Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Shocked and Furious

Appearances can be deceiving. This looks like a jack-o-lantern platter that I got at a thrift store for $1.99. It is, but it's also a souvenir of a very negative thrifting experience, something that will remind me to never shop at a particular shop again.

If this post is visible, this means that my email to the overseeing organization has gone unanswered. Services to Enhance Potential (STEP) operates Tried and True Thrift Stores in Wayne and Southgate, MI and employs several adults with disabilities. It's a shop we supported and visited when we could, but not any longer - our last visit was, decidedly, our final one.

On Wednesday, August 24th, my husband and I visited the Tried and True thrift shop in Wayne, MI. On this visit, I didn't fine many items that I wanted, but I had to have the platter pictured here. While we were in the part of the store with the register, we witnessed an employee who appeared to be a manager of some kind berating the other staff. (When we discussed this incident in the car, I found that both my husband and I had determined at this point that we probably wouldn't return.)

A sweet young girl, A-- (name withheld for privacy), checked us out and asked the woman for help with a bag. The woman held open a bag and A-- tried to insert the plate we'd purchased; however, the plate was in a box with an open side and the plate slipped out and fell. The plate wasn't damaged, and we were not upset by this; however, the woman slapped her pretty hard on the shoulder and yelled at her, and I thought the girl was going to cry. We were kind of in shock, or I would have yelled at the manager, but all I could do was assure A-- that there was no harm done and everything was fine.

I beat up myself for awhile afterwards for not yelling at the manager, but later realized that if she would strike an employee in our presence, who knew what she'd do in retaliation after we were gone. Instead, as soon as we got home, I fired off an email to the address listed on their website. I'm writing this post on Friday, but am giving them until Wednesday to respond in some way. Since you're seeing this, they did not respond and I'm going to be taking steps to report this incident to whatever licensing board I can find.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Smash Book - Follow-up Pics

My book is ready for smashing!

  • I made the little case to go with my tablet, but it wasn't quite big enough for everything I needed to carry (reading glasses, microfiber cloth & earphones). I made a replacement for it today and was wondering what to do with the old one. Well, the strap needed to be shortened about an inch and it fit my Smash Book perfectly!
  • The orange polka-dot Washi Paper Tape is from Cute Tape, which had great shipping prices (<$2), and comparable prices on the tape. The green roll is from a pack I got at Michael's Crafts (Martha Stewart line?).
  • The squirrel clips are from Jet Pens.

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Smash Book

My Smash Book arrived this afternoon. I got the orange one, because it's the "simple" version and you can't see the interior pages before ordering. One of my two favorite colors is orange, so that was also a factor. I'm a little bummed that the pen/glue stick combos only come in black, pink and blue, and none of my faves, but it's still a new venture. If all goes well, I'm sure they'll come up with more.

These actually premiered in the spring, but I'm a bit out of the loop, since I don't scrapbook anymore (these books are big with scrapbookers), but when I heard about them, several thoughts went through my head:
  • I could probably make one. But they're only $12.99 each, so it wouldn't hurt to get the official one and try it out.
  • This would be a good exercise to get away from all things digital. Nothing wrong with digital, but I'm online a lot. I used to be the person who collected ephemera: ticket stubs, fortune cookie slips, etc.. Mostly, I kept it in a box, but sometimes I stuck it up on bulletin boards, etc. I can't remember the last time I held onto a movie ticket.
  • I am SO getting one for my niece for Giftmas. Maybe my nephew, too. (She's 13 & he's 9.) It's good to have plans for a couple of gifts already.
 This book seems very solid and well-put-together. If I felt the need to make my own, it wouldn't be to save money (time is worth money and it would take a lot of time to make one), but if I wanted a highly customized version, then it might be fun.

The thing is...I'm a little intimidated by it. Where do I start? What do I put in it? I'm going to spend a little time on the blog to get some inspiration.

