I heart Halloween

When your birthday is Nov. 1, you pretty much have no choice but to embrace Halloween. I always have and I always will. Mike makes fun of me for how I excited I get when they first start putting out pumpkins at the grocery store.

Over the years I’ve gotten really into pumpkin carving. When I had my DIY projects column in Boulder, I did a Mr. Peanut on a pumpkin that seemed made for it.

And then I did one with my own face! To make the pattern you just take a photo of yourself and make the contrast really high in Photoshop until you have clear chunks of black and white.

Of course, I love the extra hard patterns in the back of carving kits.

I tried Martha’s method for a glitter pumpkin, too.

I’m terrible about costume planning, but one year Mike and I got really creative and decided to go as toys from our childhood. We rigged up Christmas lights and a giant battery so I could be a Lite Brite and he was a Slinky.

Last year Mike shaved off his beard (the only time he’s ever done that in our relationship) to go with his hilarious Larry King costume.

Even Reggie got in the game once, much to her humiliation.

This year, all we’ve done so far is carve pumpkins, and pretty simple ones at that. But it was a good opportunity to put together a tutorial, so just in case you need it, here’s how we carve pumpkins:

Start by clearing off a table and covering it with plastic (a trashbag slit open is perfect). Layer newspapers on top of that.

Get some of those little carving tools, your pattern, scissors, tape, a Sharpie, and the most important tool of all: an ice cream scoop. Also have a wet towel on hand to wipe the goop off your fingers.

Clean any dirt off your pumpkin and decide which side you’re going to carve. The side that’s usually the most flat also tends to be the most ugly because it’s been on the ground. But if your pumpkin is just going to sit in the dark, don’t worry about that.

Some people use a big knife to cut a lid on top, but I prefer a little saw carving tool. Since it’s bendy you can get a really nice curved edge. Or, if you want the top to stay in tact, you can cut your lid out of the bottom.

Trace a circle around the stem with the Sharpie and carve out the lid.

Here’s where you get your first glimpse of all the goop!

Start by shaving all the strings off the lid.

You don’t want them hanging over a candle flame and burning. I find the best way to remove all the seeds and goop inside the pumpkin is just to roll up my sleeves and scoop it out with my hands.

Get yourself a garbage bowl for the goop, instead of slopping it on the table. You can heave it in the compost when you’re done, or use the seeds for cooking.

Use the ice cream scoop to get the rest of the stringy stuff out. Scrape the sides all the way around the inside.

Make sure your pumpkin is dry outside, and tape on your pattern. I find it helps to trim the corners on an angle so I can fold them in. Then I put tape all around.

There will be some spots where the pattern doesn’t lay flat because the pumpkin is round, so try to fold them over neatly instead of letting them crumple.

Next, get to poking. Put little holes all over the lines. Then remove the pattern, keeping it somewhere in view where you can still refer back to it.

Then start carving along the lines.

Sometimes you might have to cut lines into the large chunks to make them easier to remove. It’s best to push them outwards to avoid tearing the pumpkin. But sometimes I think it helps to push it a little bit inward first, then push it all the way out.

When you’re finished, you will probably still be able to see some strings hanging in the back. Remove those with your fingers. Again, they will burn and smell funky.

Voila.

Light and enjoy. It’s nice, too, that you can get those fake candles and avoid flame altogether.

By the way, Mike is from Wisconsin. You can probably guess his feelings toward Brett Favre.

What did you carve this year?

The crazy things we do to get fit

Some of us were chatting during the stretching part of our Nia class tonight about all the torturous exercise classes we’ve put ourselves through in the past. And not that it’s not important to push yourself in the name of fitness, but some of the stuff we’ve done has been truly insane. I paid a personal trainer to time me doing planks (a move I hate more than just about anything) and balance on a half-ball thing with weights in each hand. Another girl took a class where an instructor screamed at her until she cried. It’s no wonder we quit after a while.

I think maybe we just stopped believing there was a way to work out that wasn’t painful or miserable.

