Friday, December 30, 2016

DIY Easy Christmas Card Scrapbook

I love cards. I especially love Christmas cards. My mom and I were talking when we were in Fayetteville for Christmas about how different each generation is with Christmas cards. Her generation sends actual cards and my generation either doesn't send them at all or they send picture cards. However they come to me, I love them. And I've found a super easy way to keep the picture cards throughout the years - a Christmas card scrapbook!

This idea was originally my friend Crystal's.  Crystal is one of those super crafty people that can dream up and then create the most amazing things. I am not. I pay Crystal to do my DIY stuff for me. So you might be thinking "oh no." Never fear! Because while I used to scrapbook like a champ, I don't anymore (thanks Shutterfly for doing all the work for me!). But this idea was super easy and took me only a few hours to put together.

Here's what you'll need: a scrapbook (I used a 12x12), fun paper that is already embellished or designed, photo corners, glue stick or tape pen, and Christmas cards.

I set-up my book with our cards first, then families that we had received multiple cards from or I expect to receive more from in the future and then I grouped cards by year. Some people send us cards each year and I love being able to watch their lives change and kids grow. But some only send us one once in a while, which is totally fine, they just don't get their own page. Some families have multiple pages and some only have one. The best part is this book is bound to grow as we continue to get more cards!

For my scrapbook, I chose a really pretty Christmas red book. For the photo, I used some of my fancy paper and one of my punches to create a cute cover. Back in the day when I hardcore scrapbooked, I would have typed it out on the computer and printed it out. Not this time. Less is more!

You can use any kind of paper, but I chose paper that already had designs on it. This way, each page had a design and was pretty, but didn't require any additional work or embellishments, which are expensive. 

For the square cards, I used photo corners.  I really like these because some cards have photos on the back and these allow you to remove the cards and put them back.  

Some cards have funky edges. While cute, they aren't conducive to photo corners.  For those, I just used a tape pen, which I just discovered and is genius!

I labeled cards that didn't have a year on them.  Those that did I left alone.

Here are some of my spreads. You can see that I hardly added anything to them and when I did, it was card stock that I used a paper punch on.

Our pages. I left plenty of room for next year's card!

My friend Crystal's pages. Other than my cousin's family, I have the most from her!

Our cards by the year section.  I love looking back and seeing how the families have grown!
This is such a fun and easy way to save your cards and literally takes only a few hours to make. Then you just update it each year! You can put it out at Christmas and let people find their cards in your book. It's a great end of Christmas break activity, especially for people like me who don't put up their decorations until after the New Year.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Prepping for January: Going back to a Modified Whole 30

When we did the Clean 14/Whole 30 diet back in September, I thought it was awesome, hard and never wanted to do it again. But after two months of birthdays, holidays and eating like total crap, here we are about to start one again. Come January, the Zinns are going back to a Whole 30 diet, with some modifications.

Let's talk about the "why". Diets and changes like this aren't easy and often times it's the "why" that keeps you going when you want to just give up. My "why" is that we've slowly slipped back into old eating habits. I still do a few Whole 30 or Paleo meals per week, but the rest is back to how we used to eat. Don't get me wrong, my favorite pasta meals and cakes aren't going away for forever, but they also don't need to be in constant rotation.  We've also done really well with giving up sodas, but I've basically replaced them with sweet tea and iced coffee. My other "why" is that after three months of my weight not moving, I'm hoping for a nice boost.

Now that the whys are out there, let's talk about modifications.  Basically, the Whole 30 plan says this:
  • No dairy
  • No legumes (includes peanuts, peanut oil and soybean oil)
  • No added sugar or anything that mimics sugar (like stevia)
  • No grains
  • No alcohol
  • No MSG, sulfites, or carrageenan
  • Don't try to recreate baked goods
  • Eating organic, local veggies and grass-fed, local meats when possible
For us, this was doable for two weeks. For a whole month and moving into a lifestyle? Good lord no. This made breakfast next to impossible, food prep was incredible and lunches were hard. Eating out was also really hard. So we talked about it and these are the modifications we are going to make:

  • Breakfast: 
    • Almond milk - I'm sticking to my Silk Unsweetened Almond Milk and the Califia Farms Iced Coffee Almond Milk. Yes, it has some non-compliant ingredients like added sugar. But it doesn't have carrageenan or dairy in it. This allows us to have a little more control (and my coffee) in the morning.
    • Baked treats - I'm going to try and avoid them, but I'm also going to allow gluten free and compliant baked goods for breakfasts.  Since I'm the one doing all the meal prep, this makes my life easier. There are only so many days that you can eat eggs.
  • Alcohol:
    • I'm allowing wine for cooking, vanilla extract and other extracts and one glass of wine or beer a week. Cause I can.
Everything else will be the same! I'm hoping that these changes will help us keep this up for a whole 30 days and not wanting to die at 14 days. I'm already mourning cheese a little, though.

