Five Festive Christmas Cookies to Share with Family and Friends

What’s Christmas without cookies?

A plate of warm Christmas cookies can help you bond with the neighbors, and taking a tray to the office is a sure way to win points with your co-workers. Christmas cookies can also be a fun part of frugal holiday gift-giving.

Every year, Kris and I assemble holiday gift bags to give to our friends. We fill these with candy and cards and candles and books and other small things we’ve gathered year-round. And we always include lots of home-made cookies.

This Sunday, Kris will spend all day in the kitchen with her sister Tiffany and friend Eila. They’ll be on a cookie-baking bonanza. They’ll use some classic recipes, of course, but this year they’ll also be making one of Kris’ new discoveries: the Oreo truffle. She’s already made two batches for friends and co-workers, and they’ve drawn rave reviews.

Because it’s the last weekend before Christmas — and because the video post I’d originally planned for today has run into technical difficulties — Kris has agreed to share five of her favorite Christmas cookie recipes. Yum.

Note: Cookies are inherently bad for your diet. Consume in moderation. Substitute organic, low-fat, or sugar-free ingredients as desired.

 

The first recipe makes a festive cookie:

Minty Chocolate Crinkles

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1-1/4 tsp peppermint extract
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup peppermint candies
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar

 

Combine oil, cooled chocolate and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition. Stir in extracts. Add blended flour/salt/baking powder. Chill dough several hours or overnight.

Grind peppermint candies in coffee mill until reduced to a powder. Measure 1/4 cup peppermint candy powder and mix with powdered sugar in a small bowl.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll teaspoonfuls of dough into balls. Roll in the powdered mixture until well-coated. Place 2″ apart on a greased baking sheet and bake 10 minutes — they will look underbaked. Cool on tray for 2 minutes and remove to a wire rack. Makes 72.

 

The second recipe makes a frugal Christmas cookie:

Molasses Spice Cookies

  • 1-1/2 cups shortening
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 tsp EACH of baking soda, ground ginger, cloves and cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt

 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream together shortening and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs and molasses, blending well. Add dry ingredients and mix slowly to combine. Place spoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet, about 2” apart. Bake 8-9 minutes. Makes 48.

 

The next Christmas cookie is a fancy cookie (er, candy):

Nut Brittle

  • 1 cup dry roasted salted peanuts
  • 1 cup pistachios
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup light corn syrup
  • 2 tsp honey

 

Line a rimmed baking sheet with Silpat or buttered parchment paper (do not use wax paper!). In a heavy saucepan, mix all ingredients over medium-high heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until it becomes a nice amber color and thickens — about 10 minutes. You will know you are done when you smell the first hint of burnt sugar, so pay attention!

Quickly pour onto the baking sheet and spread to cover. Cool for 4 minutes and then score the brittle with a pizza cutter or sharp knife into about 36 pieces. Once it has cooled completely, snap along scored marks.

Note: Good with other varieties of nuts, but be sure to include some peanuts.

Options: Add 1/2 tsp espresso powder for a coffee brittle (with hazelnuts). Scatter chocolate chips over warm brittle; press in or spread when melted.

 

The fourth recipe features a family-friendly Christmas cookie:

Chocolate Marshmallow Sandwiches

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup butter or margarine, softened
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 24 large marshmallows
  • sugar for rolling

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt in a bowl and set aside. Beat butter and sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in corn syrup, egg, and vanilla. Gradually add flour mixture. Beat at low speed, scraping down bowl. Refrigerate 15 minutes.

Place 1/2 cup sugar in a shallow dish. Form tablespoons of dough into 1-inch balls, then roll in sugar to coat. Place 3 inches apart on a greased baking sheet. Bake 10-11 minutes or until set. Cool completely on a wire rack.

On a paper plate, invert one cookie, top with a marshmallow and microwave for 12 seconds (or until marshmallow is hot). Immediately press another cookie, flat side down, to form a sandwich. Makes 24.

 

And the final Christmas cookie recipe makes a fun cookie — the afore-mentioned Oreo truffle. These are pure evil:

Oreo Truffles

  • 18 ounces Oreo cookies
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 14 ounces chocolate candy coating
  • sprinkles, nuts, white chocolate

 

Cover a cookie sheet with waxed paper. Crush cookies in a food processor until fine. Dice cream cheese and add to food processor. Process until no streaks of cream cheese are visible. Transfer to a bowl and chill 45 minutes.

Make small balls using a cookie dough scoop and place on baking sheet. Chill 15 minutes. Melt the chocolate (microwave or double boiler). Dip chilled candy balls into chocolate coating and return to the sheet. Chill until set, then store in the fridge in an airtight container. Makes 30.

 

One of these days, I really will compile a GRS cookbook. (Maybe Trent and I could join forces.) I’d love to share the favorites from our kitchen. (Well, it’s mostly Kris’ kitchen, of course. I’m mainly just there to chop onions and make clam chowder.)

Until then, what are your favorite Christmas cookie (and candy) recipes? Do you have any special traditions that go with the baking — or the sharing? Are any of your Christmas cookies especially frugal? Share your tips below!

