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Friday Favorites: We’re Gonna ‘Starter’ Revoloution (aka Learning to Bake Sourdough)

Baking Sourdough Bread

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

The evolution of the Internet is often both a blessing and a curse. It has completely changed how we, as an entire global population, communicate, and in the process enabled amazing social change and the organization of grassroots movements on any number of issues. It’s also resulted in countless hours of wasted time watching cat videos, taking surveys to find out our secret superhero power and besting each other at SongPop.

But with all its good and bad, my favorite thing about the Internet is that now it is possible to learn how to do absolutely anything, without leaving your home. I’m harnessing that power right now to learn how to make sourdough bread (maybe that will ultimately be my secret superhero power?).

A word of warning–this is a project still in the works, folks. I’ll have to give you an update on success later. Right now, I’m working on “starting” a starter. In case you’re not much of a baker and unfamiliar with what a starter is,  it’s basically fermented dough that is used to “start” sourdough (as well as a number of other recipes). The starter creates a culture to grow naturally occurring yeast and bacteria (the good kind), which serves as the leavening agent for the bread (in other words, helps the bread rise), and gives the bread that wonderful distinctive tangy taste.

sourdough starter
The start of my starter. This is just after a “feeding,” so there isn’t a lot of bubbling…yet.

Years ago I tried to get a starter going, based on a short two paragraph set of directions from a cookbook somewhere. It didn’t go so well. On one hand, starting a starter is a pretty basic process–you mix flour and water, give it some time, add more flour and water, more time, more flour/water, and so on. On the other hand, it’s an inexact science and there is a lot of conflicting information out there, so  a lot of it is experimentation. All of my research indicates you can count on it taking at least a week to develop a “stable” starter, and that’s if everything goes right on your first try–which it may not. It can also take one to three months for the flavor to fully develop. So, if you plan on serving some authentic sourdough for a big family dinner this weekend, you probably should find a good local baker.

Anyhoo, I’m still trying to get my starter to the “stable” phase (meaning it will reliably double between additions of more flour and water–aka “feedings”), but hoping I might be able to try baking a loaf this weekend–that’s still up in the air though. In the meantime, I’ve identified a few more “favorite” resources I’ll pass along to you, if by chance you want to try your hand at sourdough.

The most exhaustive resource I found was at SourdoughHome. The level of narrative and explanation on the sourdough process was a little overwhelming and almost exhausting, but it definitely covers a lot of ground and provides a good understanding of the art and science of sourdough baking.

While SourdoughHome was the most comprehensive guide out there, Nourished Kitchen and Wild Yeast both offer a simple, concise guide to starters, so they’re worth checking out as well.

UPDATE: I baked my first sourdough today with my starter. It was not an “authentic” sourdough recipe, which would use only the rising action of the wild yeast in the starter, since 1) my starter isn’t rising reliably enough yet to use without added yeast and 2) that takes a lot longer and I didn’t really have that kind of time, since I wanted to have a loaf ready for the Kiddo to try before he went back to his mom’s this evening.

Baking Sourdough Bread


I used this recipe from King Arthur Flour. FYI, King Arthur Flour also offers a great tutorial for starting a starter, which I missed including in my earlier links. I had to give the bread about twice as long for the first rise as called for in the recipe, since my starter isn’t very strong yet. My bread had only a slight bit of that familiar sourdough twang, again because I’m working with a new starter, but it was still both Kiddo- and Guy-approved. Oh yeah, I kind of loved it too. 🙂

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Friday Favorites: Handmade Photo Coasters

Photo coasters

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

Photo coasters

If you recall, “Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs. Today’s favorite actually features an idea I found last November, and transformed a bit for my own purposes.

It started out with a search for “homemade Christmas presents,” which of course turned up a lot of things we’ve all seen a million times before, and given to teachers, co-workers, etc., or received ourselves. The results were primarily dominated by multiple versions of “cookie mix in a jar” or “brownie mix in a jar.”

I was, however, looking for something to give the adults in our family for Christmas, since we have all, at this point in our lives, agreed that we’d rather spend our money on the youngest family members. I wanted something meaningful, not something that would be forgotten about the next day, and within my limited crafting skill set. The last part was probably the hardest of the criteria.

The winner was this idea for Christmas coasters, made from tile, Christmas napkins, corkboard and a coating of Mod Podge. BUT, I didn’t really want to make something that could only be used at Christmas, and I was looking for something more personal. So I used the instructional as a jumping off point to make photo coasters. Since I’m a shutterbug, and since there had been two weddings in the family in the past year, I had lots of great photos to choose from. I wasn’t quite sure how the thicker photo paper would work with the Mod Podge compared to the napkins, but I picked up a couple tile squares from Lowe’s and did a test run, with great results!

