35 Weeks of “Pinteresting” Baking: Week 1 – Caramel Pecan Carrot Cupcakes

 Since the very first moment I was sucked into Pinterest, or shall I say suckered, I have been “pinning” (well now it is “saving”) my heart away.  I don’t remember exactly when I started, but I do remember how.  A friend just mentioned, “You can use it to promote your blog” and I was sold.  I have more than 10 “Boards” and more pins than I care to mention, but the one thing I don’t have is justification.  What was the point of finding these things online and tagging them to then show up online in another form?  Why was I not doing anything with the Pinteresting findings (oh yes, I plan to wear that word out).  Well after months and months and months of saying I was going to do it, I decided to really make an effort to actually put my pins to use and, of course, without a doubt, my favorite board is Baked Goods That Inspire.  To be fair, though, I have made use of quite a few of my pins, but I barely scratched the surface.  So here is the challenge I set for myself:   for every week for the remainder of 2017, 35 weeks to be exact, I will attempt to bake one item from my board.  From the easiest pins to the items that I am pretty sure I pinned for visual inspiration aka something I knew I could never ever bake (this should be fun).  I plan to go through the ups, the downs, and anything learned along the way.  I hope you will join me on this adventure with all the laughing, crying, and eating that will inevitably ensue this ambitious undertaking.

For my first week (please note I got sick so I am a week behind posting but I promise I made these last Saturday), I started with Caramel Pecan Carrot Cupcakes.  Oh yes, start drooling now.  You will likely note that most of my 35 are cupcakes, but I am really trying to be daring.  Cupcakes are so perfect, they are the new black.  I mean, they have been upgraded from kids parties to an elegant display at weddings.  And what, I say what, could be better than a carrot cake in cupcake form?

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The image above that was capture via my pin made it all the more appealing.  The timing of my first week was perfect, because it coincided with my friend, Tana’s birthday.  I followed the recipe exactly except I have always refused to use premade caramel and after you make your own, you will as well.  It is so easy.  Here are a couple of recipes I like to use:

http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/caramel_sauce/

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/caramel-sauce-105889

This time I was so tired and in a hurry, as usual, I just threw ingredients into a pot.  Now let’s get into the tips I used and the few things I learned doing research as I am so trying to improve on my cupcake.   They often end up dense. You know, how it stays in your throat a tad bit longer than you’d like forcing you to need liquid to go with it.

  1.  Remember to bring your ingredients (incl. egg and butter) to room temperature for even bakingIMG_7566
  2. I use a 1/4 measuring cup to scoop up the batter to get even cupcakes.  Everyone has their own ideas from cookie scoop to weighing on a scale (I roll my eyes at that one)
  3. When using batters with fruit or additions that have water in them, add them last when you are ready to go right into the tin.  If it sits, you’ll add water to the batter.IMG_7561
  4. Spray the surface of the pan with non-stick spray for those pesky muffin tops that may spill outside of the cupcake paper.
  5. I only partially used this one, for batters with a lot of filling, fill all cups half way and then go back and fill the rest.  The is designed to eliminate the fact that by the time you get to the last cupcakes, all the good stuff is gone.IMG_7569
  6. Don’t leave the area – I like to try to do too much and ended up over-roasting aka burning the first batch of pecans.  Yes, I threw away a million dollars.  That may be an exaggeration, but nuts are expensive!  (Costco does have the best pricing).IMG_7560
  7. For frosting, put your bag into the tallest cup/vase you can find and insert the bag into the vase.  Fold the ends of the bag over the edges of the cup/vase and you have a quick and mess free way of filling your bag.IMG_7574
  8. For the whirly style frost I did hear, I used Wilton #1M and you put heavy pressure while squeezing and swirling around the top and slowly pull up.  Yeah, that makes sense.  Don’t worry, you can youtube it.IMG_7576IMG_7578

I had also read that you have to find the right recipe.  I initially scoffed at that one thinking, “if you are a good baker/cook, you should be able to make anything”, but after making this recipe I see.  I think maybe some recipes are not designed correctly.  Oh yes, the internet tricks us (gasp!).  I have followed recipes and have been like ew, but this one turned out amazing!