We start back next week on January 3. This week I'm using to help prepare for starting the diet.  We're starting to make some of our compliant meals and I'm doing the shopping. Thrive Market is a huge help in preparing for the diet.  Thrive Market is an online market that allows you to buy diet-specific foods at prices lower than the grocery store.  That was my main complaint when we did the diet last time - it was so expensive! I'm hoping that by purchasing some items from Thrive Market we can reduce the initial cost.  Here's what's on my list:

  • Flours - Since you can't use regular flours with Whole 30 or Paleo, I'm stocking up on compliant flours such as almond flour, tapioca flour and coconut flour. Those can get pretty expensive when bought in a regular grocery store, but they are between $3 and $8 on Thrive Market
  • Muir Glen Tomato Sauce - Finding tomato sauce without added sugar in a regular grocery store is really hard and I don't want to make a trip to Whole Foods, so I added these to my list.
  • Avocado Oil Mayo - Last time I made our mayo, which was really easy, but I thought I would try one that is pre-made this time!
  • Ghee - Clarified butter or ghee is allowed on Whole 30. There are only so many times you can cook with coconut oil, so I'm happy to be adding this to my ingredients!
  • Snacks - Snacks were really hard on Whole 30. I'm picking up some sweet potato chips and other chips and snacks that are compliant. 
By purchasing from Thrive Market, we're saving $35! We've been getting our meat from a local meat share and will continue to do that as well.
I've also started gathering all my favorite recipes and checking out my new cookbook my sister- and brother-in-law got me for Christmas, Meals Made Simple by Danielle Walker.

Not all Paleo meals are Whole 30 compliant, but most are or are easily adapted.

I'm pretty excited to try this again. I felt great when we did it the first time and I'm hoping that with some prep and modifications, we'll be even more successful this time! What about you, are you doing any diets or cleanses after the holidays?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas at 30

I had the day to myself yesterday.  I've actually had the past four days to myself, so I've had plenty of time to digest this holiday season. And I've decided that Christmas at 30 is much different than all of our other Christmases. And I kinda like it.

Christmas slowly morphs as you grow up.  It goes from being all about the latest toys to the latest fashion to the wares? I mean, our big gifts this year was overhead garage storage systems for Aaron (with the promise of his engineer father's help on installation) and a light fixture and new kitchen appliance for me. For our friends, it's morphed from all about them to all about their kids.

This year we had another change. No, not a baby. Aaron changed jobs this summer and now works at a wastewater treatment plant. So when the rest of the world has a holiday, somebody has to keep that place running so you can keep flushing your toilet. This year, for his plant, it was Aaron. That means that we did Christmas Eve Eve with my family and Christmas Day night with his. We were sad about it, but I was also thankful for it.

Thankful that he has a job that he loves.

Thankful that he has a job that allows him to be home at 5 pm during the week with a monthly weekend rotation.

Thankful we don't have emergency calls anymore outside of his week on call.

Thankful that he's happy.

For me, this year, that was my favorite Christmas gift. A happy husband with a job that he loves and plans to stay in for the next 30 years (direct quote).

Christmas, for Christians, is about the birth of our Lord and all that he means to us. The freedom, the mercy, the forgiveness. The grace. But it's also about being thankful for those that you love, being able to celebrate his life with your friends and family. And celebrating all that he has blessed us with. Maybe your Christmas was different this year, too. Maybe not. Either way, I hope you felt as blessed as we all are and were able to spend time with your loved ones. And I will end this blog post with my favorite photos from Christmas with our families.

Family selfie at Christmas at DPAC. Our church holds its Christmsas service at DPAC and our parents came up and joined us this year! And our friend Josh photobombed. 
Christmas Dinner #1 with my parents! And this is food for 4 people! We each had some of our favorites.
New light fixture! As I said, Christmas at 30 is a little different than before. 

