Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lightkeeper Pro

So it is that time of year when people start decking their halls.  You start out all Norman Rockwelly (sure, it's a word) with cocoa and Christmas tunes playing, surrounded by loving memories as you pull out your decorations from years past... reminiscing...sip of cocoa...reminiscing...hang a stocking... reminiscing... bobbing your head as Holly Jolly Christmas plays on... 

the goal in your mind....
Then suddenly, it all comes screeching to a halt when you realize half the lights on your pre-lit tree did not come on when you plugged them in just now. Either that or the brand new strand you bought last year (to replace the ones that didn't work the year before) - is in a hopeless half-lit ball on the floor which makes you think to yourself...hey wait a gosh darn minute WHY don't they make things last like they used to?  Arg.

Festive merriment quickly dissolves into tears and frustration as you jiggle the strand (like that helps), scour the line for burnt out bulbs, and eventually, storm off to the store for some replacement strands of lights as your cocoa grows cold.  

One light goes out, they all go out...
So in lieu of a night of peaceful decorating, the rest of your evening is spent trying to: rip out lights hard-wired into the tree, pulling bulbs out one by one, wrecking your fingertips in the process, secretly sounding like Yosemite Sam as your make up new swear words under your breath, and eventually giving up in disgust - carelessly throwing a whole new light strand over the broken old ones and saying "bah humbug"... that is, until NOW.

Hubby stumbled across something and brought it home.  I wasn't even sure what to make of it at first but I'm here to tell you, this could save your Christmas sanity.  Behold, I give you the best little gizzmo that actually lives up to it's promises... the Lightkeeper Pro.

God bless you light keeper pro.

It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?  This thing that looks like a cross between a squirt gun, a taser, and a label maker is somehow going to fix your Christmas?  I can say now from experience a resounding YES.  By the way, I'm not on commission with the company or anything, I was just so shocked that it worked I had to blog about it.  This little thing is a wonderment to behold.   Talk about your multi-taskers, this baby has it all.  A bulb and fuse tester, an audible voltage detector, a bulb puller (to save your fingers), a light socket connector, a magical "quick fix trigger" and to top it all off, it comes WITH batteries.  For $20 bucks that's quite a deal. It will seriously pay for itself when it saves you from buying new strands every year.

How does it work?

Well that is the question of the century. My hubby, who is equal parts techie-nerd and geek, who happens to know a bit about currents, circuits, and electricity, was mystified by this thing at first.  We had a strand on a pre-lit tree where half the bulbs were out. They did not look burned out, but they were not lit.  We pulled one bulb out, tested it on the light keeper pro, then hubby put the tip of the gun in the empty socket, pulled the trigger, and bam, the whole strand lit up.  WHAT?  That's right.  Lit up.  That's why I called it the "magical quick fix trigger" earlier.

The light keeper pro in action
Still high on giddy fumes that it actually worked, we went scouring the interwebs to explain WHY it worked.  The best explanation came from an Amazon reviewer named Thomas Dibble (see review here).  You can also see it in action on their website here, or the best example and detailed explanation of how to use it can be found below on a news segment where they show you the different features actually working in real time.

You can test burnt out bulbs with it, replace just those and you are back in business.  You can also test the entire strand for current and discover where loose bulbs or burnt out bulbs may be.  My daughters had a mini pre-lit tree in their room they have been using as a night light all year, but it ended up burning out last week.  One pull of the trigger and it was up and working again in minutes. Now if you have a strand that is old, damaged, or all the bulbs are burned out in a section, this might not work for you.  Nor will it work on LED lights (though I just read they have  new tool just for those) but for typical and frustrating strand outages this thing works amazingly well.   Anyway, just had to pass this along to you guys.  I have a link at the top of my blog in "my favorite things" tab if you want to order one on Amazon.  How great will this be, when halfway through the Christmas season and your tree is already fully decorated but THEN a section goes out?  No need to disassemble the whole area, just a few clicks from the Light Keeper Pro and it's Happy Fa la la la lalidays once again.  Now go put on some Bing Crosby and lets get back to decorating. Hello Christmas sanity, I have missed you!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Make Ahead Mashed Potatoes (Pioneer Woman)

If there is anything stressful about Thanksgiving dinner, it has to be the last 30 minutes when you are mashing potatoes, whisking gravy, and making sure 4-8 side dishes are heated to the proper temperature.  Serving everything hot and at the same time is nothing short of a Christmas miracle... okay, well a Thanksgiving miracle.  Last year I decided to try make ahead mash potatoes from Ree Drummond, aka, the Pioneer Woman, aka my hero.  They actually turned out fantastic.  Best part is, there is still time this year for you to plan and make these a day or two before Thanksgiving and have one less thing to do during that crazy 30 minute crunch time.