(And don’t forget to leave out a plate of cookies for Santa!)

Photo by Ana Branca.

Two Frugal Summer Recipes: Thai Tuna Salad and Asian Pickles

On Monday, I wrote about our frugal weekend. One of the little things I mentioned doing was mixing up a large batch of Thai tuna salad to use for sandwiches during the week. Yum!

Several readers asked me to share my recipe, so I tracked down the cookbook that served as the original source for this Thai tuna salad. It’s Thai Cooking Made Easy by Sukhum Kittivech (which contains both Chinese and English text). This is a no-frills cookbook, but it’s perfect for me. Just lists of ingredients, bare-bones descriptions, and photos of the finished product. And the food tastes great!

Here’s the original Thai tuna salad recipe:

Stir together 1 Tablespoon fish sauce, 1 Tablespoon lime juice, 1 teaspoon brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon minced chili. Pour this sauce over 1 Tablespoon chopped green onion, 1 Tablespoon minced lemongrass, 12 mint leaves, and a total of 1-1/2 cups of shredded onions and celery. Mix these ingredients together. Drain 1/2 pound (225g) canned tuna and stir it into the mixture.

Note: To prepare the lemongrass, trim off the hard skin. Mince the upper tender portion.

The original recipe suggests using this tuna salad with rice or on small crackers as an appetizer, or using with lettuce to make a “delicious sandwich”. I opt for the delicious sandwich variation.

However, I usually make a couple of changes to the recipe. First, I always mince a clove or two of garlic and add them to the mix. Second, I don’t always include the crunchy stuff; I often just use the liquid mixture (with the sugar and chili). Finally, I think the tuna salad ends up a little dry, so I like to double the fish sauce and the lime juice in the recipe.

Also note that the recipe calls for 225g of canned tuna, which is completely random, at least here in the U.S. Our cans of tuna contain roughly 140g of the stuff! I usually play with the proportions.

I guess what I’m saying is: My kitchen philosophy is similar to my money philosophy. I believe you should “do what works for you”“. That means taking this base Thai tuna salad recipe and experimenting with it until you find a variation that reflects your personal palate.

Note: This recipe is pretty darn frugal, and it’s actually fairly healthy. But if you’re concerned about mercury in canned tuna, then proceed with caution.

 

Kris has been making her own Asian-esque food lately. She was hoping that since I like Asian cuisine (in fact, I say that if I was forced to eat only one kind of food, that’s what I’d want it to be), I’d like one of her recent experiments: Asian-Inspired Quick Pickles from one of her favorite new blogs, Food in Jars.

These are crunchy refrigerator pickles; no cooking required. Unfortunately, since I can’t stand cucumbers, she’ll have to eat these pickles all by herself. She thinks they’re pretty good and says it’s perfect for when you just have a small number of cucumbers — not enough to process a full batch. Here’s her adapted recipe based on the original:

  • 5-6 pickling cucumbers (4-5″ in length), quartered into spears
  • 1 red chili pepper (or several if you like things hot)
  • 1 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar (rice wine vinegar that has sugar & salt added)
  • juice of 2 limes
  • 3-4 scallions or shallots, chopped
  • 2-4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
  • 4 springs of cilantro, thai basil or mint — roughly chopped
  • 1/2 tsp pickling salt

Into an empty quart jar, put half the garlic and half the onions (shallots or scallions). Pack the cucumber spears into the jar so they stand neatly on end. Slide the pepper(s) between the cukes (on the outside of the jar so it shows up nicely). In a 2-cup measuring cup, mix the seasoned rice wine vinegar, lime juice, remaining garlic and onions, herbs and salt. Pour over the cucumbers. Screw a lid on the jar and give it a good shake.

Let sit for 24 hours and up to 3 weeks in the fridge. When all the spears are gone, you can add another set of speared cucumbers to make another batch.

So, there you have it! Two Asian-flavored recipes for these hot summer days. I love the tuna, and Kris loves the pickles. Hopefully you’ll love one of them — or both!

Our Frugal Weekend

I haven’t written much about frugality here lately. Because of that, you might think it’s become less of a priority for me. That’s simply not the case, although sometimes it feels that way — even to me. “I’m worried about our spending,” Kris told me early last week. “I feel like it’s a little out of control.”

“Really?” I said. We’ve had a couple of big expenses lately — painting the house, for example — but I don’t think our habits are too out of line. The real problem is probably the potential spending we see on the horizon:

    • We need to replace our 15-year-old mattress, for example. I don’t sleep well on it, although I sleep fine on other mattresses.

 

    • Meanwhile, I’ve been pricing new bicycles. I’m not certain I’m going to buy one, but I’m considering it.

 

  • Finally, we’ve begun to budget for our next big vacation: a trip to France and Italy next year. (Or the year after.)

With these spending goals looming, I suspect that Kris is feeling pinched. Still, after her observation about our frugality (or lack thereof), we’ve been trying to make smarter choices. This weekend, for example, was filled with frugality.