Davenport family selfie! While Aaron worked, I got free lunch Christmas Day.
The annual bromance photo between Aaron and Christian, his sister's husband. Aaron seems to enjoy this more than Christian.
Christmas Day night with Aaron's family! 

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Pioneer Woman Cheesy Sausage Rigatoni in the Crock Pot!

Real talk - I love the Pioneer Woman.  I love her a whole lot. Like want to travel to Pawhuska, OK and visit her store. She's kinda my hero. And while I love her, I don't always have time for her recipes. I am not one to make up my own recipes from scratch, but I am one to take someone else's recipe and change it up! Today we're going to talk about how to make the Pioneer Woman's Cheesy Sausage Rigatoni the crock pot!

Tuesday nights in the Zinn household are crock pot nights. This is usually my night for two classes, which means I'm getting home around 7:45 to 8:00 PM. That's pretty late to start cooking. In comes the crock pot! I set everything up for the crock pot meals Monday night, turn it on Tuesday morning and then come home and eat some dinner before heading to class.  It sounds great, and generally is, but there are only so many times you can eat stew beef, pot roasts and the like. I've had to get pretty creative with all of my crock pot meals, which is how this one came to be! I present to you PW's Cheesy Sausage Rigatoni in the Crock Pot!

The original recipe can be found here on Food Network.

First off - I nixed the finely diced onion and used onion powder. Cause I'm lazy like that.

Second - I replaced the Italian sausage with chorizo.  If you haven't discovered chorizo, you, my friend, are severely missing out. However, if you're making this for your family and your kiddos (or you) don't like spicy foods, I would stick with Italian sausage. If you're like us and like a little kick, chorizo all the way!

I browned 1 lb chorizo and then combined the chorizo, 2 25-oz jars of marinara sauce, about 1/2 cup of red wine (because it was on the counter and it felt right) into the crock pot. I added some onion powder and garlic powder.  I didn't even measure it, just sprinkled a good amount on (probably about a tablespoon of each). I mixed it all together and then put it on Low for 7 hours.

A note - My crock pot automatically switches from Low to Keep Warm when it's done and it sits on Keep Warm until I come home, about 3 hours, so I adjust the time it actually cooks to keep from drying out the meat/sauce.  I would say ideally, to do this on Low for 8 hours if it isn't going to sit on keep warm for a while.

When you get home or the time is up, add a cup of water to the sauce.

You'll need the additional liquid for the noodles. Add in 1 lb. of rigatoni.

You'll think that all the noodles won't be covered by the sauce, but they will. 
Mix to where the noodles are covered by the sauce, turn on to High and cook for 1 hour. The first time we did this, we did 30 minutes and it wasn't enough. You need that full hour for the noodles to cook all the way.

Make sure all the noodles are covered with sauce.
At the very end, when the noodles are pretty much ready, cube two 8-oz balls of mozzarella and mix them into the sauce.  They don't have to stay in long, just long enough that the cheese starts melting. About 10 minutes.

If you're better than I am and keep it around, chop up some parsley, throw it on top and serve it! I don't keep it in the house, so I just ate it as is.

The noodles soak up all the extra liquid and you're left with this really nice, thick sauce that sticks to the noodles and big chunks of melty mozzarella.  It's become one of our favorite meals, not only because it's so tasty, but also because it's so easy! The best part is that most of the time I start this and Aaron finishes it for me while I'm in class. If you ever need a change up in your crock pot meals, try this! You won't be sorry!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Holidays, Light Weeks and Giving Yourself Grace

The past few weeks have been rough. The holidays, in general, are rough, but especially rough when you're trying to lose weight/get healthy. I haven't had time to work out like I normally do or to meal plan and I feel like I eat a ton of sugar every day. I've also gained a few pounds back thanks to all of the above. But I've been reminded lately to give myself some grace.

Last night, I went to yoga for the first time in a few weeks. I never thought that I would miss something like I do yoga. I missed the stretching and the workout, but I also missed the break. I missed being able to let go and just focus on me for an hour. And let's be real, I missed savasana.

I was thinking about today's blog post while waiting for class to start and thought about how I needed to start giving myself some grace.  Grace for not working out every day, for eating some of the cookie dough while making cookies for the exchange, for drinking eggnog with whiskey (and lots of it). It must be true because my instructor started class talking about letting go, honoring where you are in your journey and that where you are now is where you are supposed to be.

Whoa. Talk about needing something and God talking to you. And through yoga of all things!