I ended up making eight sets of these, so it took a bit of time and planning, but it was something I could work on a little at a time in the evenings while relaxing with the Guy watching TV. Both our families loved them, and everyone wanted to know how I’d made them (or where I’d ordered them!). FYI, the link instructions call for 4″x4″ plain white tile. I found slightly smaller and more decorative tiles that were on clearance, and I think the size was more suitable for a coaster, and I liked the look of them better.

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Re-Purposed Bulletin Board

Re-purposed Bulletin Board

Re-purposed Bulletin BoardThis bulletin board was kind of beat up and I didn’t have a good use for it, so we gave it a new look with a bit of acrylic paint, and re-purposed it as a “memory board,” where the Kiddo can pin favorite photos, ticket stubs from baseball games, etc. 

It was a pretty easy project, even for those of us who aren’t overly talented in the art department, and it was simple enough that the Kiddo, the Guy and I were all able to work on it together. I’d recommend painting the sides first, with some masking tape or painter’s tape around the inside edges. Painting the board itself will involve substantially more paint, since the corkboard soaks up a lot of paint. We used three coats of paint on the sides, but you may need as many as four for the corkboard to get it opaque enough.

The Bears’ “C” was made with stencil from an image I found online. The yard line markers on the top, as well as the field goal at bottom were freehand, but you could always decorate with decals instead. The Kiddo’s name is also painted along the bottom, but I have cloned that out for privacy reasons.

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Friday Favorites: Freezer Meals

spinach lasagna freezer meal
spinach lasagna freezer meal
Spinach Lasagna Rolls, ready for the freezer.

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

Yeah, that’s a lot of Fs. Okay, I admit, I’m a sucker for alliteration.

Now on to business. I think we’ve already established that I love to cook. As much as I love it, though, there are days when time, energy or both are running short, and it’s hard to pull together something healthy and satisfying.

Which is why I also love freezer meals. Making a double portion and freezing the extra, or investing an hour or two over the weekend prepping a meal or two for the week ahead can add up to big relief when you end up working late or come home with a headache from the strain of a crazy day.

I’m working on some adapting some recipes of my own as freezer meals and posting them here, but for the time being, here are some good places to look for freezer inspiration.

Slow-Cooker Freezer Meals. This awesome post from the Test Kitchen of Melissa Fallis will leave your freezer stocked with half a dozen or more “ready to throw in the crock pot” meals. The five featured recipes include a lot of common ingredients, so you can devote a bit of time chopping some produce and cutting/prepping the meat, then divvy up the ingredients in gallon freezer bags. Label the bags with the appropriate day of cooking directions and stash them in the freezer for a busy day. Transfer your bag of choice to the refrigerator the night before you’re ready to cook it. The next morning, dump the bag’s contents in slow cooker, adding sauce or other liquid per the directions on the bag.

This SkinnyTaste post on adapting recipes to make freezer meals offers a sample of freezer-ready made meals, including Spinach Lasagna Rolls. I tried these out a few months ago when I was looking for something that I could make for a friend whose wife has a long-term illness,so he would have something easy he could just throw in the oven for dinner. I made an extra batch for home, and got a thumbs-up from the Guy. Bonus–they are a good bit simpler than a full lasagna, and if you’re not cooking for a crowd, you can bake just the amount you need.

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Warning: Construction Zone

This blog is still relatively new, and as such, it’s still a work in progress. And there’s a lot of work to be done.

On the content side, I’m trying to develop some variety, and add a few themed features, like the newly-added “Friday Favorites.”

Looking at my visitation stats, it’s interesting to note that the most popular post to date has been “DIY CoCo Wheats.” With that in mind, I’m planning another feature, called “Make Your Own.” These might not be every week features, like “Friday Favorites,” but I think you’ll find them handy. We’ll look at how to make your own baking mixes, energy bars and a whole host of other things that can easily be made at home healthier and usually cheaper than the store-bought varieties.

On the design side, there may be even more work to be done. I need to develop a memorable header to start building my “brand,” and I desperately need to find a theme that is a little more flexible and functional.

It might be slow progress at times, but I’ll get there eventually!

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Friday Favorites: Cake, Hazelnut and Wedding Memories

Homemade Wedding Cake

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

A week from Sunday, the Guy and I will be celebrating our first wedding anniversary! I truly cannot believe it’s already been almost a year. Our whole day was very simple and very special. We kept the celebration small, with only immediate family members and a handful of our closest friends. Even then, since we have lots of siblings with lots of kiddos of their own, there were still around 30 people there.

Keeping the guest list short was key to keeping the day simple. And that was critical to us, since we wanted to make sure everything was stress free and focused on what was important–starting our new life together. At the same time, we really wanted to celebrate with as many friends and family as possible, so we came up with a compromise, and hosted a reception celebration six months later.