Home improvement and potlucks
Friday evening, Kris co-hosted a wedding shower — a frugal wedding shower. Kris and her co-workers made all of the food and drinks themselves. Kris made the flower arrangement. They didn’t spend money on decorations or games or prizes. “We didn’t need to spend a lot to have a party,” Kris told me afterward. “We just had good food and good friends and enjoyed each other’s company.”

On Saturday morning, we made a short drive to pick up 40 iris rhizomes, which Kris found on Craigslist for a dollar a piece. As we loaded them in the car, she was almost giddy with glee. “You don’t realize how big of a bargain this is,” she said. “I paid $1 per plant. At the iris gardens, these would be $10 or $20 or $30 per rhizome! Plus she gave me eight extra plants.”

Note: I have trouble getting excited about flowers. But when I frame it in terms that makes sense to me — like comic books — I can understand Kris’ enthusiasm. If I found 48 comics that should sell for $20 each, I’d be stoked if I could purchase the entire lot for $40.

 

On the drive home, we stopped at the hardware store to buy compost and topsoil so we could build a new iris bed. We also bought a “sweep” for the mudroom door, which should help keep the heat in during the winter. Finally, we bought a gallon of Van Deusen Blue paint. We recently paid to have the exterior of our home painted, but we’re going to do the porches ourselves.

During the afternoon, Kris planted her irises while I prepped the porches for painting. In the evening, we went to a potluck barbeque. Kris made a potato salad (using Yukon Golds she had purchased on sale) and we took a bottle of wine. In exchange, we received good food and good conversation.

On Sunday, we attended our monthly book group. This gathering is one of the highlights of our month, and a great example of frugal fun. Most members get the book selections through the public library, and the food is generally home-grown or home-made. Again, we felt like we obtained an excellent return on our minimal investment.

Note: These sorts of activities are valuable not only because they’re inexpensive, but also because they increase social capital, that societal glue that makes neighborhoods stronger.

 

We also did a lot of other little things this weekend. Here are some of the other ways we saved money:

    • On Friday, I biked to the grocery store for a gallon of milk. We try to limit our grocery shopping to once every two or three weeks, but we make supplemental trips for dairy and produce.

 

    • I picked peas from the garden. In fact, I picked a record crop — nearly a kilo on Saturday alone (bringing our total for the year up to about 3.5kg).

 

    • Kris picked cucumbers and made pickles.

 

    • We stopped by the Asian market. It has great prices and fun items, but we’re rarely in the neighborhood, so we try to visit it when we can.

 

    • I mixed up a large batch of Thai tuna salad to use for sandwiches all week long. Cheap and tasty!

 

 

    • I rode my bike to book group. Kris points out that this didn’t really save us anything since she drove her car, but still… (Part of this ride was to help me determine whether I want/need to replace my bike. Answer? Undetermined.)

 

    • I figured out how to retrieve the sink plug from the bathroom drain. I’d been dreading this task (and had even thought of calling a plumber), but it was easy.

 

    • When I confessed that I’d recently pruned my extension cord while trimming the hedges, my friend Andrew offered to show me how to repair it. The job’s not done, but will be soon.

 

 

A penny saved is a penny earned
“We had a perfect weekend,” Kris said as we got ready for bed last night. “And it didn’t cost a lot.” These days of frugal fun helped us to see that we haven’t lost our way, that our spending isn’t actually out of control.

I don’t want to make it sound like we’re frugal angels, though. We’re not. Next weekend, for example, we have tickets to see The Decemberists in concert. (Again!) Plus, I’m hoping we can go to Gino’s for dinner on Friday; it’s been a couple of weeks since Kris and I dined out together.

For me, this weekend was yet another reminder that frugality matters. By making smart choices most weekends, we’re able to afford concerts and dinners out on others. And, more importantly, this everyday frugality means that we’re able to spend money on those things that are more important to us, like a new mattress or a new bicycle — or a trip to Europe.

3 Easy and Delicious Ways to Preserve Your Berry Harvest

Berry season is beginning in Oregon. Strawberries ripen first, and they’re followed quickly by raspberries, blueberries, currants, and blackberries! While these berries are ripe in your area, prices can be so low (especially if you pick them yourself) that you’ll want to stock up.

But what should you do with all of that fresh fruit? Here are three techniques to make those berries do double duty (now and later). These methods are so easy that it’s just silly not to use them.

Freeze the berries whole
The secret to freezing berries whole is to freeze them first and then pack them. Find a cookie sheet that will fit in your freezer. Line it with waxed paper, and load it with clean, de-stemmed berries in a single layer, spacing them so they’re not touching. Freeze until solid (an hour or two), and then pack into freezer container or Ziploc bags.

Doing this will prevent the berries from clumping together and forming a solid mass, which will allow you to use just the amount you want without thawing them all. You can usually get away with skipping this step with blueberries; they have a natural waxy layer than helps keep them separate.