Finding Nia was such a blessing after all that. I love the music (and you can buy Nia Sounds CDs just to listen to – they’re even on sale right now). I love that we all have different body shapes, including the teachers, and nobody cares. I love that we’re dancing and moving and sweating, and all the sudden an hour’s gone by and we’re still sitting around talking because no one’s ready to leave.

My neighbors probably think I’m crazy when I’m dancing around my living room practicing routines. But hey, at least I’m happy doing it. I give you permission to dance around, if that’s what feels good to you.

See? Fun!


photos from nianow.com

Have you found the exercise that fits you perfectly? What crazy things have you done in the name of fitness?

Reese’s PB cups + cookies

Last year we bought mini Snickers and Reese’s peanut butter cups for trick-or-treaters. By the end of the night we had a bowl full of Snickers. Apparently kids prefer the Reese’s (and I fully get that!).

So this year we bought two giant bags of peanut butter cups, only to realize when we got home that they were mixed bags of regular milk chocolate and dark chocolate cups. Nice!

I couldn’t help it. Less than 24 hours later I got into the bags and stole a few cups to put into a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough. I made half the batch with regular chocolate chips, and for the other half I dumped in the peanut butter cups and mashed them up with a wooden spoon.

I don’t think I used quite enough (you can’t really see the candy poking through the tops), but the cookies were so, so good.

If you like this combination, you should also try our holiday favorite, Chocolate Suzies. You put chocolate chip cookie dough into mini muffin liners, bake them and then push a peanut butter cup into the top at the end of baking. Heaven.

By the way, if you live in the Des Moines area, you should sign up for Deb Cazavilan’s cookie baking workshops in Ankeny. Deb is a fab baker, and super cool lady, who recently taught me all about pie baking for a story I’m writing. She has a few spots left in her November cookie baking workshops, which are always popular. Perhaps because you get to take home 12 DOZEN cookies at the end. And you can peruse her collection of vintage aprons, which are also for sale.

Busted

The other day I caught Reggie using Wally as a pillow.

Market Day, and it’s a rummage sale

If you’re out and about in Des Moines today, come visit me at Market Day. In addition to the regular handmade crafts and artwork, this sale has longer hours and is also a rummage sale. I’ll definitely have a shelf full of cheapie goodies.

Here are the deets:

Market Day
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: Market Street Media Foundry, 118 SE 4th St. in Des Moines
What I’ll have: knit and crochet scarves and a few other accessories, cup cozies, scrubbers, magnets, thumb tacks, vintage housewares and a shelf of craft leftovers and vintage sewing notions.

Hope to see you there!

Learning to share

As you can tell from just about any photo I take of my dogs, they’re obsessed with the orange couch. It’s their favorite place to relax, probably because they can monitor both the back door and the living room windows from this perch.

But they have a hard time sharing.

Lately they will only sit on the couch together if they can each have a side, divided by the ripple blanket.

It’s so funny, because Sadie will inch closer and closer to Reggie until there’s hardly any barrier and you can almost see them cuddling together. Almost.

Comfort food dinners

If you need some dinner recipe ideas for the cold weather months, here are a few favorites from my recipe archive:


White beans, zucchini and tomatoes over couscous


My veggie version of beef stroganoff


3-bean chipotle chili


Shipwreck stew, which is really more of a casserole


Potato enchiladas to die for


Tortilla soup (so good with crunched up chips and sprinkle of cheese)


Vegetarian cassoulet with chunks of artisan bread


Wild rice-stuffed acorn squash

And the two recipes I hear readers make the most:


Sweet potato and black bean burritos


My easy potato-veggie curry

With a cup of tea and a remote, you’re good to go for winter!

Homemade applesauce

Even after I made apple crisp and caramel apples, our supply of apples was still bursting out of the crisper drawer, so I decided to try making my own applesauce.

I perused a few recipes online and decided on this one from Food Network. It seemed like most recipes were almost exactly the same: peel and core a bunch of apples, cook them in sugar, lemon juice and pie-type spices, then blend them in a food processor or food mill (a kitchen item I don’t actually have!).