Actual shot of my 1st attempt of The Pioneer Woman's delectable mashed potatoes last year
She has a very thorough step by step pictorial on how to make these babies, so I won't reinvent the wheel, just click here for the how to.  The only thing I changed was that I used Russet potatoes and an electric mixer to mash them instead of a hand masher.  Once they are done put them in a large pan, cover, and keep them in the fridge until the big day.  Genius I tell you.

By the way, safety warning here: She also recommends putting pats of butter on top of your potatoes just before warming them up, but the first year I made these, my pan happened to be so packed full that the butter melted right off the top and started burning on the bottom of the oven.  Let's just say there was a moment of black smoke billowing from the oven and some freezing cold doors and windows were quickly opened at one point at our Thanksgiving that first year...and nothing screams failure like smoke billowing from your oven on the most important dinner of the year with all of your siblings there to mock you, and your sister-in-law shivering from the cold. Thank goodness these potatoes were so good, the 2-alarm smoke fiasco was soon forgiven and forgotten.  So if your pan is filled to the brim with taters, I'd wait and put the butter on after it comes out of the oven.  I also sprinkled mine with a bit of paprika for some added color.  Also I am happy to report that last year I pulled these off flawlessly to rave reviews!  Redemption!

These potatoes were creamy, delicious, and the perfect traditional side to go with your holiday meal.  The only difference was I just popped them in with the other sides and had a chance to sip some cider and chat with the family. What a novel idea!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Easy Cranberry Jelly

So Thanksgiving is around the corner, and I'm sure like most of you, I am gearing up for all the food prep that this wonderful day entails.  I'm not sure how you feel about cranberry jelly, that jiggly red stuff that sits next to your turkey, gravy, and stuffing and makes the plate look pretty...but personally, I have avoided that stuff like the plague for the last 38 years. Some how it's always been a little off-putting to have a can-shaped glob on a fancy glass plate that has never beckoned me to try it. That is, until last year.  Last year when we watched a show on the food network and saw something that looked so tasty and pretty I thought, hey wait a second, maybe I would try to make my own from scratch.

Homemade cranberry jelly - with only a few ingredients
Now let's remind you of how far we've come... I give you: typical T-day cranberries:
How in the world could anyone think of this as appetizing??

Now which one would you want to eat?  Okay.  I thought so.  So the original recipe was from Claire Robinson on a show called "5 Ingredient Fix" under the title of Spicy cranberry chutney.  She has this crazy notion of adding hot peppers into the recipe to kick it up a notch.  Well I made her exact recipe (I don't even like hot peppers, what was I thinking?) and although it was easy to make, I didn't like the taste.  So I decided to make the exact same recipe again, only without the jalapenos and guess what?  It was the most delicious cranberry jelly ever!  So if you like hot peppers, then make her original recipe with the link above.  If you want a sweet, simple version, do what we did and just make it with fruit and omit the peppers.

You will only need a few ingredients:

8 cups of cranberries
the juice of 2 limes (and zest)
the juice of 2 oranges (and zest)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cups of water

Add all the ingredients to the pot. Note, I went easy on the zest part.  Just did a little from each fruit.  If you love zest then feel free to go crazy.

Put all ingredients into a sauce pot and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Reduce the heat and simmer until desired consistency, about 40-45 minutes.

The sauce should reduce and thicken quite a bit.  It is a very lovely bright red color and smells fabulous.  Chill in the fridge until serving time.  The nice thing about this is you can make it even a few days before the big day, as the flavors get better when they meld together.

picture used from life's ambrosia blog found here
Proudly serve this to your family and guests on the big day. Or better yet, just for fun, put this and the old canned glob next to each other on the table as an experiment and see which one is consumed first. I must admit this is the first and only cranberry sauce I have actually eaten and enjoyed, so I am planning to make this again this year, not only to make my plate pretty, but to make my taste buds happy.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hands and Feet Turkey - Kid's Craft

I was getting out some fall decorations when I came across a cute craft we had done with the girls a few years back (they were so tiny then). All you need is some colorful construction paper, a few googly eyes, glue, a pencil and a couple of small people with tiny hands and feet.  This project would be fun to do before Thanksgiving (to add to your decorations) or you can do it the day of to keep the cousins and little ones out from underfoot while you create delicious masterpieces in the kitchen.  Note: If you do this craft the day of, wrangle older kids and teens to help with the supervising and cutting.