Whole berries from the freezer are perfect for making smoothies. Don’t thaw them — they’ll function sort of like berry-ice cubes to chill the smoothies as they flavor them. I like to combine lowfat vanilla yogurt, over-ripe bananas, frozen berries, and a bit of fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Thawed, whole berries make wonderful cobblers and crisps. I freeze some bags intended for “mixed berry cobbler”. As different berries ripen over the season, I freeze them and add a bit of each kind to the bag, creating a mixture of berries that is ready to thaw and bake. I generally don’t sweeten mine as I freeze them, but if you know you’ll be adding sugar for a particular recipe later on, you can add it now. The sugar helps the berries survive the cold storage.

Purée and freeze
Berry purée is wonderful drizzled over vanilla ice cream or other desserts such as cheesecake, poundcake, or angel food cake. But my favorite use for purée is to make thirst-quenching berry lemonade. I prefer not to mix berries for this, as I like the unique flavor of each. For each 12 ounces of frozen lemonade concentrate, you’ll need about 2 cups of berry purée — plus sweetener and/or lemon juice to suit your taste.

With your blender, simply purée the berries (use strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries), pour into a Tupperware (or reuse large yogurt containers), and freeze. With strawberries, I like to leave it a bit chunky. With seedy berries like raspberries or blackberries, I purée it and pass it through a sieve to remove the seeds before freezing.

When you’re ready to make the berry lemonade, simply mix the lemonade concentrate, the amount of water called for in the package directions, and two cups of berry purée (completely thawed, or partially thawed to a slush). Stir and taste. You may want to add a bit more sweetener (or fresh lemon juice if you like things really tart). Serves about 6. This mixture also makes great popsicles! You can also freeze the berry purée in ice cube trays and just add a bit at a time to drinks over the summer.

Strawberry Bowl
Our strawberry plants started producing early this year!

 

Make freezer jam
Some people (like J.D.) prefer freezer jam to cooked jam. It often has a softer texture, brighter color and fresher taste. And because it’s frozen, there are never any worries about whether it’s been safely canned.

In addition, you can make freezer jam with little investment in equipment. If you have the freezer space, it’s well-worth making the small effort it requires to whip up a batch. I try to make enough to last us ’till the next year’s berry crop.

Simply follow the directions on a package of pectin, or do a Google search for “berry freezer jam recipe“. Making freezer jam is extremely simple, and can take less than half an hour! Just be sure to stir your jam until the sugar is fully dissolved, or the crystals will give it a grainy texture.

On a nippy winter morning, toast and homemade jam are a treat! Because of its soft consistency, you can also try zapping the thawed jam in the microwave for a bit and then pour it over pancakes, waffles, or thick French toast. Yum! You might even get hooked on freezer jam and decide to delve into other fruits later in the season. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, and nectarines lend themselves well to this technique.

No matter what’s ripening in your neck of the woods, try to preserve some food while prices are low. Buying fruits and vegetables that are in season is like finding a sale on produce. And purchasing locally-grown foods when you can helps nearby farmers, too. But the best reason is the taste: food allowed to ripen fully before it is picked just tastes better, so get out there and pick some today — then load your freezer with summer’s bounty.

Smoothie photo by Dannynic. Berry photo by J.D.

A very small adventure: Riding the bus

I had a big day today, though I’m sure many of you will laugh: I rode the bus for the first time.

Actually, I’ve been on buses many times before. I rode a school bus as a child, and I’ve used public transportation in other towns. I’ve even used the light-rail trains here in Portland. But I had never used the city’s bus system until this afternoon.

Brave New World

I took my new-used Mini Cooper to the dealer this morning for the inspection I should have requested before I purchased it. Also, the car was due for its 60,000-mile service.

While it was in the shop, I walked around downtown Portland, taking a day to play hooky from the blog. I ran some errands. I shopped for my mom’s birthday presents. (She’s 61 today.) I had lunch with a friend.

After we finished eating, I called the dealer, crossing my fingers that there wouldn’t be any bad news. I’m pleased to report that there’s nothing major wrong with the vehicle — just normal wear-and-tear. I dodged a bullet. (The next time I buy a used car, however, I’ll be sure to have it inspected first.)

All the same, there are a couple of small things that need done, including the repair of a leaking power-steering fluid line. “Can we keep the car overnight?” the dealer asked.

“Sure,” I said. But I was really thinking , “How will I get home?” I thought of how much I paid for taxi fare in San Francisco last week. Then I remembered that Kris used to work just two blocks from where I was standing. She used to ride the bus to-and-from work. Why couldn’t I take it home?

I lucked out; the bus I wanted was pulling to the stop just as I arrived. I hopped on board, fumbling my way through the process. “How much?” I asked the driver. He grunted and pointed at a placard listing the fares: $2.30 for an all-zone pass. I put three one-dollar bills into the ticket machine. “Where’s the change?” I asked. The driver grunted and pointed to another placard that noted there’s no change for bus fare.

Half an hour later, I stepped off the bus about a mile from our home. Another pleasant fifteen minutes of walking saw me safely to the door.