We had an informal luncheon for our attendees after the ceremony, and most of the food was made by myself or family. In keeping with that feel, much of the food at our later reception was made by friends who volunteered their services, and I decided to tackle the formidable–our cake.

I know how to bake a delicious cake, but I’ve never been great at decorating, so I turned to the Internet for help, and found this great tutorial on frosting a layered cake from Whisk Kid. If you’re like me and are crazy enough to make your own wedding cake, this tutorial is a great place to start.

Instead of attempting a tiered cake, I bought a cake stand with three layers, and made two layered cakes, with cupcakes adorning the top layer of the stand. I also kept my decorations simple–no fancy frosting techniques–by using a stencil along with colored sugar and chocolate shavings to create a sunflower design (in keeping with our wedding theme). A pretty ribbon around the bottom made it almost look professional.

Homemade Wedding Cake
The two cakes I made for our wedding reception–one chocolate and one butter pecan. Both had hazelnut espresso frosting.

One of the cakes and all of the cupcakes were chocolate, and made from scratch using Hershey’s classic “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake recipe. It’s hands-down the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had, and it is well named–it comes out perfectly every time I make it. The second cake was made from a mix–Betty Crocker’s SuperMoist Butter Pecan flavor. I usually prefer scratch-made, but this mix is sooo good, I don’t think I could beat it at home.

The Hazelnut Espresso frosting was what put the whole thing over the edge. The idea originally came from this post on Erica’s Sweet Tooth. But she used a hazelnut mousse for her cake, and I needed a buttercream frosting in order to make a cake that I could actually decorate, and would hold up to sitting out for a bit during the reception. So, I took a basic buttercream recipe and mixed in 1/2 cup of Jif’s Mocha Cappucino hazelnut spread.

The end result? The cake didn’t look perfect, but I was pretty pleased, considering my lack of experience. And as far as taste, well…that was absolutely perfect. 🙂

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Birdfeeder bonanza

Hanging a bird feeder

The Kiddo decided he’d rather make the bird feed cakes than the homemade playdough, so that’s what we went with. Since I wasn’t sure which he’d pick, I hadn’t bought the supplies yet, so we made a quick run to the closest grocery store. Basically, all we would need was a bag of bird feed, unflavored gelatin and cookie cutters. We left the store with one out of three, and ironically, it was the one thing I’d expected I might have to make another stop for–the birdseed. Turns out the pet food selection was better than the people food options, since they no longer carried gelatin. Likewise, there no cookie cutters in the kitchen supplies.

Since the other stores most likely to carry the gelatin and cookie cutters were Walmart, which makes me want to cause bodily harm to myself and/or others, or Harris Teeter, which is completely on the other side of town, we decided on Plan B–using a mix of peanut butter and shortening to hold the bird seed together, and making them into simple circles instead of fun cookie cutter shapes.

We melted equal parts of the peanut butter and shortening (probably about half a cup each) over low heat, then stirred in about as much bird seed as the mixture could handle. I likened the result to rice crispy treats for birds.

Per the suggestion in Prudent Baby’s post, we subbed out mason jar lids for the cookie cutters. But, our mixture of PB, shortening and bird seed was way too much for the few lids I had, so pulled down a muffin tray and filled it up too.

Homemade bird feed cakesHomemade bird feed cakes







Once our molds were filled, we put them in the freezer overnight to firm up. The sun came out nicely Sunday for the Guy to hang them:

Hanging a bird feeder

We ended up with about 15 bird feed cakes, so after hanging a couple of them, I wrapped the rest in plastic wrap and tossed them in a gallon-sized freezer bag–now we’ll be feeding the birdies all spring! And yeah, I labeled the bag–these bad boys look too much like the baked oatmeal cups I’ll share with you soon to take any chances.

Homemade bird feed cakes

Homemade bird feed cakes

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Friday Favorites: Kid Krafts to Fight Winter Doldrums

Friday Favorites is a new weekly feature on MyOvergrownZenGarden, with my favorite finds from across the web.

The balance we’ve looking for with the Kiddo the past few months is between tech time (read: playing Minecraft or watching YouTube tutorials on Minecraft) and non-tech time. He bought the Minecraft game for his Xbox 360 right after his birthday this fall, which fell conveniently at the time when the weather was getting colder and nastier, so there were less options for outdoor activities.

It’s easier to limit his tech time and make sure his brain doesn’t turn to mush by offering some other fun indoor activities that will hold his interest. Among some of our go-to to-dos are board games (chess is the game du jour), reading and Lego construction. I’m trying to add some crafty projects in the mix. For Thanksgiving, we tried these unique fall leaf candle holders, with mixed results–they were harder than they looked and not as pretty as the pictures, but lots of fun.

