Evergreen Pear Tree in Bloom
Jan 29th, 2011 by Jessica

Our Evergreen Pear Trees lost most of their leaves in the frost this year, then they started blooming for the first time since we planted them. They sure are beautiful flowers!

Evergreen Pear Tree Blossom

Evergreen Pear Tree Blossom

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10 Year Flashback: Piles of Puffkins
Jan 27th, 2011 by Jessica

In a Pile of Puffkins - January 27, 2001

In a Pile of Puffkins - January 27, 2001

Exactly ten years ago today, I had a massive collection of Puffkins.  They were kind of like Ty Beanie wannabes, and I loved them.  These little stuffed animals were small and round and filled me full of joy!  It all started when I found a display at a local Hallmark store of little bears in every color of the rainbow.  I picked one up, and Andrew thought it would be funny to start handing me one of every color.  I loved how bright and cute they were, so I ended up buying all of them.  It just blew up from there into a massive collection of more than 100 Puffkins.  Eventually I sold them on eBay when I no longer had room to keep them all in the house.

My favorite Puffkin was called Mystic the Wizard.  He was very rare and hard to find, and sported a “2000” wizard’s hat in blue and yellow to celebrate the new millennium.  If you look closely in the picture you can see four of them near the lower right corner.

The Puffkin line was retired in 2002.  I still have some of them which are Holiday related with the decoration bins, and they come out and join us for Halloween and Christmas.

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Ty Beanie Baby Collection
Nov 13th, 2010 by Jessica

My Personal Ty Beanie Baby Collection

My Personal Ty Beanie Baby Collection

This is my personal Ty Beanie Baby and Buddy collection.  There are 332 Ty plush animals pictured, 299 of which are unique Ty Beanie bears.  This photo was taken on November 11, 2010 and my collection is still growing.  I also have thousands of Ty Beanie Baby Trading Cards that are not in the photo.

A large number of these Beanies reside in Holiday bins that are taken out and displayed throughout the year.  We have displays for Valentine’s Day, our Anniversary, Easter, July 4th, Memorial Day, Summertime, Birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The Beanie that started it all was the 1998 Holiday Teddy – I was hooked by the thrill of the hunt and the bell inside the Santa hat on that particular Beanie.  My oldest Beanie is Chocolate the Moose from 1993, and my favorite one is Fuzz the Bear because he’s so soft.  I must say though, Quackers the Duck and Daisy the Cow may also tie for first place because of how much of an impact they had on building a relationship with my husband while we were dating!

One unique fact about my collection is that I once had to sell it.  Yup – I was forced to sell it when I moved to Boston in 1999 and couldn’t pay my rent one month.  I sold it to my dear friend Andrew (for $800 if I remember correctly) who moved in with me not too long after that and eventually we got married.  So technically, a large part of this collection belongs to Andrew!  Ironic, eh?

Take a look through my entire collection on Flickr.  Every piece of this collection (and my newest additions) have been photographed and posted in my photostream for reference.

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Nine Years Ago Today
Sep 29th, 2010 by Jessica

Nine years ago today, we got the keys to our first home.  This picture was taken in early September 2001 just a few weeks before we got the keys.  It was taken by our friend Mike at night.  We are standing on the front porch in front of the kitchen.  I can’t believe that was nine years ago!  Oh, the things we’ve learned since then…

Our home under construction in September 2001

Our home under construction in September 2001

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Climbing Peace Rose
Sep 9th, 2010 by Jessica

Climbing Peace Rose

Climbing Peace Rose

This was my climbing Peace rose that I had in the garden back in 2003.  It was beautiful, but unwieldy since it kept growing over the path and had massive sharp thorns all over it.  Eventually we took it out of the yard.

At one time, I had more than 40 rose bushes in the yard.  It was too much to take care of for what little time I spend outside.  They sure were pretty, though.

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Baking and Icing Cakes: Tips for Beginners
Sep 3rd, 2010 by Jessica

My Simple Birthday Cake

My Simple Birthday Cake

Whether you use a boxed mix with canned icing, or the freshest ingredients from scratch, yummy cakes are always a welcome treat.  The occasional cake makes its way out of my kitchen, and many people jump at the chance for a slice when I make the effort.  I will be the first to admit that I’m no baking expert.  I don’t do this for a living or even an extensive hobby. Over the years I have picked up on a few things that might just help a beginner out there get the most out of their first few cake-making experiences.