There's a demo video, if you want to see more. Once I stop holding my breath and start smashing stuff into the book, I'll post again.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Reopening the Etsy shop for a limited time

I've temporarily opened my Etsy shop and have added a variety of items, mostly related to crafting. Here are just a few items:

Bag and Pouch Mosaic 1

I've also added some button stitch markers and twine dispensers. All purchases of knitting-related items come with a free stitch marker. Thanks for looking!

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Brownie Coins

 Third post of details from our little "dinner party" over the weekend. Ages ago, I posted about making miniature brownies in my acorn "cakelet" pan. The pans are still around, but A) it's spring, and B) the pans are a serious pain to wash. So I looked around for something else to make brownies in.

Now, regular brownies that you put in a square or rectangular pan and then cut up are all well and good, but I have to say that I love these brownies. My husband named them "Brownie Coins" and they're great on their own, but would be even better with a tiny scoop of ice cream between two of them.

These brownies are thinner than the average, and have a crispy edge all the way around. This isn't so much a recipe as my list of steps. This will come in handy when they note I have stuck to my fridge with a magnet falls off or something.

Brownie Coins

Mini Muffin Top Pan. Non the same thing as a mini muffin pan. These might be tough to find (I've had mine for well over a decade). This one on Amazon looks right: Fat Daddio's 24-Cup Mini Muffin/Teacake Pan. I don't know how silicone would work.  Mini muffin pans would be thicker and the cooking times would differ.

Spray pan(s) with cooking spray.
Preheat oven to 325ยบ.

Shh, don't tell, but I usually just use a box mix and follow the standard directions (not the "cake-like" ones with the extra egg): In a bowl, mix the egg, oil and water together, then add the mix and stir until moistened. If you have them laying around, dump in some chocolate chips. I used about a cup this time (whatever was in the bag), but  would either use fewer or smaller chips next time.

Plop the batter into the oiled cavities. It's hard to gauge, but you want them about half full. A tablespoon was too much.

Bake for 12 minutes (your mileage may vary). Cool and enjoy.

The bonus is that one mix should make at least 3 dozen tiny brownies, usually more. 

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Canapes #2: Peppered Parmesan Crisps

So easy! In a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, mound freshly-grated Parmesan cheese, about 2 teaspoons per crisp. Sprinkle liberally with black pepper. Heat until the cheese is melted and the edges are brown. Cool on a rack.

They spread out a little, but you should be able to make several at a time. I just did one on its own (left) for the picture. 

It takes a little longer and is a bigger pain, but they came off the pan for me a lot easier if I turned off the heat and let it cool for a couple of minutes. If you're handier with a spatula than I am, just get them ont a rack right away. (If I didn't wait, they were perfectly edible, but not even remotely close to round.)

These were also yummy, but I found the flavor of the cheese to be a little strong for my taste. I will try this again, but with a milder cheese, or a blend. The "recipe", from A Slob in the Kitchen, called for 1 T. per crisp. We liked them a little smaller, and my husband suggested the pepper, which added a great flavor.

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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Canapes #1: Parmesan & Onion Canapes

Years and years ago, I had this little appetizer cookbook. I never made anything out of it, because I didn't entertain much, but I liked to flip through and read the recipes. There was this one recipe that sounded really yummy and I always intended to make it someday. But, during the course of a move (more than thirteen years ago), the book was misplaced. It actually didn't occur to me to just search for the ingredients - I just kept my eyes open for that one book. Silly, right?

A few months ago, I bought a copy of this (now out-of-print) book called A Slob in the Kitchen. I stuck it with my cookbooks, and then forgot all about it, until a couple of weeks ago when I did some reorganizing and spotted it again. I spent some delightful time reading through it. And I found THE recipe. Or at least it's close. I couldn't wait to try it, but I had to wait until I had company coming that would eat them with me.

When I knew my friend Julie was coming over for an afternoon, I verified with her that the ingredients sounded yummy, and put my plan in action. They turned out great, but I have some notes. Plenty good though, for the two of us to plow through. (My husband doesn't like mayo and our other guest didn't make it in time.)