A Small Victory

I realize this is a fairly minor accomplishment, and that many of you won’t see the merit in this. That’s okay. It’s a big deal to me. For years I’ve avoided the bus because I didn’t know how it worked, and because I didn’t know how cost-effective it was. Today I took a chance and just did it. I’ve added another frugal weapon to my arsenal. When the Mini dealer calls tomorrow to say my car is ready, I’ll hop on the bus and head back downtown.

Because I’m that kind of geek, I calculated costs on my ride home. Is the bus cost effective? Is it time effective? I was curious. Here’s what I figured out:

  • The bus ride from downtown Portland to my neighborhood takes 30 minutes. It takes another 15 minutes to walk home. (There’s actually another line that runs closer — I’ll have to look it up.) It costs $2.30 per trip.
  • To drive from downtown Portland to our house takes about 20 minutes. If we use my estimated costs for the Ford Focus I recently sold, it comes to 36.1 cents per mile, or about $3.60 per trip.

So, a round trip from our home to downtown Portland costs $4.60 and takes about 90 minutes on the bus. It costs $7.20 and takes about 40 minutes by car. (Addendum: In the comments, Robert reminds me that to go downtown, I need to pay for parking. That’s true. That brings the total to $9 (or more) per round-trip.) Depending on which is more valuable to you — time or money — you might choose either the bus or a car. In my case, a car is usually the best choice. But I can certainly see how having the bus as an option could save me money sometimes (like today).

And I can understand how, for many people, public transportation can be a heck of a deal!

Note: I’m enjoying this working vacation. It’s been very productive. Although I’m eager to resume writing full time, I’m actually going to stretch this current batch of guest posts until the end of the month. I have some good guest articles on personal finance basics in the queue, and this will give me time to recharge my batteries so that I can come back even stronger in May!

A Frugal Dinner with Friends

Kris and I had dinner last night with our new acquaintances friends, Chris and Jolie. Dinner was fun. This was in part because our hosts made a point of preparing a frugal meal. “If you bring wine,” Chris told me on the phone, “bring something cheap. I can’t tell any difference from the good stuff.” I happily complied.

I love good food and good conversation, but the truth is I’d rather have a great talk with friends over ramen noodles than have a gourmet meal filled with awkward silences. Fortunately, we had both good food and good companions last night — and it didn’t cost a fortune.

Cooking one meal a year
For dessert, Jolie served some fantastic chocolate candies. “These are great,” I said. “Did you make them?”

“I did,” she said, grinning. “They’re just chocolate chips melted in the microwave and then topped with raisins and cranberries.”

“Well, they’re delicious,” I said. You can never go wrong with chocolate chips.

Our conversation turned to food preparation, and how different families have different habits. Some spend a lot on food. Some spend very little. Some prepare all of their meals at home. Some never cook at all.

“My mother only cooks one meal a year,” Chris said.

“One meal?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yeah,” said Jolie. “The only meal she cooks is Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s quite a production. She has a spreadsheet that lists everything that needs to be done. She has columns for everyone who is helping her, and rows that show what each person should be doing at any given moment.”

Kris and I were awestruck.

“She’s an engineer,” Jolie explained.

“What does she eat for the rest of the year?” Kris asked.

“A lot of Domino’s,” said Chris. “And Burger King. That sort of thing.”

“That must be expensive,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Chris. “But both of my parents are engineers. They can afford it.”

“And was it like that when you were growing up?” Kris asked.

“Yup,” Chris said. “Pretty much.”

The notion of eating out for every meal is foreign to me. I’m sure that people do it, but I can’t imagine the cost. When I was a boy, my family rarely dined in restaurants. My parents couldn’t afford it. We were poor. Now that I’m older, I eat out much more often — sometimes too often. But every meal?

McDonald’s every day
“I think Chris had quite a shock when we started eating at home,” Jolie said. “He grew up eating in restaurants. In college, he ate on campus. Then we spent four years overseas at a job where there were communal meals. Other people did the cooking. Eventually, though, we had to make our own food.”

Chris nodded. “When we got married, my goal was to be able to eat at McDonald’s every day. If we could do that, I thought we’d be rich.”

“McDonald’s?” Kris asked, screwing up her face.

“Those were my early days of goal-setting,” Chris said, and we laughed.

“You have to understand,” Jolie said, “when we got married, we had a budget of $30 a week for food. For both of us combined. That’s not very much. When your food budget is that small, you learn to pinch your pennies. Chris ate a lot of raviolis. I ate a lot of macaroni and cheese. And I’d buy the Wal-Mart brand because it was 33 cents per box. Kraft macaroni and cheese was better, but it cost twice as much.”

“Right,” said Chris. “And we each got $3 a week from the $30 to spend on special treats.”

“Little Debbies were 99 cents!” Jolie said.

Chris smiled. “I ate a lot of Zebra Cakes.”

I smiled, too. I was thinking of how I used to buy boxes of Jiffy muffin mixes when I was in college. Who needed chocolate cake or apple pie? Give me a 25-cent box of blueberry muffin mix and I was a happy camper.