I have taken all of the Wilton courses and have made a few elaborate cakes such as the Wilton Course II Final Basket Cake, the incredibly intensive Course III Final Tiered Wedding Cake with over 60 fondant roses, a basic Fondant and Chocolate Rose Cake, elaborate Cupcakes with Chocolate Candies, a Haunted Graveyard Cake, and even our infamous Optimus Prime Transformer cake in Vehicle Mode. Still, I don’t pretend to be any good at it.  If the cake is yummy, my job is done.

If you read this post and you have an idea for how to do things better/faster/yummier/prettier, by all means I would love to see your comments below!  First, a sincere word of warning for all of my readers: I like icing.  A lot of icing.  I also waste a lot of cake when I make my cakes, but that’s just because it gives me an excuse to eat the excess tops while I’m baking.  Yum!  I also don’t like fondant, not because it doesn’t look beautiful but because I hate the texture.  I usually steer clear of it on edible cakes, and use it for presentation when the look of the cake really matters.

Tips for Baking

I am a huge fan of all things Wilton, including their cake pans and the Wilton Yearbooks (which I often pick up at used bookstores on the cheap).  I assure you, I don’t work for Wilton, although it may sound like it from the way I lust after their products.  I always follow the instructions that comes with the pans for my cakes to see how much batter to put in each pan, and how long to bake it.  I often weigh my batter  with a kitchen scale to ensure it is as close as possible to the same in each pan.  I have a variety of 2- and 3-inch deep pans in 6″, 8″, 10″ rounds, squares and oval sizes.  With a pair of pans in each size you can combine any number of them to make any shape you want.

Cooling the Cakes
Cooling the Cakes

Once you bake your cakes, one of the most important steps is how you cool them down.  If you don’t do it right, your cakes will either stick to the pan, stick to the rack, or might even fall apart.  Here is my method for cooling a cake:

  1. Remove the cake from the oven and check it with a toothpick.  If it comes out clean from the center, the cake is done.  Be careful not to over-bake the cake or it will come out dry.  If it’s still wet in the center, give it another minute or two in the oven and check it again.
  2. Once done, leave the cake in the pan to cool for 5 minutes.  No less, no more – 5 minutes is the key here.  Take them out right away and they will fall apart because they haven’t had time to set up yet.  Wait 10 minutes and it might stick to the pan.  Set a timer for 5 minutes and hang around nearby.
  3. Once 5 minutes has lapsed, use a thin decorating spatula to run around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake.
  4. Grab 2 sets of 2 paper towels, leaving each set connected.  This will give you two two-layer paper towels.
  5. Place one set of paper towels over top of the cake that is still in its pan.  Place your wire cooling rack upside down on top of that.
  6. Quickly flip the whole thing – cake pan, paper towels and cooling rack – upside down and gently remove the cake pan.  It should come off perfectly clean if you waited 5 minutes for it to cool in the pan.  You will end up with an upside-down cake on a set of paper towels, on top of the cooling rack.
  7. Start a timer for 2 minutes and wait nearby.
  8. When 2 minutes are up, take the second set of paper towels and place it on top of your cake, which is currently upside down.  Pull the bottom set of paper towels onto your hand and flip the cake, placing it back on the cooling rack with the paper towels still underneath.  Now your cake is right-side-up and sitting on another set of paper towels.  Gently peel off the original set of paper towels and keep them nearby.  Be careful doing this because sometimes the paper towel will adhere to the top of the cake a little bit, especially if you left it sitting on that set too long.
  9. Start a timer for 2 minutes again, and repeat the last step.  Keep doing this every few minutes for about 15 minutes, or until the cake has cooled down dramatically.  It seems like a lot of effort, but it works.  The paper towels keep the cooling rack from indenting your cake, and they soak up excess moisture which makes it easier to frost later.
  10. When the cakes are cooled, make sure they rest right-side-up until you are ready to frost them.