Kiss-Me-Not Canapes, adapted from A Slob in the Kitchen

Thin white bread
1/2 c. mayonnaise
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 c. finely-diced sweet onion

Use a round cutter to make small rounds. (The book called for 1" - I just used the cutter I had, seemed about right.)

Optional: lightly toast the rounds in the broiler (keep an eye on them - it won't take long)

Mix the other ingredients and spread onto the bread. (See my picture? Spread it a little thinner than that. Set the canapes onto a cookie sheet covered with foil or parchment paper.

Broil for about 7 minutes.

Serve while warm. (We just ate them right off the rack. Informal gathering and all.)

Notes: My friend Julie and I really enjoyed these. I went a little heavy on the toppings because I wasn't making that many and didn't want the stuff to go to waste (didn't think it would keep long). After about ten minutes, they seemed a little soggy, so I popped them in a non-stick pan and toasted the bottoms of the canapes that way. Using a little less of the topping mixture or toasting the rounds first might help. I would probably get (thinly) pre-sliced bread to save some time. Also, larger slices would probably result in less wasted bread.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sweet Tooth

Marshmallows (with tie) and Caramels
packaged up for my niece & nephew.
I kind of have a new hobby, and it's not good. First of all, I'm diabetic with some impulse control issues. Second, I'm seriously trying to eat healthier and lose weight so I can get that pesky diabetes under control. So candy-making? Probably not the best hobby to pick up.

Friends and family aren't complaining, though, because after my husband and I eat a couple/few pieces of my experiments, I package up the rest and mail 'em out. With the summer approaching, I'm going to have to take a break, and only do this when I have a special occasion to cook for, but it has been a blast - all two weekends of it.

It started out innocently enough. Several weeks ago, I stumbled across a book on Amazon and wishlisted it: Sugar Baby: Confections, Candies, Cakes & Other Delicious Recipes for Cooking with Sugar. When I have a chance to get myself a small treat, it's usually a book, so a wishlist is a great way to see what I want (in case I forgot) and what's on sale, etc.. So, when I had the opportunity to pick out a new book, this was it.

My first caramels, using Hungry Girl's recipe.
In the meantime, one of my friends on Facebook (Hi, Debbie!) shared a link to a recipe for some yummy-sounding Demerara Caramels. There I was, all in the mood to make some candy, and the book wouldn't get to me by the weekend, so this was destined to be my first candy-making* experience.

My attempts to procure a candy thermometer could almost earn their own blog post! In just a little over a week, I have owned four thermometers, three before the Sugar Baby book arrived and I just followed her recommendations and got a classic Taylor Thermometer (around $10 at my "local" grocery (local is relative in the country)). The first one broke in the utensil cup of my counter-top drain rack before it could be used once. The second one, although found with the caramel apple-making supplies at a concession-supply store,** was really for meat and the temperature did not go nearly high enough. Number three would go high enough, but was digital and I got it wet somehow when I rinsed off the probe (should have just wiped it down, yes?). It's what I used for the first attempt, but it was a little glitchy.

It turns out that we own pretty decent pans for candy-making: heavy-bottomed stainless steel. I didn't think I could get the Demerara sugar called for in Hungry Girl's recipe (turns out I didn't look closely enough), so I used Turbinado sugar and dark corn syrup instead. Despite have a glitchy thermometer, I actually managed to get my first batch of caramels done on the first try! They were the perfect (to me) consistency/texture, and the flavor was deep and rich. We had a couple pieces each, and the rest went to family & friends. (I posted a message on Facebook, offering up caramels to anyone that wanted them (in the US -- I wasn't sure about mailing them internationally.) The folks that chimed in got a package of sweets in the mail.) They were pronounced "yummy," and it was good.

Then, the book arrived. Being a very novice beginner candy-maker, I'm probably not the best reviewer, mostly because I don't know what I'm talking about. From my limited perspective, it's fantastic! Great pictures, clear directions and tips that made this beginner comfortable enough to dive in.