A cute turkey made from hands and feet

First, trace the foot of the child with their shoe on.  Do this on a dark brown piece of construction paper.  (Note: if the child is wiggly, then just trace the shoe by itself)

Next, trace your child's hand twice on a piece of construction paper.

My middle child was 2 1/2 here, now she's 6.. where has the time gone?
The original directions from Enchanted Learning say to trace two hands on three pieces of colorful construction paper - yellow, orange, and red (We also added a light brown/tan color), and cut them out individually.  You can do it this way but I found tracing once (easier on a moving child) then stacking the other colored construction paper behind and cutting through all the layers is much faster.  Just be sure to you hold the paper group tightly as you cut to get through all the layers. Good scissors will help here. By adding an extra color of light brown, we ended up with eight "feathers" instead of the regular six.

Now to build your turkey.  Take the two foot pieces and place them upside down heals together, and slightly offset.  (For play by play directions click here).  Next glue all the hand "feathers" spread out on on the back of the bird in a fan-like fashion.  We used the two light tan hands as feathers on the front and attached them that way, the rest were glued on the back.  All that's left after that is a few googly eyes and some small pieces to make a wattle, beak, and feet.

Rubber cement works a little quicker than Elmer's glue for this project
Be sure when you are finished to put the name and especially the age of the child on the back so when you dig it out of your decoration box years later you can remember how small their hands and feet were when they were, say three.  You can make some each year and see how much bigger your turkeys get too.  These would also make a nice gift for a grandparent or for whoever is hosting your holiday dinner.  

Friday, November 09, 2012

Operation Christmas Child - Shoebox

We have a friend of the family that recently moved to North Carolina to start her job at Samaritan's Purse, the global outreach that sponsors Operation Christmas Child.  This mission for kids started back in 1993 and is still going strong.  The simple idea behind it is people pack up special shoe boxes full of gifts for kids on the other side of the world, who would not normally get any Christmas presents.  I have to say we have never done this as a family, but I felt compelled after watching a few videos our friend posted that this is something I wanted to try this year with my girls.  How fun would it be for them to pick girls their own ages and pack up a special box for them? How fortunate are we, blessed with so much, to learn even at an early age how to be a blessing to others.  We are now planning on doing it this weekend. The best news is that it's not too late, you can do it too!  Operation Christmas Child is collecting shoe boxes all next week (November 12th - November 19th), so grab your kids and have them help pack a special gift for a far away child in need.

Operation Christmas Child - An amazing opportunity to be a blessing

Now all you need is the information.  I, being a total novice here have collected everything you need to know.  By the way, did you know that since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has given away over 95 million shoe boxes?  That is amazing.  They are hoping to reach their goal of 100 million boxes this year, and you can help.  First, if you want to read about them, and check out how the program works, visit their website here. At first I thought you would have to be apart of a church organization to do this (Many churches will have a drive to put tons of shoe boxes together). You can do as little as one or two boxes with your own family.  They have drop off locations available all over the place.  Simply input your state or zip code here and it will list all the drop off locations near you for next week.  Very handy.  Now here's what you will need:

1 regular sized shoe box (or plastic container with lid)
 You can gift wrap the shoe box, just make sure the lid is wrapped separately

Determine if you gift is for a boy or a girl 
They have them divided by ages, 2-4, 5-9, 10-14

labels like this available on their site

Fill the shoe box with gifts
Great ideas for gifts are:  

Something to wear
something to love
something for school
something to play with (cars, balls, stickers, art supplies)
something to get clean with (soap, tooth brush, etc)
hard candy
You can also include a letter/photo of your family, they might write back

Note: Things they don't want included are war toys (guns, knives, soldiers) chocolate, liquids, glass, breakables (snow globes) and vitamins.