I've been beating myself up. I've felt fat, like I haven't made the progress that I wanted to make. Some days, I feel like I'm the girl in the mirror from January. The girl I hated, that I was embarrassed I let myself get back to. I feel like I'm back at square one, where I started a year ago. On those days, I have to remind myself of where I am and honor it.

I have to remind myself that my 'light weeks' are now working out 4 days instead of 5 or 6, whereas before it was one or no days instead of 2 or 3.

I have to remind myself that while I might fall out of tree (still), I just did half moon without a block or touching the floor last night.

I have to remind myself that while it doesn't feel like a lot of change, I've come a heck of a long way. I actually miss working out when I don't go! I eat healthier (not including the holidays) and I'm down a clothing size. I have to remind myself to look at my monthly update blog posts to see how far I've come. This stuff is hard and sometimes, it's enough to make you want to give up. But I don't.

Where I am is where I'm supposed to be. That's what I needed to hear last night. I'm doing this. This journey isn't like any of the others I've been on. It's not like anyone else's and neither is yours. I'm also convinced that God is trying to teach me patience (again) with it. I think that's an endless journey of his! So if you've been hard on yourself lately, give yourself some grace. Remember where you came from and be proud of where you are. Take it from a yogi - where you are is where you are supposed to be.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Gifting 2016: Gifting Experiences!

Today is my last post on gifting! The first two were some DIY projects, but this one is all about experiences.  I've been talking all week about how I'm over buying stuff just to buy it. And I've pretty much had this conversation with anyone that will listen! Today's post is all about experiences that you can gift instead of stuff!

Experiences last forever. Sure there are those special gifts you treasure, but sometimes it's fun to gift an experience instead. Your memories and feelings about those experiences might not always be in the forefront of your mind, but then you'll see something and everything will come rushing back. It's the gift that keeps giving (in a good way!).

Here are some of my favorite ideas for gifting an experience! My ideas are specific to my local area, but the ideas can be adapted to where you live too!

Tickets to a show at a local theater or gift cards to a local theater. 

In Durham we have the Durham Performing Arts Center, also known as DPAC.  Every year, a wide variety of comedy shows, concerts and Broadway plays are performed at DPAC.  I went on the site and pulled up some ideas!
Tickets to a museum!

The Triangle has some amazing and fun museums like the NC Museum of Art and Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh and the Museum of Natural Science in Durham.

Gift certificates to their favorite gym!

I admit that I'm putting this in here because it totally applies to me! I pay $99/month for my membership to my gym. I love it, it's worth every penny that I spend, but I would love for someone to help pay for a month! Gift cards can also be used on fun gym swag, like my bobble water bottle! Some ideas for gyms or studios local to the Triangle are Pure Barre, Flywheel, Burn Athletic, and the YMCA.  Or you could check out Class Pass, which allows people to try multiple gyms at one time! Gift the experience of a healthy lifestyle!

My latest gym swag from Burn - my bobble bottle

Travel gift cards!

I totally did not know that these exist, but they do! You can get gift cards for Air B&B, Uber, Southwest,, etc. I personally think that the gift of travel is an amazing idea!

Movie gift cards!

While you can do just a regular movie gift card, think about doing a gift card to one of the locations that does movies and dinner or movies and bowling! Ovation Cinema Grill in Holly Springs, Raleigh Grande in Northwest Raleigh, and CineBowl and Grill in Cary are all good options. 

Do stuff together as a gift!

One of my friends suggested that instead of gifts this year, we get pedicures together. I thought that was a genius idea! We will probably spend about the same amount of money, but we'll get more time together and have less stress of trying to find the perfect gift!

What about you? What are some of your favorite ways to gift an experience?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Giftting 2016: DIY Travel Map

I love a good map. I blame this entirely on working in an engineering firm for seven years. I also love to travel. So once we were mostly settled into our house, I decided that one of my first house projects was going to be a DIY Travel Map.  This also makes a fabulous gift for a new homeowner, a traveler, or even someone with an apartment. It's a daily reminder of where you've been and where you want to go.

This is my travel map!
Before we get started, let's be honest about this level of DIY. It's pretty basic. I don't DIY.  I have super creative friends and I gladly pay them for their creativity and their work. I like to think I'm creative, but not in a DIY way. If you are in any way worried about whether or not you can do this, trust me, you can.

So, let's do this!

Step 1 - What kind of map do you want?