One batch of Marshmallows. I actually got
a plate dirty to take the picture.
First up: marshmallows. Oh, yes, I can see myself making these again. I'd like to try piping them or, if poured and cut again, I need to find a way to keep the goop from sticking to the sides of the pan. (Wondering if cooking spray would work?) I did the full recipe, adding in the (optional) egg whites. Since I've never done it before, I'm not sure if I did it all exactly right, but they sure looked and tasted like marshmallows when I was done! The only thing I think I'd do differently next time is add more vanilla, just because I think I'd like the flavor even better. I also want to try some variations -- strawberry marshmallows are calling to me.

Fleur de Sel Caramels, poured and salted. (Next time,
I'll measure the salt for the top!)
Caramels, take two. These had the perfect, traditional caramel taste, with the sea salt making the flavors pop even more. I kind of had a reading comprehension fail while I was making them and added the butter, salt and vanilla too early, so I don't know if that accounted for the texture difference. (Basically, I skipped a step, but was able to get the mixture to the right temperature anyway.) These were much closer to a hard candy than the first type I made (they also called for twice as much cream, so I'm hoping that's the explanation). Seriously, these were beautiful. (I don't have the book handy, but I think they're called "Fleur de Sel Caramels.")

Cutting the caramels. (That's a pizza cutter, not a machete.)
They hardened up pretty quickly and that, along with the
butter, kept the pieces from sticking until wrapping.
The only real problem with these? Cutting the caramels into smallish pieces as I did was a good thing, because bigger pieces could give you a sore jaw if you insisted on chewing them (I have little patience with "sucking candies"), but cutting them small yielded way over 100 caramels and wrapping them seemed endless. Oh, that and the fact that they were there, all weekend, taunting me. Yup, that's my big complaint: it made a lot of candy and I ate way too many of them.

It became immediately clear that I had to get most of those caramels out of my house! I went through a rough patch recently, and several people helped cheer me up by sending surprises in the mail (and email - knitting patterns are a great pick-me-up!), so I made cute little bags out of gift wrap and put together little "Thank You" packages for several of them. A few people commented on the pictures on Facebook again, so some packages went to those folks as well.

PS: There's a companion blog for the cookbook, with extra photos, video tutorials, etc.: SugarBaby Cookbook.

*As fun and cute as they are, I don't count melting those candy discs and pouring them into molds as making candy. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not knocking it, and my collection of molds is staying put -- but it's a different thing altogether.

**I need to write about that. Fun times!

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Shopping Online - Pros & Cons

I kind of live in the country, so my opportunities for shopping are limited and I do a lot of shopping online. Most of the time, everything goes smoothly. On Monday, I placed an order with Adagio (feel free to ask me for a $5 gift certificate) for some tea and paid for their basic shipping. The box arrived yesterday (that's 2 days). I'm thrilled, but if it had been shipped within a couple of days, I'd have been happy as well.

I was a little nervous about ordering John's Giftmas present from a place I'd never heard of, but had to take that chance. Luckily, did everything that I expect from an online store: when the item I ordered was unexpectedly backordered, they contacted me right away and offered a refund or some bonus goodies if I wanted to wait. The present arrived, packaged very well (with the promised bonus items), exactly one week after Giftmas, but because of their communication, I wasn't panicking (much). John knew all about it (we picked out our own gifts this year - I got a vibrant orange (persimmon) Kitchen Aid mixer because I've wanted one for just ages) and has been having all kinds of fun with his Archos 101. (Now I'm saving up for one!)

Sadly not all experiences go like this. Because I'm a knitter, I hear about questionable yarn shops all of the time, although I'm sure that all hobbies have similar scenarios. What's terrible is that people frequently allow themselves to be bullied into waiting. What everyone should know is that some payment options have limits to how long you can request refunds. Credit cards might have longer windows, but with PayPal, you have 45 days from the time of your payment to file a dispute. After that, you're SOL and the shop owner gets to keep your money and your product. There might be other ways to get the refund, but PayPal is out of it.