30 bucks a week
Our conversation reminded me of a website that a friend sent me recently. 30 Bucks a Week is a blog chronicling the adventures of one couple in New York as they try to squeeze all of their home-cooked meals out of a $30 weekly budget. (This isn’t a militant experiment — the couple still eats in restaurants about once a week, and occasionally has alcohol. Those costs are not included in the $30.)

Reading 30 Bucks a Week, and speaking with Chris and Jolie, makes me realize how much lifestyle inflation has affected my eating habits. As I’ve earned more, I’ve spent more on food. My appetite has grown to match my income.

But expensive food doesn’t necessarily make me happier. Some of the best times Kris and I have had were when we were scrimping and saving, living on chicken noodle soup and Jiffy muffin mix. Though fine food can be a wonderful thing, the real pleasure of dining comes from the people you’re with. Good food doesn’t have to be expensive.

Five tactics for pursuing voluntary simplicity

One of my favorite personal finance bloggers is Philip Brewer at Wise Bread. He writes long, thoughtful articles about the philosophy of money, not just on tips and tricks to save at the grocery store.

Brewer recently posted a piece called “What I’ve Been Trying to Say” that summarizes his philosophy. Explaining why he believes voluntary simplicity can be a great choice for many people, he writes:

You can choose how you want to live. If you choose to live simply, you gain a certain kind of freedom. In particular, you’re free to choose to do the work that’s the most satisfying, rather than the most lucrative. Choosing to live simply doesn’t mean that you have to give up all the cool stuff you want. It means, rather, that you have to focus on a small number of wants — the ones that matter the most to you.

Brewer’s key idea is similar to that of Timothy Ferriss (of The 4-Hour Workweek): you are responsible for designing your own life. When you were young, other people determined how and where you lived. But as an adult, those choices are up to you.

Brewer suggests five tactics to make the most of these choices:

  1. Live intentionally. Decide what’s important to you and what you want to do with your life. Set goals. Be aware of why you’re spending your money. Try to make conscious decisions, and not just react out of emotion.
  2. Raise some capital. Personal finance isn’t all about saving, Brewer argues. It’s not all about living cheaply, either. It’s about finding a middle ground that works for you. But every goal will require some money to back it up. Prepare for emergencies, invest for the future, and use your money to support your values.
  3. Find your true calling. “Find meaningful work, so that you can spend your time doing something that you care about,” Brewer writes. Saving and investing don’t just yield financial benefits, he says, but they also allow you to choose a vocation instead of basing your job decisions only on salary.
  4. Do it yourself. This notion has figured prominently in my thinking lately: that whenever possible, I want to do things myself instead of paying to have them done. (This probably has something to do with the fact that I just spent several thousand dollars on a re-wiring project.) There’s a lot of satisfaction to be derived (and often money saved) from growing your own food, repairing your own home, and maintaining your own car.
  5. Value community and experiences over stuff. You are not what you own; you are what you do. It took me a long time (nearly forty years) to realize this. I still haven’t fully wrapped my mind around it. But like Brewer, I’m coming to understand that it is relationships and experiences that give life meaning.

Brewer’s article offers more background on his philosophy. In many ways, it reminds me of a guest post I published last January, in which Mark Cunningham wrote, “Simplicity frees one to make any range of choices and pursue any range of possibilities.” As Kris and I continue our own personal finance journey, we’re amazed at the possibilities we might pursue. Freedom is the greatest reward for getting out of debt.

Easy and cheap home-made bread

I baked a loaf of bread yesterday. It was delicious. It was easy. It was cheap.

Last winter, I undertook a quest to find the best whole wheat bread in a grocery store. I like sandwiches and I like toast, so removing bread from my diet isn’t an option. While trying to balance cost and nutrition, I eventually discovered Rainier Organic’s Sasquatch Grain & Seed Bread. At about 10 cents per ounce, this stuff is cheaper than all but the “artificial everything” breads. Best of all? Eating it is like eating a field of wheat.

Several people suggested that I might want to make my own bread. At the time, I dismissed the idea as crazy. I can remember my mother spending a lot of time kneading dough and shuffling loaf pans when I was a boy. I may be working from home now, but I’m not interested in devoting my life to baked goods.

Minimalist Bread

Still, there are few things better in life than a hunk of warm, crusty bread slathered with honey or jam. (Perhaps with a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese on the side.) So when Brad suggested insisted I try Mark Bittman’s minimalist “no-knead” bread recipe, I took the plunge into home baking.

In this New York Times video, Bittman visits the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen to learn the secret of great bread from owner Jim Lahey.

Turns out this bread really is so easy that anyone can make it. And the total cost? According to Andy at The New Cook, this bread costs about 63 cents per loaf, or about a nickel per ounce. That’s roughly the same price as the cheap artificial stuff in the grocery store, but you’re getting a loaf of fresh, crusty bread. That’s tough to beat.

(For a great variation, check out SmarterFitter’s Four-Seed No-Knead Bread.)

A Perfect Loaf?