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I followed the recipe and didn’t deviate beyond the caramel and it was heavenly.  Oh and I used dried dates instead of raisins because raisins look like grapes that have gone bad and been poisoned.  I hate raisins! Sorry, I just am not a raisin kind of girl.  The texture, the flavor, everything was fantastic!  You have got to try this one!  I would definitely say my first week ended with a success and a very happy birthday girl.

Mail Order Meals?

Before I even get into my evaluation, I have to just say right out of the gate, it is, without question, more expensive than shopping for ingredients yourself.  There, mystery solved.  If that is what is holding you back from trying out one of the slew of food delivery companies trending in the world, then read no further.  Now, for those who still want to make sure or for those who have money to spare I may be able to give you a little tiny bit of insight.

Thanks to some very generous subscribers, I was able to try both Hello Fresh and Blue apron at little to no cost.  And let’s be honest, that would be the only way I would ever try something that I deemed a luxury for the wealthy.

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Let’s start with Hello Fresh since that is the first service I used.  I had a $79.99 coupon and decided to get the Classic Package for a family of 4 for 3 meals for the entire week.  I ended up having to pay an additional $39.99, but for what I was getting that felt almost free.  I opted for a Saturday delivery and when the FedEx truck met me in my garage, I literally squealed and jumped like toddler getting ice cream.  I assume it looked funny because the driver laughed at me.  Once the truck drove off I found I was still holding the box in the driveway checking to see if my neighbors could see me (Note: the box is clearly labeled with the Hello Fresh logo) as I wanted the world to know, I was receiving food from a meal delivery service like the fancy people.

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When I tell you they spare no expense with their packaging, I mean I would have been sold without tasting a bite.  It seemed so elaborate and organized, I felt like I was on Life Styles of The Rich And Famous for a moment.  I mean really it was like I had been transported to The Real Housewives.  Before you laugh and judge me, there is something to be said about how a product makes you feel.  I genuinely felt special and glamorous handling the Hello Fresh items.  Not to mention, the packaging fits perfectly and neatly in the refrigerator.

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Now, before I tell you about the taste of the meals, let me get rid of a few more curiosities…if you are not one that enjoys cooking, move along.  This product is not for you.  And I will tell you, making grilled cheese, boiling a hot dog or even making basic spaghetti would not qualify you.  These meals force you to really cook, I mean making and working with foods you may have never even heard of before.  I think it would even challenge the culinary gifted.  Let me be clear before everyone runs for the hills.  It is not too challenging for one that cooks often and cooks a variety of different types food.  Another point to take into consideration is that you also need a lot of supplies (cutting, chopping, and dicing required), but they do cover you on all of the ingredients.

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HF3Now for the results…drum roll please…holy shamoly everything was amazing!  Even my picky monsters loved 2 out of 3.  When I plated the meals I remember thinking, “Oh snap, when did we hire a gourmet chef” and the best part was I didn’t have to spend hours searching for new recipes, listing the ingredients, and then shopping for them.  Another big feature for my tendency to be messy when cooking is it is so much easier to keep the food organized and neat due to the smart packaging.

The one final aspect for which I must prepare you, are the portions.  If you need a diet and still want variety, look no further than a mail order meal.  There are no leftovers and depending on how deeply imbedded into America’s new cultural food portions, you may find yourself snacking before bed as you will be sure to not overeat without stealing a family member’s portion.

Overall, Hello Fresh received two thumbs up on quality, presentation, variety, and user friendliness of their website.

 

Now on to Blue Apron which I wish I tried first so I would not have had such a high standard and ultimately end up with a skewed view.  I mean, I already wanted a user friendly website, many food options and pretty packaging.   Unfortunately that was not exactly the case.  I had to ask for help on how to convey we could neither have seafood nor peanuts.  I also couldn’t figure out the food options.  Eventually I was able to order and, I was once again excited.

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The food arrived in a nice box, but upon opening the package, I was not greeted with perfectly organized and sorted boxes.  The produce were all jumbled together with the exception of the seasonings and extras which were in clearly labeled brown paper sacks.