Selecting the type of map is key. A lot of research went in to the type of map I wanted.  We will mostly do domestic travel, but we've both done international travel and I wanted to capture that. You can get domestic maps or international maps. I also seriously contemplated getting one of each, but thought that might be a bit much.  If it's a gift, think about the type of travel the person does. For example, if I was making one for my friend that loves cruises, I'd do an international map. But if I was making one for my friend and her husband that love road trips, I'd probably do a US map.

Step 2 - How big do you want it?

Personally, I think Steps 1 and 2 can be done interchangeably, but I think it helps to determine which map you want first. I say that because if you're doing international,you are going to want a big map.  Mine is 24" x 36". It's a monster, but you can get larger ones! You will want a larger map for the level of detail you'll need.  If you're doing a domestic map, you can probably get away with smaller. Either way, you want it to be big enough that there are plenty of cities for pinning opportunities!

This is what a 24" x 36" map looks like on my wall upstairs.

Step 3 - Find your map!

Okay, we're starting to get to the actual DIY portion. I used a political map and they are available in many forms.  They aren't sold in your box stores, at least not that I found, but can probably be found in a teacher store or like a bookstore.  Most are going to be online. Here are some options from Amazon:

Domestic (US) Maps

International Maps

Step 4 - Gather your supplies.

You're going to need a frame, foam core, spray glue, and map pins. I recommend finding a frame that a) doesn't have glass and b) doesn't have a back. I bought mine for $15 at a home store and it had both. There were cuts and blood involved. If you do a 24" x 36" map, you can easily find foam core for that size at a craft store. If you get a weird size map, you'll have to cut it down.  We ended up shaving some of the foam core off to get it to fit in the frame. I found the spray glue at a hardware store.  For the map pins, I found those on Amazon.  Here's the ones I got:

Step 5 - Mount your map. 

This gets a little tricky.  If you use a rolled map, you'll want to flatten it a day or two ahead of time. That will help with mounting it.  Once the map is flat, you'll want to evenly cover the entire foam core with the spray glue. We did this in the garage and then carried it upstairs to the office to attach the map.  Once you've sprayed the glue, do your best to line the map up and place it where you want it on the foam core. It's not the easiest thing in the world to do and definitely easier with two people.  Weight it down and let it dry at least overnight.  I recommend old literature books for holding down the map!

Flattening the map with my literature books. You can see the foam core and frame in the back.
Step 6 - Frame it.

Once your map is dry, slide it into your frame. Mine doesn't have a back and it holds really well. 

Step 7 - Pin your destinations or give it to the person to pin theirs!

This is the fun part! I chose map pins that came in different colors because it was important to me to accurately map our travels since we've traveled independently and with each other. Our colors are as follows: Blue for Aaron, Yellow for Sarah, Green for both (yellow and blue mate green seal anyone?!) and Red for home. Some people do it differently and do one color for where they've traveled, one for their next destination and another for where they want to go. If you're giving this as a gift, maybe go ahead and mark where home is and then give them the map to pin themselves. Pinning where you've been and where you want to go next is the best part!

These are most of our pins. 

My one lone pin in Japan.
I also came up with ground rules for pinning. Cause that's how I roll.  They are:
  • You have to have actually spent time in the place. Long layovers don't count. Otherwise I would have a pin in Tokyo!
  • You have to remember it. A place that your parents took you as a baby doesn't count
  • You can pin all the major cities listed (if you've visited them), but if you're doing smaller cities that aren't on the map, only use one pin in an area. This helps keep your map pretty!
This project cost about $60 from beginning to end. You can buy ones already completed on Etsy or Amazon for $100 and up.  It was a fun project to do with the hubby and we had fun pinning our travel destinations.  I think it's an awesome gift for someone that loves to travel. And if you do a smaller map, it's probably a more cost effective product! It really is so much fun to put your pins up. When we came back from Alaska this summer, I was so stinking excited to put up all my new green pins! It's truly one of my favorite things in my house and such a good way to remember our vacations and time away.  So often I feel like we build the anticipation of the trip, take the trip and then forget that it happened. Finding ways to remember experiences is important to me and this one is no different. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Gifting 2016: Homemade Gingerbread Spice Jelly

I have determined 2016 to be the year I rage against the stuff. Sometimes, I feel like we focus more on stuff than on life itself. And I'm over it. I've moved to a capsule wardrobe, downsized my make-up collection, and it's even manifested itself in how I gift. The only thing not affected is my shoe closet. That's not going anywhere. This week, I'm focusing my blog posts on gifts you can make and alternatives to buying more stuff. Just in time for Christmas in a couple weeks! Spoiler alert - nothing about this post is healthy.