Cook’s Illustated tackled this recipe in their January 2008 issue. While they admitted that it was easy, they didn’t like the “bland flavor” and the unreliable rising. Using their methodology of relentless refinement, they added a bit of salt, reduced the water, and introduced a secret ingredient: beer.

Cook’s Illustrated calls their version “Almost No-Knead” Bread, or No-Knead Bread 2.0. This bread is started on the first day and baked on the second. Other than planning ahead, it’s almost effortless and results in a wonderful chewy bread with a crunchy deep-brown crust. Here’s the recipe (with some minor modifications from us):

Almost No-Knead Bread

  • 3 cups unbleached flour (15 ounces)
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons water, room temperature or just slightly warm
  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons mild-flavored lager, room temp and flat (note: we use a pale ale)
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar (note: we use white balsamic vinegar from Trader Joe’s)

Day one
If necessary, heat water and beer in microwave to make them closer to room temperature. Whisk flour, yeast and salt in a large shallow bowl. Add water, beer and vinegar. Using a rubber spatula, fold mixture, scraping up from the bottom until a dry, shaggy ball forms. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 8 to 18 hours, until the surface is covered with bubbles. Total time for day one: about ten minutes.

Day two
Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead 10-15 times. Wash out the dough bowl and lay a 12×18 piece of oven-safe parchment paper inside it and spray with non-stick cooking spray. Shape the dough into a ball by pulling edges into the middle. Transfer dough — seam-side down — to the parchment-lined bowl and spray surface with cooking spray. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until dough has doubled in size and does not readily spring back when poked with a finger (about 2 hours).

About 30 minutes before baking, adjust oven rack to lowest position and place a 6-8 quart Dutch oven (with lid slightly ajar) on rack to heat. Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Lightly flour top of dough and use a very sharp knife to make one slit, 6 inches long and 1/2″ deep. Carefully remove hot Dutch oven from oven and remove lid. Pick up dough by lifting parchment paper and lower into Dutch oven. Add lid and place in oven. Immediately lower temperature to 425 degrees and bake covered for 30 minutes. Remove lid and continue cooking 20-30 minutes longer, until the bread is a deep brown and sounds rather hollow when tapped.

Remove and transfer to a wire rack and cool to room temperature.

Total time for day two: about ten minutes.

For more on this recipe, check out the Cook’s Illustrated web site, or visit Breadtopia (a blog devoted to bread!).

Delicious!

Kris and I have been making this bread for three months now, and it’s fantastic. I’ll admit that it’s not the healthiest stuff (it’s little more than flour and salt, after all), but it’s delicious — especially with home-made strawberry jam. Along the way, we’ve learned a couple things. If you have a good kitchen scale, for example, we recommend weighing the the flour rather than measuring by volume.

Also, in the winter, our house is too cold (54 degrees) for this to rise properly overnight, so we use a water/beer mixture that feels slightly warm to the touch to give it a kick start, then turn on the oven light and put the dough into the gas oven.

The cost for a single loaf of this bread runs about $1.50. The flour is about 60 cents, the yeast is about a quarter, the beer costs about forty cents, and the other ingredients cost a few cents each. So, for a little more than the cheap bread in the grocery store, you can have a loaf of actual artisan bread.

The real joy is the ease of this recipe and the sense of accomplishment from baking your own bread. Your friends will be impressed!

How to Make Your Own Small-Batch Strawberry Jam

Making your own jam doesn’t have to be a big production.

While it’s sometimes most efficient to do things in bulk with all the right gear, the small-scale option can be better if you’re just starting out and want to make jam without much initial investment. Also, for the home gardener it’s common to have only a few cups of berries ripe at any one time, rather than the 6-8 pints called for in many recipes. Small-scale jam-making also allows you to try new flavor combinations. So, if you’ve got a bowl of berries on hand, here are two recipes to inspire you to get cooking. (Although these are recipes for strawberry jam, other berry preserves use similar techniques and ingredients.)

Strawberry-orange freezer jam
For gift-giving and long-term ease of storage, jam in sealed glass jars is the best choice. But for ease of preparation, freezer jam wins hands-down.

Some people (like J.D.) prefer its flavor, too, because it tastes more like fresh fruit than cooked preserves. The dominant flavor in this jam is the strawberry, but the orange lends a nice subtle note and also stretches the berries.

Some canning recipes for call for bottled lemon juice rather than fresh. This is due to its constant level of acidity, rather than fresh lemons, in which acidity can vary. It’s not crucial for jam, which is often high in both sugar and acidity to keep it safe in storage, but can be important when canning low-acid foods like tomatoes or beans.

When making freezer jam, you can use plastic tubs with tight-fitting lids. If you plan on storing this for more than a couple of months, better plastic tubs mean better taste. I actually prefer to use glass canning jars with screw-on white plastic lids (often sold with the canning supplies). Either way, be sure to leave a little headspace for expansion as it freezes and write a “use by” date on the lid. (Freezer jam will keep for up to a year.)

Strawberry-Orange Freezer Jam

  • 11 ounce mandarin oranges, drained & crushed
  • 1-1/2 cups crushed strawberries
  • 4 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 Tbsp bottled lemon juice
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 box powdered pectin

Mix together crushed fruits. Add sugar and lemon juice and mix well. Let stand 20-40 minutes.