Tips for Icing

Cake Leveler
Leveling a Cake

A cake leveler is a must for anyone who wants to make layered cakes.  It is basically a piece of flexible wire that is taught between a wire frame with a handle on top.  It looks sort of like a hacksaw and it’s used to hack the top of your cake off to make it easier to layer more than one cake together.

This is where I get wasteful with my cakes.  I hack the tops off completely, just under the “hard line” where the edges are crusty.  Many people don’t go this far down on the cake, instead choosing to fill up the uneven tops with icing.  It’s up to you.

If you want to get a smoother surface to ice on, find the cake with the lowest salvagable point and set the cake leveler to that point.  Use that same height to cut all of your cakes so they are all exactly the same.  For example, if you’re making a two-tier cake with three layers each you’ll be working with six cakes.  Each cake should be the same height to help keep it level and easy to ice.  Any “top cake” can be put on a plate and munched on during the rest of the process.  If you’re into that kind of thing… 🙂

Two tiers of iced cakes, ready for decorating
Two tiers of iced cakes, ready for decorating

There are a bazillion books and tutorials on how to ice a cake, so I won’t go into much detail here.  You can use an air can to clean off the cake so all the crumbs are removed before you start icing.  The only tip I really have is to always use more icing than you think you’ll need, because it’s much easier to ice when you don’t run out of icing.  That can cause you to accidentally uproot chunks of cake and get crumbs all over the place.  You can always remove excess icing from the base if you have too much at the end.

Tips for Decorating

My favorite thing to decorate cakes with are icing roses and candy melts.  The standard Wilton Rose can be created  ahead of time from stiff buttercream and stored in the freezer until they are placed on your cake.  Take a look at any of the Wilton decorating books for instructions on how to create the Wilton Rose.  It’s so much easier than you might think!

Candy melts are also great for decorating cakes.  Wilton makes hundreds of candy molds and candy colors and flavors to create elaborate candies.  I use the ceramic decorating cups and food grade paint brushes to hand paint chocolate molds with various colors.  These lightweight edible creations are great for placing on the sides and top of cakes for a splash of color.

Video Icing Example

Here is a video I posted on YouTube to help beginners learn one easy method to ice a cake.  And before you say it, yes, I KNOW I use a lot of frosting. Yum!  Oh yeah, and please ignore the cheesy background music.  There is no real audio to speak of.  (Get it? To speak of?  Hardy-har har!  Nevermind.)

I hope some of these tips have been helpful to you.  If you have tips to share, be sure to leave a comment below so I (and other visitors) can learn from your expertise!

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My Mom Love Coins
Sep 3rd, 2010 by Jessica

Miniature Coins from Mom

Miniature Coins from Mom

I’ve had a love of coins for many years, but haven’t been an avid collector.  My mom, on the other hand, has her hands into every aspect of United States coin and bill collecting. for decades  Recently she has begun to share parts of her collection with me as I have shown more interest.

For my birthday this year, she sent me a large number of regular coins that I was missing from my collection, both recent and older ones.  Along with them, she also sent me an awesome set of miniature coins.  I have never seen miniature coins but they seem to be fairly common online.  The ones in this set are:

  • 1964 Lincoln Penny 1¢
  • 1938 Buffalo Nickel 5¢
  • 1914 Mercury Dime 10¢
  • 1978 Washington Quarter 25¢
  • 1974 Kennedy Half-Dollar 50¢
  • 1972 Eisenhower Dollar $1.00

Aren’t they nifty?  I put the regular 1999 Dime to show scale.

Mom also sent me something precious this time: A collection of Lincoln Head Cents and Roosevelt Dimes that has been passed down in her family.  While the monetary value of these coins is limited, the sentimental value is tremendous.  Scribbled on the front of the 1949 coin folders in blue ink, hardly legible, is the name of her mother Mary.  These are obviously from her collection, handed down to my mother.  I will cherish them for years to come.