Rant: don't get me started on the "it's only yarn" thing. No it's not. It's money. My money, which I paid in exchange for a product. If you don't deliver the product within a reasonable amount of time, and you don't communicate with me, I'm going to want that money back.

There's no excuse for an order to not be in the mail within a week, unless you ordered something custom-made. Never, ever wait a month for someone to send you yarn, unless they're spinning it and dyeing it to order, and even then you are going to want it before your 45 days are up!

It had to happen eventually
Yesterday, I filed my first dispute with PayPal. It had only been eleven days since I'd placed my order, but I couldn't get a response from the shop about the status. Not that I was expecting it in my  hands a little over a week past Giftmas, when I'd placed my order during the holiday, but I started getting nervous when there was no word about the package shipping. After a week, I sent an email asking about the status. I waited a little over 24 hours, and sent a communication via the website. Another day went by. I tried to call, after finding a phone number on file with PayPal. After finding the voicemail box full, I filed the dispute.

Turns out, if I'd done a little more research, I would have found that this is a pretty common-place experience for customers of The Backwards Loop. I found a conversation on Rav that started six months ago, with people waiting over a month for their orders. If I hadn't read this thread, I might have assumed the full voicemail box was due to the holidays, but no: it was mentioned at least three months ago.

It appears that filing a PayPal dispute is just about the only way to get this shop owner's attention. Eleven days after I placed my order, but just a little more than 24 hours after I filed the PayPal dispute, I had a refund. I wonder how long I would have had to wait for my yarn if I hadn't filed the dispute?

Note: PayPal doesn't involve themselves immediately. All communication about a dispute is handled in their system, though, so they can make a determination. If a refund is issued, as it was in my case, the dispute is closed. If the the other party doesn't respond (I think they have 20 days), they money is automatically removed from their account and refunded. Assuming there is money in the account.

Now that I have the refund, I'm going to try ordering from one or two small, "indie" yarn dyers that I've heard good things about. I'll report back once I have some news.

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Catching Up

Sorry I haven't been around much. I sold my soul to Blizzard and have been playing lots & lots of World of Warcraft, thanks to a surprise gift card from an unexpected source. I have in the past had difficulty treating myself or deciding what I want. Not this time. I opened the envelope, saw the card and couldn't get it activated fast enough. We immediately started downloading all the patches and the Cataclysm expansion. It had been over a year since we played, so it took several hours to get all the files downloaded. (Luckily, I learned this last time and had zero expectations of playing that first night. We set up the downloads and watched a couple of movies.)

We decided to start new characters and try to level them together. As of last evening, I now have a level 32 Goblin priest (shadow, naturally) named Sereknity (dorky, I know, but I wanted something knitting-related). I love everything about playing a goblin except the transportation (motorized trikes, which are cute, but loud). I'm getting close to the point where I can get a wolf mount from Orgrimmar and then I'll be happy. (John is playing a warlock, and they automatically get a horse, so he's already set.)

Other geeky fun
After watching the crazy prices for years, we found a pretty good deal on season 1 of Star Trek and I'm really enjoying it. I watched it in the 70s, mostly under duress because we had one TV and it seemed like the males in the family dictated the TV-viewing a lot of the time. I didn't become a geek until I was in my mid-twenties. Watching it on my terms is fantastic.

Before the holidays, I also got a great deal (better than shown now, although these prices aren't bad) on the first 6 Trek movies and the Star Wars trilogy with the original theatrical versions, which is the only way I'd consider owning them. (Han shot first, dammit. Stop messing with my childhood memories!) Firefly will always be my favorite, by a narrow margin, but I love the other two. (Pic found online - if anyone knows the source, I'd love to credit it. Update: friend Kristin IDed the source - a meme called either "Nerd Rage" or "Troll Quotes," a collection of which can currently be seen @ know your meme.) We've stalled on watching the Trek movies at #5, which is our least favorite. But we'll get through it eventually.

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