I liked this recipe for the addition of apple cider, brown sugar and cinnamon sticks. Although next time I would eliminate the brown sugar. The sugar from the cider is plenty for sweetness.

Though the peeling and chopping took some time, I was impressed by how easy it was to make my own applesauce. Just like the caramel apples, it would make a great take-away gift, poured into a cute jar and tied up with ribbon.

Pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting

What a good use for a can of pumpkin!

These bars are soft and moist, with just a thin layer of cream cheese frosting that keeps them from veering into too-sweet territory. The recipe calls for pecans, but I substituted walnuts because that’s what I had on hand, and they worked just fine.

Pumpkin Bars

adapted from BHG.com

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
1 15-ounce can pumpkin
1 2/3 cup sugar
1 cup cooking oil
3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Cream cheese frosting

Beat together 3 ounces of softened cream cheese, 1/4 cup softened butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla until fluffy. Gradually add 2 cups sifted powdered sugar.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl stir together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl beat together eggs, pumpkin, sugar and oil. Add the flour mixture and beat until well combined. Stir in nuts.

The recipe says to spread the batter in an ungreased 15x10x1-inch baking pan. My pan was looking a little worse for the wear, so I lined it with parchment paper. This made it really easy to remove when it needed to cool.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. When it’s cool, flip it back into the pan. This gives you a nice flat surface to frost.

Frost with a thin layer of cream cheese frosting and cut into 24 squares.

Ooey gooey yummy yummy

Normally I’m not a big fan of caramel, but when you slather it on an apple and dip it in various bad-for-your-behind toppings, well, I give.

Caramel apples feel both like something you should eat when you’re 10 years old and a luxurious treat you might buy in a boutique. Wrap them up in a little cellophane and ribbon and they make fantastic take-home gifts for parties or holiday get-togethers.

Making caramel apples can be a messy process, but thanks to caramels that now come in little pebbles rather than individually wrapped candies, it’s super easy.

Start with about six large apples, washed and any bad parts removed. Twist off the stems before you get started.

Now, the bag of caramels comes with five sticks, but I prefer to use dowels from the craft store.

They’re sturdier, both for dipping and for eating. Trust me, you don’t want the stick to crack at any point during the process.

Gently push the dowels into the center of the apples, about an inch or so. I’m using a combination of tart green apples, smaller red apples, and some large Galas that I had in the fridge. Any apple works, as far as I’m concerned.

Lay out all your candies and toppings in separate bowls.

Heat the caramels in a glass bowl in the microwave with a couple tablespoons of water. A silicone spatula is ideal for stirring and scraping the caramel down the sides of the bowl. You’ll need every bit!

If you’re dipping into candies or nuts, you’ll need to do that immediately after you dip the caramel. If you’re drizzling on chocolate (I like to do both white and dark), you might actually want to dip the caramel, put it into the fridge to cool for a few minutes, then drizzle the chocolate. This keeps the whole melty mess from sliding right off, which it will do if it’s too warm.

So, back to the dipping. When the caramel is hot and well mixed, roll the apple around the bowl, and use the spatula to scoop extra caramel on any missed spots.

If any of it has globbed onto the bottom of the apple, scrape it back into the bowl. Immediately dip the apple into your topping of choice, rolling it around and sprinkling on extras with your hands.

When it’s completely covered, transfer it to a plate in the fridge and let it cool.

You can use chocolate chips or baking chocolate squares for the melting chocolate. It usually takes a minute or two in the microwave to heat (and maybe a few teaspoons of milk to thin it out further) just like the caramel. Just use a spoon to drizzle it back and forth over the top of the apple. It will roll down the sides on its own.

Then, into the fridge with those apples.

They’re almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

If you don’t want to crack a tooth trying to eat your apples, which are usually pretty darn hard after some time in the fridge, here’s how to cut them:

With a sharp knife, slice down the right side of the apple, next to the dowel. Rotate it a quarter turn and slice down that side. Repeat for the other sides. You should get 8 slices and a core when you’re done.