A few years ago I stopped buying our friends gifts and started making them food gifts such as cookies and homemade jelly. Most of them even return their jars every year, which is much appreciated! This has grown from just our friends to our neighbors and now even our co-workers! It's such an easy idea that I thought I would share my favorite jelly recipe to make - Gingerbread Spice Jelly.

You're probably thinking that canning is something your grandmother did or that it's much more complicated than you can handle. Preserving it's having a moment. At least in my world it is. It's actually pretty easy and awesome.  I started canning because a) I grew up with women that canned and they won't always be around to make me pickled beets and sweet pickles and b) I once had a job that I could control nothing and this became my outlet. 

I started canning with the sole purpose of learning how to make pickled beets (because those in the store are disgusting), but found that I loved making jams, jellies and fruit butters. The first year I canned, I did a lot. I made way too much and we didn't eat all of it. Then I started making jellies as gifts. I made each family a full half pint jar and some other items and it was too much! Too much work and too much jelly. I finally found my happy place with 4 oz jelly jars. You can make a ton using the smaller jars and it turns out that's about as much as people want!

Before you get started making the jelly, you need a few items. Most can be found in your house!
  • Pot for making the jelly. This needs to be at least 4 quarts or more. I use my 5 quart soup pot or an 8 quart stock pot for the fruit jellies that bubble up a lot. This recipe doesn't bubble much at all so you can get away with a 4 or 5 quart pot.
  • Large stock pot for processing the jars. I have a pot I use specifically for this, it's a 16 quart stock pot. I prefer a wider pot so that I can use my round cake rack for the jars, but a regular stock pot works as well.  It just depends on how many jars you are trying to do at one time.
  • Basket or rack for the jars to sit on.  You want the jars off the bottom of the pot so the air/water can flow freely around them. I use a combination of a basket from a canning starter kit and a 9-inch cake rack. 
  • Funnel, jar lifter, and lid lifter.  These you can get in any of the canning sets, like this one.
  • Ladle, wooden spoon and slotted spoon.
  • Jars. If you follow the recipe, it's 5 half-pint jars. I use 4 oz jelly jars and usually get around 11 jars worth.Always prepare an extra jar or two just in case you have extra!
Once you have all that, you can get started!

When it comes to canning, I don't mess with recipes. There is one that I'm going to actually experiment on this weekend, but that's pretty rare. Home canning and preserving is not something that you really want to play around with. You know, botulism and all. Thankfully, this recipe is pretty easy and doesn't have any fruit in it. It is straight from Taste of Home and I'm not even going to alter it.

Here's the ingredients, then we'll get to the step-by-step. This recipe makes 5 half-pint jars or about 11 4-oz jars.

2 1/2 cups water
18 gingerbread spice tea bags
4 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened apple juice
2 teaspoons butter
2 pouches (3 oz each) liquid fruit pectin

1. Prep the jars.

If you are new to canning, I recommend you head over to my favorite canning site, Food in Jars, and read about processing. Her post, Boiling Water Bath Canning is a great tutorial on how to process the jars. I used her book, Food in Jars, and her site to teach myself how to can.  Before I do anything else, I go ahead and set up my jars in the pot for processing, cover them in water and start heating them up. It takes a long time to get all that water boiling and this helps sterilize the jars.

2. Make the jelly!

In your pot for making the jelly, bring the 2 1/2 cups water to a boil. Remove from heat, add the tea bags, cover and let steep for 30 minutes.

While the tea is steeping, I like to go ahead and measure out the sugar, the apple juice, the butter and get the pectin ready to go. In my experience, jelly goes from 0 to 60 in about 30 seconds and there is never as much time as you think. Also, if you are making multiple batches of jelly, make sure to buy your sugar in no less than 10 pound bags. You'll thank me when you aren't running out every other batch.

Once the tea has steeped, remove the tea bags with the slotted spoon. I like to drain the excess water out of the bags when pulling them out. Discard the tea bags to the trash.

Add the sugar, apple juice and butter. Bring to a full rolling boil over high heat, stirring constantly.

The mixture will go from the butter being in pieces, to a luxurious brown liquid.