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Goodbye, Bougainvillea
Aug 29th, 2010 by Jessica

This morning, the front yard by our front door looked like this:

This Morning

This Morning

About 2 hours of labor, 10 garbage bags and several bottles of water later, it now looks like this:

This Afternoon

This Afternoon

No more wasp nests.  No more little pink leaves blowing all over the yard.  No more “Honey, can you please trim the bougainvillea?” six times per year.  No more piles of debris for scorpions to hide in.  No more littering the neighbor’s yard over the fence. No more “Aww crap, the bougainvillea fell over again and is blocking the doorway.”

Goodbye, bougainvillea!  Many thanks to Andrew who did about 90% of the work while I stood there and held the garbage bags, spraying wasp killer randomly at angry dive bombing wasps.

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Banana Hazelnut Won Tons
Aug 22nd, 2010 by Jessica

Banana Hazelnut Won Tons

Banana Hazelnut Won Tons

Andrew I tried a recipe from the Costco Fall cookbook issued a few years back: Banana Hazelnut Won Tons that are fried in canola oil and dusted with powdered sugar.

Neither of us have really tried our hands at frying in the kitchen.  We don’t like greasy foods and I, for one, am scared of splatters of molten liquids.  The recipe was a lot easier to follow than we expected, and once we got an assembly line going we had several little yummies to try.

Just take a won ton square, brush two sides with egg wash, place a piece of banana and about a teaspoon of Nutella inside.  Fold it into a triangle and fry in 350 degrees for 45 seconds per side.  Let them drain, cover in powdered sugar and enjoy!  Quite a tasty little treat, I must say.

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Hello? Hello? Is anybody out there?
Aug 19th, 2010 by Jessica

Here’s a quick update for those of you who actually read the blog now and then!  If you swing by, shout out to me in the comments section so I know you were here.

I’ve been talking with my friend Suzy a lot who has an awesome blog of her own.  Suzy and I have recently started getting together for beading days which are tons of fun.  She is a whiz with a needle and thread, and sews beautiful clothing and jewelry.  (She tried to teach me, bless her heart – but I am hopelessly lacking confidence with thread.)  She posts all the time about her sewing projects and her kitties and the fun things she does.  A true dedicated blogger, Suzy knows the importance of posting!  I wish I had the discipline she does to share life’s little moments as often as she does.

Since January 2010 I have been slowly writing my Autobiography.  So far I’m up to about 2004, with tidbits from then until now.  It’s very difficult now that I’ve reached the point of the blog, ironically!  I have information online here on my blog, plus journals at home, tens of thousands of (organized) photos, calendar entries, Facebook and Twitter.  Trying to compile all of those sources into one chronologically correct, interesting story has proven to be a great challenge.  I’ll get through it eventually, but it will certainly take some more time.  At least I’m finished with my first 27 of 32 years!

Here’s a short excerpt from my first chapter describing the house I grew up in (1977-1978):

Our house was on a dead end, and we had tons of people come down and turn around in our driveway.  We faced a wooded area covered in plants to the south in front of our home.  To the west was a dirt access road following a deep ditch, along with field crops and lines of large trees.  On the side of our home was a very long driveway leading to a detached 2-car garage which my dad built around 1974 with the help of his friends.  Our back yard was very large and fenced in.  We had a pen behind the garage for storage and to keep the dog, Sheila the old English Sheep dog, locked up if needed.  Behind the back fence was a large garden area my Mother used to grow summer vegetables like Rhubarb.  Behind that was more wooded area with huge trees.  Our neighbors to the east were a family called the Shiedlers, and their kids Heather and Ty were Kathleen’s age.  Kathleen hung out with Heather for years.  I had a crush on Ty for a long time.  He used to sit on the back deck with his boombox and blast cassette tapes of Twisted Sister and Mötley Crüe in the early 1980’s.

In other news, we are getting a brand new refrigerator on Saturday morning.  It’s an LG french door bottom freezer model with 28 cu ft capacity.  It’s replacing our old GE Profile Arctica side-by-side with 25 cu ft which we installed when we bought our new home 9 years ago.  Let’s hope the new one works better for at least a few years.

That’s it for now.  Oh yeah, except that I’ve already started shopping for Christmas and have already finished my Christmas cards for this year.  (I’m desperately trying to stay way ahead of schedule!)  One more day of work and then it’s the weekend!

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