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It did also come with the very picturesque recipes similar to Hello Fresh.   I did like how their seasoning and liquids packaging was premeasured which added major value.  You would just open a container and pour it all in.

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Now for the review, the first two meals were delicious and my husband made one, sticking directly to the recipe (trust that was a smart move on his part) and it still came out fantastic.    When we got the 2nd set of meals arriving, it was very similar to the previous meal as it had the same meats.  One of two of those were really really really delicious, but the other was just o.k.

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Blue Apron is $70 for a family of four for 2 nights or $140 for 4 nights, but there is no 3 night option.  Hello Fresh has dropped their price to $119 for 3 nights of meals.  So overall, it is not that much cheaper than Hello Fresh.

Before I go on and on, because you know I love talking about food, I will leave you with my final overall review of this new craze.  I think this is an amazing concept and clearly developed by someone or some people who found a way to capitalize on a need that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.  This is not for a family on a tight budget.  It is not for a family that has a culture of making one pot meals and it is not for a family who barely has time to eat let alone cook.  Who then, is it for you ask.  I think it is for those families that have a significant grocery budget.  I think it is for power couples without kids and I think it is for financially sound singles that have a distinguished palette, a love for cooking and little time to go out to eat or plan fancy meals.  The best utilization of these mail to order meals would be a power couple getting the 2 to 3 days of meals for a family of four package and using that extra two meals for leftovers and then eating out for the rest of the week or doing  a simple salad or grilling a non-MTO meal (oh yes, I did create my own acronym) days.

I must say, I did get a phone call from Hello Fresh and got reeled in for a bi-weekly family of four meal package.  I am excited and ready with an Excel table for comparison (Hello Fresh v. Grocery store).  I know that it is more, but it is delicious, healthy, and gives me back my time to bury myself in other work.  Whether you call it a splurge, a necessity, a working mom’s savior, it is definitely a something worth a conversation.

A Party You Can Eat.

Christmas is not only the time to decorate obnoxiously or pretend like all of a sudden you can sing like Mariah because it is a Christmas song, but it is also for treats treats treats.  I mean I am sorry, but Halloween candy has nothing on the myriad of delightful yummies that come out doing our country’s favorite holiday. And what goodie is most associated with Christmas…….if you guessed a gingerbread house, then you are correct!  I mean, come on, a house made of food?  What else is there?

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Of course I turned what could have been just a simple, sweet moment of decorating the little house with my boys into a mad house of loud, wild, school aged children hopped up on sugar; twenty-one children to be exact.  What was I thinking, obviously I wasn’t.  But you know what, it actually turned out great  thanks to the amazing moms that helped me out (Kristi, Sarah, Michelle, Stephanie C.,  and Nicole).

I have been wanting to do this for a couple of years now ever since my neighbor Sarah invited my eldest to her daughter’s gingerbread party.  I had it all planned out and the best part about the whole thing was the decorations were already there (you can see my blog post on Christmas decorations).  I just needed tables, chairs, and the tools for the houses.

I went with the simplest method and the least amount of gingerbread aka graham crackers possible, 4 per house.  Some people online chose to use hot glue to assemble their house, which is likely more efficient and stable, but on the slight chance that some “Curious George” would try to eat the house I decided it would be better to go with the traditional Royal icing (you can find the recipe on the container of meringue powder or you can buy pre-mixed which can be found on Amazon).  I started with the pre-mixed, just add water package from Amazon, but it was used up quite quickly so I went old school (powdered sugar and meringue powder).   Because I needed so much of it, I copied the Amazon packing idea and pre-made the dry mix the night before and put it in Ziploc gallon bags and just added water as needed the next day.