Once you're at a full rolling boil, add in the pectin. Boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly.

This is what a full, rolling boil looks like.
Remove from heat and then skim off the foam.

This is why you skim off the foam. Ick.
3. Remove the jars from the pot and fill them.

The pot with the jars should have boiling water at this point. Pull the jars out with the jar lifter.

Once the foam has been skimmed from the top of the liquid, ladle it into the jars, leaving 1/4" head space.

Lids on, ready for bands.
Wipe the rims, apply the lids and screw the bands on fingertip tight. What that means is that you screw the bands on just tight enough to hold the lids on. You don't want them as tight as you can get them, just tight enough to hold the lids in place during processing.

4. Process the jars.

Put the jars back into the pot for processing. Make sure all jars are completely covered with water (some might have evaporated). Bring back to a full boil and process for 10 minutes.

Remove jars from the pot and let cool.  You should start hearing the glorious sound of popping. The popping signals that your jars have sealed and are good to go. A final test for sealing is to take the bands off and lift the jar by the lid. The lid shouldn't come off. If it does, it's not sealed. Any jars that don't seal, put them in the fridge.

5. Wrap em up!

In years past, I have gotten super creative trying to wrap these babies, but this year has been my favorite. I simply added a label for the jam, a round label with a stamp that says "From the Kitchen of Sarah Zinn," a package of shortbread cookies and some baker's twine. Sometimes, less is best!

Canning and making jellies is truly one of my favorite things. I love making it, I love eating it and, most of all, I love gifting it. I tell people all the time that my love language is food and it's true. I show my love by feeding people and canning is just one more way to do that.

What about you, what are some of your favorite food gifts? And, have I convinced you to try canning?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Hosting A Successful Cookie Exchange

This week begins three weeks of holiday party craziness for us. I don't know about you, but I think our friends all try to hold their own parties. Invitations used to come out in November or December, but they've slowly crept back into October as more of our friends have bought homes and want to host their own shindig. It's pretty much a race to see who can call what date first.  I, too, like to host, but I've found my niche in the Cookie Exchange.

My cookie gifts from the Cookie Exchange and homemade jam for my coworkers! 
I love to bake and I love to eat cookies. A couple years ago, I noticed that magazines were publishing articles about cookie exchanges. This sounded right up my alley, so I did some research. The idea is that instead of people baking a bunch of different cookies to give as gifts to friends, family and teachers, each person bakes a lot of one type of cookie and brings it to the exchange.  Then everyone "exchanges" cookies.  You make gifts with the cookies or you can take them home to your own family. For me, it's great because it's a low key party, I don't have to do a lot of prep and I get to hang out with my favorite ladies!

The array of cookies from last year's party!
This makes year three of my cookie exchange.  I've learned some pointers along the way and thought I would pass them along.  Because this is truly my kind of party!

1. Send invites out early.

I try to send out invites at least 6 weeks in advance.  This year, I sent them out November 1 since some people had already started calling Christmas party dates in October. It's crazy! Rule of thumb - give people four weeks early notice and have people list the cookies they are bringing two weeks ahead of the date. That lets everyone else know what will be at the exchange.  I also like to hold the exchange on Sunday. It's an easy party to hold in the afternoon and it gives people Saturday to bake.

2. Don't use Facebook.

I feel like at this stage of life (post 30), Facebook is just not the route to go for parties. Others still use it and it's okay, but it's not my cup of tea. I like to send invitations, to be creative about it. Paperless Post is my choice for sending out e-invites. I used them for my wedding save-the-dates and have used them ever since. There are so many free options to choose from, even ones specifically for cookie exchanges!  Here are some of the invites I've used in the past.

This year's invitation.

Last year's! He's probably my favorite.

The first one!
I also like to list the rules for the party. This is easily added to the invite. Pinterest has a good set of rules, but these are the ones I like:
  • Ladies only. No babies, kids or men.  This is one of the few times during the season that is actually down time. Yeah, it takes a little work in the beginning, but the time itself is really chill.
  • A date for cookie sign-up. This is necessary so you don't get a bunch of the same cookie.
  • All cookies must be handmade, nothing from the grocery store. They are from gifts, make them nice! People can buy cookies from a bakery (not a bakery in a grocery store) if something catastrophic happens in the kitchen.
  • The amount of cookies to bring. I do 1/2 dozen cookies per person. Some people do 1 dozen per person, but that gets to be a lot. 
You can also track the invites through the system. It makes life so easy!

