6

Yet another week, come and gone. I am not sure how it happens but time flies by amazingly fast.

*If you are so interested, there is a Jewish Economics Survey. I encourage you to submit your information. I am not sure what is going to become of this data, but it's important to get the full spectrum of what economic life is like for average people.*

Funny moment of the week - our daughter showed her true colors. Turns out that she is a big fan of floor cleaning supplies and likes to parade with the mop or broom around the house.

Once again we are guilty of inviting people to our house for Shabbat at the last minute. By last minute, I mean I famously leave messages like, "Hi, it's 4:30 pm on Friday afternoon. If by any chance you have no plans for tonight, would you like to come to our house for Shabbat dinner?" Most people have plans by this point. We are the abnormal ones.

This morning we went to Tot Shabbat the JCC. It was the first time I ever did anything like it. We met some nice moms with their cute kiddos. I am not sure I'll go back, but the daughter definitely enjoyed the experience (after the initial first 7 minutes of crying). She was fixated on the teacher as the teacher played the guitar and sang the songs, but then had a ball during free time.

Shabbat shalom!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Craft: Pregnancy Paper bag album

I made this for a friend for her birthday, and she is pregnant. I found the idea online (of course) to make a pregnancy album out of paper lunch bags (why not), which I had at home. Another trip to Hobby Lobby netted me double-sided tape, a few sheets of cardstock, some pregnancy stickers, and the ribbon with which to bind the whole thing (here's another tip: check the clearance bin - you can find cool ribbon in there for very very cheap!). There's space in the album for my friend and her husband to write down their thoughts and to adhere photos, ultrasound pics, and more. I really hope she enjoys it!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Gratitude: How quickly we forget

Tonight I attended a learning event where Lori Palatnick gave the keynote address. One of the takeaways from her speech was that gratitude is the foundation of our spiritual well-being.

Gratitude - such a simple little thing. All it is, is the ability to say "thank you". Two little words. Thank you.

I learned about this concept in a book called Praying with Fire, where the author wrote the book in a format where there is a little golden nugget to learn each day that should infuse one's praying with greater spirituality, meaning, etc. One of the golden nuggets is that one can express gratitude every day for any item/event/happenstance that may occur that day and express gratitude at that time, and not wait for a specific time to pray. So, for instance, if one is running late to a meeting and manages to drive through a green light, one can be grateful for that and say, "Thank you G-d for this green light - this really helps my day!" Or, that night's experimental dinner came out exceptionally tasty: "Thank you G-d for this tasty dinner - thanks for not having to resort to PB&J for dinner!" By thanking G-d for these little, "insignificant" things, we bring to the forefront just how involved G-d is in our daily lives, every minute detail that transpires. Not only are we grateful to Hashem for the major things in life (health, financial stability, children, life partners, family, friends, etc), but we are also grateful for all of the "minor" things that make our life possible. This concept was my major takeaway from this book and since then I have incorporated thanking Hashem daily for the smallest things (thank you Hashem for finding me this close parking space, thank you Hashem for the laundry that didn't shrink, thank you Hashem for giving me a coupon for this item, etc).

This concept was brought to earth for me, in a different way, by a special family that used to live in St. Louis. I had many Shabbat meals with them, and their Shabbat dinners, especially in the summertime, would last a long time. It was not unheard of for me to come home around midnight. Part of what took so long was this amazing custom that they had. They regularly had 20+ guests at their home, from all walks of life, and between the fish course and the soup course, everyone went around the table saying what they were grateful for in that week, with a l'chaim after each person. The introduction was always by the wife and she went first, and we went all around the table and ended with her husband. Anything was fair game, nothing was "insignificant". So, one could be grateful for having a roof over their head, another grateful for their spouse, and another grateful for a successful sales meeting they had that week. One person could be grateful that their favorite brand of socks was on sale that week, and another person grateful for just a quiet week and nothing unusual. Some guests had a long list, and some had a short list. Typically, I would have tears in my eyes by the end of the whole thing, just thinking that we ALL - no matter what happened - have an immensely long list, when it really comes down to it. We are all alive and we are all free. How quickly we forget the amazing things we take for granted just so that we can pursue the normal life that we want to lead.

So, if you come to my home, either Shabbat dinner or Shabbat lunch, you will experience this custom. I was so moved by it that my husband and I adopted it as our own. We do this with my family, and we do this with friends. We do this with guests who we've never met before.

Gratitude. Just say "thank you".

Monday, February 2, 2009

Couponing taken seriously

I have grown up with a Sunday morning ritual of reviewing the newspaper coupons and storing the clipped ones in a coupon folder, which came with us on every trip to the grocery store. My mom tried to limit what she purchased to she had a coupon for, and I very clearly understood the importance of those coupons: those little savings really did add up.

Now that I run my own household, and now that times are tight, couponing is back in style. I review the Sunday coupons with a careful eye, and I now go online to print out even more coupons. Whenever I use a coupon at the store, I feel like it's a small victory for me, as though I am undercutting the manufacturer (although why the price is as high as it is is another post, since obviously the manufacturers are not losing money even when a coupon is used. But still, it's nice to see my total drop when each coupon is scanned).

There are three catches:
1. Most coupons are for processed, manufactured products (and health and beauty aids). Cereal, snacks, convenience foods, etc. I try to buy as few of those products as possible because I am trying to be as all natural as I can (which may not be obvious if you look at my pantry, but I am trying). As in, I try to buy fresh produce, fresh meats, fresh milk - raw ingredients. So, if I don't buy the product for which there is a coupon, that coupon does me no good. And there are no coupons on a pound of apples.

2. A good portion of my grocery bill goes towards fresh fish, kosher meat, and kosher cheese (my daughter and I LOVE cheese). There are no coupons for those items.

3. It is very important NOT to purchase an item JUST BECAUSE there is a coupon for it. Yes, you may save $0.50 in the process, but in reality, you are spending more money than you would have otherwise since you normally would not have purchased the item at all! So, it is really important to be absolutely confident that you and your family really do in fact use the item in question in order for the coupon to be of any benefit.

I have also started visiting manufacturers' websites; sometimes they have coupons on their own websites that don't appear in newspapers or general coupon sites. Seventh Generation, Stonyfield Farms, and a few other companies have been quite helpful in this regard.

I end up having a few coupons, not a huge stash: mostly cereal coupons, baby supply coupons, and the occasional coupon for some condiments, basic pantry supplies, a few snacks I like to keep on hand (like granola bars), and health and beauty aid coupons. Which is not terrible, but I don't see how I can really maximize the coupons that are out there given my lifestyle (you know those stories, where someone gets $100 worth of groceries for $20 because they used all those coupons).

The fun part is really the hunt for the coupons that I can use, and then whipping them out once the bill is totaled, my heart going "Ah-HA! I have THESE weapons!!! HA HA HA." And getting out of there with maybe $2 more in my pocket than I would have otherwise.