In a saucepan, mix water and pectin thoroughly. Bring to a rolling boil that cannot be stirred down and boil for 1 minute.

Remove from heat and mix pectin into fruit, stirring constantly for 3 minutes. Ladle into sterilized containers, wipe rims and add lids. Let jam set overnight. Store in freezer for up to a twelve months.

Makes approximately 6 half-pints (6 cups). Source: Linda Ferrari, Canning & Preserving

At our house, we tend to make a bunch of jam in the summer and then eat it mostly in the fall and winter when we’re craving those summer fruits. When spring rolls around, I try to move any one-year-old freezer jam to the front of the freezer so it gets used soon. But if your freezer space is limited, you might opt for the following recipe for cooked jam instead.

Small batch strawberry jam
In the following hands-on video, Marge Braker demonstrates the easy steps to make a jar of cooked strawberry jam in about 20 minutes of work. This cooked version doesn’t call for added pectin to make it set up, so learning to judge when the berries are done cooking can take a bit of practice. If you misjudge it and don’t cook them long enough, you’ll end up with strawberry syrup rather than strawberry jam, but that can be a happy mistake. Jam cooked too long will be stiff and will have lost that wonderful homemade berry brightness.

I frequently make small batch cooked jams later in the summer when my caneberries are ripening gradually. It’s also handy when I want to try a new combination like gooseberry-currant or elderberry-apple that I’m not sure will be a success.

Marge Braker offers a wealth of general canning tips that every beginning canner can benefit from. If your mother never taught you, now’s your chance to learn from a pro!

Jam on!

Use raspberry leaves to make your own herbal tea

I drink a lot of herbal tea, but until recently I hadn’t considered making my own.

When we moved into our house, one of the first things we did was prepare an area in the yard for cane berry crops. We planted blackberries, marionberries, and raspberries. Now, four years later, the canes have grown humongous in Oregon’s favorable climate. They’re so long that we’ve criss-crossed them on their supporting wires, interlacing the thorny vines and creating a delicious green fence.

Most vigorous of the bunch are the raspberry canes. As much as we love the twice-yearly crop of delicately-flavored berries, it’s a continual battle — good-naturedly waged — to keep “volunteers” from sprouting among the grapes, the potato patch, the blueberries, and the lawn itself. They spread by determined underground runners that are fragile enough to break off at surface level with a firm tug, so you never get the actual root.

If You Can’t Beat ’em, Eat ’em!

Imagine my delight when I discovered raspberry leaves can be dried and made into an herbal tea! I’ve experimented with drying other herbs for tea mixtures, and made tisanes with fresh leaves, but the sheer number of raspberry leaves at my disposal makes me giddy! The tea tastes similar to black tea, but without the caffeine, and maybe with just a suggestion of the fragrance of fresh grass. It does not taste like raspberries!

I simply tug up the young raspberry sprouts (under one foot tall) and let them dry between two window screens, laying flat on the sidewalk for a few days in the sun. (I bought my screens at garage sales.)

After the leaves have dried, steep about half an ounce in water and sweeten with a bit of honey or sugar if you like, or add a splash of lemon juice. I usually use boiling water and steep for 5-10 minutes, but there are proponents for steeping in cold water for several hours and then heating the tea if you want to drink it hot. Supposedly this reduces the tannins extracted from the leaf material. Tannins can make tea taste bitter, but I’ve never noticed bitterness with my homemade raspberry leaf tea.

These leaves, once thoroughly dried, keep well, and should see you through the winter until your next “crop” is available. You can also mix raspberry leaves with other dried herbs. The raspberry leaf tea serves as a great base, and blends well with citrusy herbs such as lemon balm (which also grows like a weed around here) or lemon verbena, or mint-family herbs. Just make sure everything is very dry so it won’t mold in storage.

Moderation in All Things

As with any herbal tea, care should be taken not to overdo it. There’s always conflicting advice on the internet, but the general consensus seems to be that this tea should not be drunk during early pregnancy due to its relaxing effect on the uterus.

For the same reason, it is also sometimes recommended to relieve menstrual cramps and labor pains, and herbalists say it alleviates other ailments as well. I can’t vouch for any curative properties: I drink it because it tastes nice, is absolutely free to me, and is my SWEET REVENGE on those persistent prickly raspberry canes.

Edible Weeds

We also have chickweed and lamb’s quarters in a few neglected corners of the yard — maybe a salad is in order!

This is another great reason for us to avoid using poisons in your yard and garden. J.D. and I know that even our weeds are organic, should we choose to eat them, and many weeds are edible. Don’t have raspberries in your yard? There are dozens of delicious wild plants that can be harvested and enjoyed, and not just for tea. Surely some grow in your area.

What do you harvest from the wild? Do you make your own teas? Your own salads? What precautions do you take about identification and collection sites? Who did your learn from?

Not sure where to start? Here are a few links to help you get the idea.