Add $7 or more for each box to help with shipping
There is an amazing **NEW** online way to donate the shipping $ and then print out a tracking label attached to your email.  You will then be notified on which country your box ends up going to.  How cool is that?  My girls love maps.  How neat would it be to get out our globe and show them how far away their present traveled?

Secure the box with labels and rubber bands and take to a drop off location
Click here again to see if there is one near you

Click here to see the complete getting ready list plus other gift ideas.

To see the very powerful impact of a simple gift, watch this video.  It gave me chills and made me cry.


Here's some pictures of some shoe boxes I found online with inspirations and ideas for you:

It's pretty amazing what you can fit into a little box.

Also, did I mention they thought of everything?  They also have a way for you to give a shoe box, even if you don't have time to go out and buy everything.  Simply click here to check out their "Build-a Box" (for $30) then go and select items they will pack into a box FOR you.  What a great idea.  Love it.

Ok so my girls are excited to go this weekend and find things, I will keep you posted.  Let me know if you and your family decide to do this.  I think it's a great way to kick of the holiday season.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Mandarin Pineapple Fluff Salad

We were at a wedding a few months back when I spied a suspicious looking fluffy salad in the buffet line.  I say suspicious, mostly because I'm a little leery of those "ambrosia" type salads.  I mean, you never quite know what is going to be in there... will it be fruit...nuts...berries...twigs...?  Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for fruit and whipped cream, it's just those "unknowns" that usually make me pass it on by. So initially I don't know what compelled me to grab a small scoop of this pretty salad, but I was so glad I did.  Soon I was hunting down the maker of said salad to secure a copy of the recipe, which now I can share with you!

Mandarin and Pineapple fluff salad - a tropical delight!

First and foremost, if you are tired of the same ol' whipped cream salads, then you are in for a real treat!  This is such a lovely tropical variation of a fruit salad that the whole family will love.  By the way, there are many versions of this salad out there on the interwebs.  Some use tapioca, some use vanilla pudding, and some strange souls make this with cottage cheese.  Um.  We won't talk about them.  We actually ended up making this twice, once with vanilla pudding when I couldn't locate tapioca at the store (a disaster of unspeakable proportions) and the second time following the exact directions with tapioca, which gave us the fluffy salad we were looking for.  Here is what you will need. (full printable recipe at the bottom of the post)

1 box (3oz) orange jello
2 boxes (3oz) tapioca pudding mix
2 cups of water
1 16 oz can of mandarin oranges, drained
1 8 oz can of crushed pineapple
1 8 oz tub of cool whip (thawed)

In a medium pot, add 2 cups of water, one box of orange jello, and the 2 boxes of tapioca pudding and mix together.  Cook on a little above medium heat stirring constantly until it comes to a boil.  This will take between 5-10 minutes.  Right before it boils you will see it noticeably thicken.

keep stirring, you are trying to dissolve everything into a smooth consistency
Once you get to a boil then take it off the heat.  It will smell like heavenly orange creamsicles at this point.  Let this mixture cool for at least 15 minutes (ours was still pretty hot, so we let it cool down much more).  Once it is totally cool it will look like this:

Pour this cooled mixture into your salad/serving bowl.  Next add in your drained mandarin oranges and your crushed pineapple.

Mandarin oranges are my girls' absolute favorite!

Gently stir in the fruit until everything is combined nicely.

Now for the fun part: Flop the whole 8 oz container of cool whip and "fold" it into the fruit/pudding mixture.  This will lighten up the color a bit and add that fluffy element that makes this so light and airy. 

fluffy fluffy fluffy goodness
You are now done with your Mandarin Pineapple Fluff Salad.  All that is left to do is chill this bad boy for a few hours, until you are ready to serve it.  We actually made this the night before and it was fabulous by party time the next day.  This stuff goes pretty fast and it was highly recommended to me to double it, so we did.  A doubled recipe will fit in a nice big serving bowl and is a perfect size for a big crowd.

Embrace the fluffiness
We served this as a side at my daughter's tropical luau birthday this weekend and kids, adults, cousins, party goers, everyone loved this thing.  We only had a tiny bit left over but it was just as tasty the next day.  This would make a great side at any upcoming holiday (Thanksgiving, Christmas) and any summer BBQ or large family get together.  People around you will rave and beg for the recipe.  Full printable recipe found here.  Enjoy!

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