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A few tips:

  1.  Royal icing dries out quickly so keep it covered in plastic or be prepared to keep adding water.
  2. To fill the baggies, place baggie in cup and fold over edges.
  3. Tie baggies in knot and don’t cut the corners until right before the kids are ready to start decorating
  4. Royal Icing can be made as thin as a glaze or thick as glue so add water slowly when you want it in glue form which is the case for this project
  5. You can put the icing on a plate for assembling the houses and just dip the edges of the graham cracker into it. (That idea came from my mother in-law who helped me knock 24 houses out in no time.  Thanks Oma!)
  6. If they don’t look perfect (who cares really) you can add extra icing to the flawed edges and just call it “extra snow”

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I also made 2 – Ingredient homemade hot chocolate and white hot chocolate (that wasn’t ready until after guests went home).  Just chocolate morsels and milk.  O.k. o.k. I added vanilla and a bit of powdered sugar because I used semi-sweet chocolate chips.

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It was so amazing watching those kids take to decorating like architects.  I mean they were no joke.  I am pretty sure 60% of the children made houses that would make mine look like a child did it.  Then, of course, there were the kids who were building a house in their stomachs.  It was a fun site.  I decorated the table with my favorite go to construction paper roll which I have had for 3 years.  And let’s just take a moment of silence as this event pretty much finished my roll…………..o.k. silence over.  I used that last little bit of some leftover wrapping paper as a runner and it added a candy cane seal to my simplistic layout.

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Finally, who would I be if I had a party without baked goods.  I found some amazing recipes on my Pinterest and in my newest obsession, Southern Living.  I made 3 different types of cookies, one of which was fancy and cursed myself when I began adding the fine detailed holly to that cookie (it was really delish) and totally hijacked a batch of sugar cookies Oma made for my children (Oma saved me again!).  As a prize for eating and decorating with candy, they got cookies!  Oh yeah, I sent kids home on a cloud made of jumping jelly beans. It was a wonderful sugar-filled day.

 

*Photography by Stephanie Chesboro

 

 

 

Christmas Exploded In My House and It’s Not As Expensive As You Think

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At this point the Christmas decorations are pretty much done and unless I manage to create some magical wormhole where I am able to freeze time and just sit and create some additional holiday designs to add to my house, I am very unlikely to add anything else.  But that’s o.k. because I walk through my house every day like a kid in an FAO Schwartz inspired candy store (does that exist?).  It is so well deserved because this was a year in the making.  Oh yes, I had to wait a whole year to finally get my Christmas explosion.

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Christmas 2015 I moped through my rusty box of decorations that had been purchased through the years at the dollar store or some scrap bin and I didn’t spend a dime.  O.k. well maybe a dime.  I was uninspired and unenthused, but it was all for good reason.  I knew as soon as the holiday was over and those 60%+ off signs went up at my favorite go to stores (Michael’s, Target), I would knock over grannies to get what I want.  And that is exactly what I did.  No, I didn’t really knock over grannies but I huddled over my cart like a little old lady as I sped through aisles of decor from Christmas past.  I mean I was buying things I never thought I could because there was no way in hell I was spending some of those crazy prices on ornaments or garland, but at 70% off it was more my budget.

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Let me just tell you, this is no sprint.  You have to be willing to go back for a week or more as they drop the prices each week.  I got things for as low as 80% off.  I was even able to purchase decor from Kirkland’s.  I am telling you, it was so worth it to wait.  I mean my house looks like I am one of those, no offense, crazy people that spend a fortune on Christmas decor and I spent only slightly more or the same as if I went shopping in the bargain bin at a discount store.

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As you can see my Rustic mind is still going strong.  I wanted to stick with that style so I have a lot of green and burlap.  And do not forget about the chalkboard.  I think I ended up getting those mini trees for $1 each from Target once they went down to $1.  Oh yeah, I recall now.  I took every single tree on the shelf and was walking away and a woman freaked out (she was like actually fussing) because she must have seen them before I got there.  I totally hid and ran off with my steal.  It was hilarious.

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So, if you want your home to look like Santa’s workshop but don’t have a basket ball wives’ budget just hold strong, stick with your minimalist Christmas decor this year and attack those shelves after the holiday and in one year, with patience, you will have the holiday home of your dreams.

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I am so proud of this tree.  It is pretty full for my standards and the ornaments were cheap pricing but not cheap quality.