3. Buy your wrapping supplies after Christmas. 

The first year I did this, I had people bring their own wrapping supplies and only bought enough for myself. Only a few people brought their own and they ended up using all of mine.  I learned my lesson! Now, I go out after Christmas and buy a bunch of food gift boxes, treat trays, treat bags, cupcake liners (great for separating cookies out in boxes), and ribbon when it's 50% off or more. You can get a lot for not a lot of money. If you need some now, you can find them on Amazon or in stores at Michael's, Joann's or AC Moore.  I also keep what we don't use from the previous year and add it to the stash for the next year.

Crafting and eating!
4. Don't make a lot of food, but have some snacks and drinks.

I love to cook and bake for people, so my default is to make a lot. Truthfully, though, most people will just want something to drink and maybe a few things to munch on.  Something as easy as Chex Mix works great.  I like to also do either a mimosa or a whiskey sour for a pitcher. If nothing else, I'll enjoy it!

5. Take the time to print out recipes for your guests. 

Another fun part of the cookie exchange is learning new recipes! I have everyone send me their recipes and then I use a free printable to print out the recipe.  Here are some free printables you can download and type the recipes into:

From How to Nest for Less

From Betty Crocker
From Botanical Paperworks

6. Invite fun people!

I don't invite a ton of people, about 10. My girls are fun, make good cookies and enjoy sitting down together to craft and eat. Yeah, it's an efficient way to get a ton of cookie gifts, but it's also a nice break from the insanity of the season. There aren't any kids or husbands or anyone demanding of your time for just a few hours.

If you like to host holiday parties, like some girl time and don't want to have a super stressful day preparing for a party - a cookie exchange is the way to go!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Amorino: A Blogger Night Out with Gelato!

When I first started blogging, it was really just a creative outlet for me. I'm an English major with a Writing minor that has a full-time job in federal regulation compliance. I don't get many opportunities to be creative during my day job, so this is how I feed my writing soul. But I never realized a) how many people blog and b) the opportunities that people give to bloggers! I joined TriFabb, a local blogger group, and we recently had a meet-up at Amorino, a brand-new gelato place in downtown Raleigh that serves classic Italian gelato.

When I found out that our November meet-up was at a gelato place, I was all "Yes, please!" Let me be super clear - I had to give up one of my favorite gym classes and spend an hour in rush-hour traffic to get to this meet-up. Totally worth it, though.

The owner and staff were so wonderful to work with.  Amorino had opened the week before and their trainer from New York was still there. She explained about the ingredients that Amorino uses and that locations are all over the world with 16 locations in the States. I love that one of those locations is in Raleigh! All of the gelato is made at a central location and then shipped to the stores.  Even their coffee is made in the Italian tradition!

Let's get to the good stuff - the food!

We began by sampling all of the gelato - and I do mean all! I tried at least eight different flavors and every single one was amazing! My two favorites were the lime basil and tiramisu.  I have a love affair going with tiramisu, so I decided to get a cone in all tiramisu, but you can choose up to four flavors! And if you get a cone, they make it look like a flower. How adorable is that?

They also use the gelato to make macarons.  I loved them so much that I bought 12 of them to take home to my husband and our friends.

Next up was my favorite - the hot drinks! We had an affogato - which is gelato with a shot of espresso. I could swim in these. For real.

We also had hot chocolate.  Their hot chocolate reminds me of a liquid truffle from my favorite place in Asheville, NC, the French Broad Chocolate Lounge.  It's thick and luxurious, not like your typical hot chocolate.  They also made us their famous Chocolate Experience.  I'm going to have to make my way back downtown for that experience!

I had so much fun at Amorino! The best part of the night was our project - writing Christmas cards for troops over seas.  Coming from a family full of military servicemen (and women) and growing up in a military town, I was so honored to be able to participate and help make someone's holiday a little brighter.  Plus, no one loves Christmas cards more than I do!

Amorino was such a fun experience! Since moving to Durham, we haven't ventured to downtown Raleigh as much.  The traffic is crazy and I'm old and cranky and the parking makes batty. But I'll be making an exception for Amorino. The staff is so nice, the gelato is amazing and I really need more of that Chocolate Experience in my life! Bonus - it's right across the street from the Redhat Parking deck, which soothes my downtown parking anxieties! If you have a chance, definitely check out Amorino!