This weekend, I’m hoping to try one of the following:

Jello playdough. A quick online search finds lots of homemade playdough recipes. This particularly recipe piqued my interest because of the pretty colors and the built-in olfactory bonus.

Cookie Cutter Birdfeeders. It’s getting close enough to spring that the birds are starting to come out, and we have a tree in the backyard that would be perfect for these!

Whichever of these we tackle, updates on the success (or dismal failure) of said adventures are sure to follow!

And now it’s sharing time–what are your favorite winter activities for bored kiddos?


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It’s not all about food

There are hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of food blogs out there. This isn’t necessarily one of them.

Although it might seem that way. Right now.

Nearly all of my posts so far have been food/cooking related. When it comes to “finding balance” in my life, food plays a big role. That’s not a bad thing–food is our fuel for living, so what we put into our bodies is important. A lot of the food that’s readily available today, particularly in our fast-paced lifestyles, is pretty poor fuel. At the same time, delicious food can bring a lot of enjoyment–as an indulgence for our senses, through the creative expression of preparing it and through the togetherness of friends and family that it can create during shared meals.

Because food is so essential, complicated, time-consuming, expensive and, yes, even addictive (hello, Reese’s Peanut Butter cups), finding a balance among all these elements is a never-ending endeavor. I love enjoying hearty, satisfying comfort food, but it’s also important to know that I am giving my body what it needs to be healthy, and setting an example of nutrition and moderation for my stepson. So I use creative, low-fat substitutes for my favorite homestyle meals, to balance my cravings with my health needs. The health angle has become increasingly important to me as I see what our eating patterns have to done to the health of those I care about, and even to my own health a few years ago.

So, yes, there have been a lot of posts about food, and there will continue to be plenty more–about how to make it healthier and still tasty, about how to feed your family well without emptying your back account or spending all day in the kitchen, and, sometimes, just about how to, once in awhile, indulge. I also love learning how to take on new challenges in the kitchen, so if I learn to do something new, I’ll probably share it.

But there are other areas of life that call for balance, and I plan to address those too–balance between work and home, family time and “me” time, exercise and a little R&R. Right now I’m looking for ways to balance the Kiddo’s love of all things technology,  particularly Minecraft, with an appreciation for the low-tech, like board games and weekend camping trips.

This blog is a work in progress. The blog itself is a balancing act, since it’s one more commitment of my time and energy to balance among all the others. I have some ideas for ways to expand the focus from just food, and would love to hear your thoughts. One thing I’d like to do is to add some regular, themed features. My first idea is to have a “Friday Favorites” feature, where I’ll share some of my favorite tips, tricks and insights from other bloggers.

If you have topics you’d like to see on here, or just thoughts you’d like to share, please comment below. You don’t even have to register–just play the little “drag the right picture” game so I know you’re a real person and not a spam machine!

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Organizing the chaos

Organizing recipes
Organizing recipes
My chaotic recipe collection–part of it.

At one time, I had an organized recipe collection. It was a pretty basic system–handwritten recipes on  note cards in a small plastic card file box. But both the number of recipes in my collection and the sources from which I pull recipes have grown significantly over the years, and my neat little file box is not so neat anymore.

In the file box itself are the note card recipes, along with small clipped recipes (from product packaging, etc.), and several recipes that were written on whatever paper was handy at the time by the person passing along the recipe, which have now been folded to fit into the box.

There’s also an overflowing file folder of recipes I’ve printed on letter-sized paper, recipes that I have save in my “recipe box” at, and recipes from all over the web, for which my sole reference for locating is the pin I’ve placed on my Pinterest account. Oh, and I also have a few recipes on my phone’s photo gallery–sometimes when I find a recipe in a magazine that isn’t mine, I just snap a pic of it with my phone.

It’s time to organize the chaos. The internet is a great resource, and I’ve been known to set up the laptop or our cheap little tablet computer on the kitchen counter to reference a recipe, but I still think the index cards are hard to beat. The laptop takes up a lot of space, the tablet is kind of slow (hey, I said it was a cheapo one), and there’s something to be said for a medium that can’t be easily damaged by food drips. Hint–if you’re browsing someone else recipe collection, the recipes with the most stains are probably keepers, since they’ve obviously seen a lot of use!

So my new project is to figure out the easiest method to convert all my favorite recipes from their current form to a neat little index card, short of transcribing them all myself. has a printing option for note card size, so that one should be easy. I’m wondering if there is some kind of text conversion program for images that I could use to convert the cell phone pic recipes, and maybe even the clipped recipes and those that are on letter paper?

Then again, maybe I could just convince some optimistic college student to take on the whole project as an “marketing internship” at this great new entrepreneurial blog I’ve launched? A girl can dream, can’t she? Anyway…I’m open to suggestions. Leave ’em in the comments!