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My First Rustic, Elegant, Spooky, All In The Name of My 6 Year Old, Halloween Decor

Last year my eldest son noticed Halloween decorations on the front door of our neighbor’s aka classmate’s aka friend’s house and shortly thereafter, the complaints began.  “When are we going to put our decorations up?  Why don’t we have any Halloween decorations?”  What I wanted to say was “When pigs Fly”,  “When that money tree I planted starts to fruit”?, but instead, I chose to put out a couple of cheap things from the dollar store just to keep him quiet as I don’t typically do Halloween decorations.  I don’t like the scary aspect of it for my kids and it can be…well…just creepy.  This year, I found a way to appease my child and kind of stick with my anti-evil Halloween by deciding to do bat-spider-black themed decor.  I mean, bats are a real thing and so are spiders and so they are not really spooky spooky and, well, black is just a color that looks cool.  Thanks to the Dollar Tree and Target’s $1 and $3 bins (although they have recently started sneaking in a $5 bin thinking I wouldn’t notice), I made a creation that could get anyone in the Halloween spirit.

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I love recycling.  The black birds are from the Dollar Tree and that beautiful manzanita branch is from our wedding.  That piece is so versatile.  The spider web-like material is something I bought for my son’s kindergarten Halloween party.  It is supposed to go on a table, but since there is no decoration police, I chose its place as I saw fit.

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I contemplated  removing my coat rack with all those coats distracting me then I realized if I removed the coats and covered it with a white sheet, it would serve as a ghost without really being a ghost so I refused to put eyes (at my kids and husband’s suggestion).

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The October 31 chalkboard sign was an idea I copied from the internet.  My freehand game is improving big time!

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I got so into the spirit, I swapped out my rustic picture frames for black frames sitting in my closet and framed Halloween-themed clip art printed on plain white paper.  I gave my self a pat on the back for that freebie piece of decor.

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This was definitely one of my most surprising decoration outcomes as I did not really plan it out and there was no stress involved.  I am even pretty sick so I  was dragging around moping as I finished off the final touches.  What started off as more of an obligation became a bit of a passion project that kind of left me in awe.  Happy Halloween!!!!

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The first 3rd birthday that really never was

There is a part of me that did not want to post this blog.  My youngest son was turning 3 and he was getting a birthday party for the first time.  I had the theme all ready and ideas began swirling right out of the gate.  I was so excited to be throwing another event since it had been almost a year, excluding the last minute Back to School get together I threw a couple of weeks ago for my eldest.  I thought I had so much time to get set up, I even became cocky about the whole thing.  I had counted my chickens, planned out how they would be cooked and everything.  The preparation week was off to an amazing start.  I had designed all of the signs and labels.  Two nights out I made the jellyfish which I thought looked awesome.  The afternoon before, I made the corn dogs, the cookies and the cupcakes.  Oh yes, this was it.  This was the party where I was finally going to execute every little detail that I had conjured up in my brain…….or so I thought.

Party day came out of nowhere, I overslept by 30 minutes and while hanging up the balloons (don’t get me started on those things) aka bubbles, a random wind decided to grace me with its presence.  I never thought I curse at the air, but on August 13th I was fist waving and cursing to the heavens.  For a brief moment, when the wind was soft and intermittent, I was able to bask in the joy of my creation then mother nature thought she’d have a great laugh and blow the bleep out of my under water paradise.

If that wasn’t challenging enough, the tablecloths I purchased created more like a tacky 80s wedding scene rather than an underwater explorer vibe you would expect from an Octonauts party so I had to run to the Dollar Tree.  Oh no, it gets better, of course it was 8:30 am and Dollar Tree doesn’t open until 9:00 am….of course.  I literally sat there calculating which option (running back home or staying and waiting) would maximize my time the most.  I decided to wait and stand at the door looking pitiful so maybe they would open it a bit earlier and it worked.  At 8:57 am, I found pity.  I ran through the store like a Super Market Sweep contestant and was out of there by 9:01 am because the register wouldn’t allow scans until 9:00 am. Ha!

Fast forward to about 1 hour before the party and I knew, at that point, I had been defeated.  Before I could capture a good shot of the underwater paradise, the wind blew my “bubbles” and jellyfish all over the place and I had given up on rearranging them.  My table settings blew onto the floor and somehow my “clear” (and I use that word loosely) balloons had turned opaque or freakin’ white and my cupcakes weren’t frosted. Ahhhhhh!

The good news, I still managed to play hostess.  The kids played the games.  My husband had finished enough of the playset for the kids to play and the kids seemed to have a great time.  But don’t worry, things didn’t turn fully around….Wal-mart sent us poison paper cups.  Yeah, the kids started complaining about the drinks and I decided to confirm with a taste test and almost puked.   Anyway, I did manage to capture glimpses of my creations so I thought I’d share.  The moral of this story, HIRE HIRE HIRE help and don’t order paper cups from Wal-mart!

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You can see my jelly fish hiding in the bubbles.  They were actually super easy to make and I chose to go with a more natural look rather than the colorful options you find online.

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I bought a bubble maker from Amazon which was a big hit.  It was one the few things that worked perfectly.

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The tablecloth and plates came from the Dollar Tree.  I actually screamed out loud when I found them.  The printing was shockingly good quality.

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This one is my favorite because Amazon had actual Octonaut themed goodie boxes that were like $7.99 for 4 and we know that wasn’t going to happen and I guess Amazon knew as well because at the bottom of the screen when you open the file for details, it suggested these plain white boxes that were  $7.50 for 12.  I bought those and printed the Octonaut emblem and a stick of glue later we have $0.70 boxes instead of $2 boxes.

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These are the items of which I am the most proud.  Esty, offers amazing printables for Octonaut themed parties, but when I got to this point, I was done spending money.  Fortunately for me, some awesome individual posted this image on Pinterest and I printed them out, took the advice I found on a forum and taped them right over the Aquafina label without batting an eye.  Side Note:  when printing things like this and the Octonaut logo, it is really good to create a table and insert the images.  It makes cutting much more simpler and uniform.

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I made the daring attempt at organized games and it worked a little bit.  It was more of a temporary distraction from the swing set.

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These are homemade.  I actually love making them especially since I know what type of meat (I use Oscar Meyer Selects) is being used and the contents of the breading.  Here is the recipe.  I used the cake pop sticks I bought from Michael’s.

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This is actually a toy.  I saw an amazing Octopod centerpiece online and thought, uh no.  I do not have the skill, time, nor the resources to make that so I went with a toy which serves as both a cupcake stand and his birthday gift.

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Typical 3 year old, stole a jelly fish.

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Happy 3rd Birthday C3!

The $4-1 hour Make-over I cannot believe!

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Every time I pull into my driveway, I would consider knocking down my lamp post.  I would literally stare it down like it was taunting me saying “ha ha, you don’t have time…you are going to have to deal with my atrocious appearance forever!”  I drive around  my neighborhood and I see these ebony black lamp posts with a flawless sheen.  It can add such a sophisticated glamour to your front yard, but if it is not well maintained, it can turn into a prop for a scene in a horror film.  You know, the broken down home that houses ghosts.  O.k. maybe I am being dramatic, but my lamp post had morphed into this strange grayish pole with a rusted gold top and bugs and dirt had built their dream home within the glass casing.  It’s a miracle that light was even able to illuminate from that thing.

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One random day when I went to Wal-mart to buy supplies for another project, I grabbed a can of spray paint.  When I finally got home, I barely had any time to start my other project and I had just drove past that eye sore yet again.  I had only a few minutes to decide what to do with the little time I had left so I chose, to revamp the lamp.  Ha Ha.

First I disassembled the lantern and washed the glass.  I grabbed whatever I could find to protect the surrounding areas and commenced to spraying.  I am not kidding, I had only a few minutes before I had to get dressed for work so I sped through this like I was in a race.  It took me less than 1 hour and yes, there were a few flaws which I plan to fix later, but I do know that I now pull into my driveway with a huge smile.  I cannot believe how quick and cheap was this project.

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