Ever find yourself needing a last minute gift with no time to run out to buy something? Ever gone to the store for a gift and not been able to find a thing that fits the person or occasion? I think this happens to us all at least occasionally and it can be a source of unnecessary stress. I solved this problem by creating what I call my “gift stash.”
I have a drawer in my home dedicated to little gifty goodies that I purchase as I’m out and about. I pick up soaps, lotions, candles, kitchen and bath items, hand towels, gourmet foods, and other things that I can assemble into a nice gift whenever the need arises. I take advantage of sales and I try to keep items on hand that I think would appeal to most people I know. I stash these items away so that I am always prepared whenever an occasion comes up that necessitates a gift.
The items I gravitate towards tend to be things I’d personally enjoy receiving. They also tend to be somewhat practical in nature. I think just about everyone enjoys a new dish towel, pretty picture frame, scented candle, or a luxurious bar of soap. I also keep a few gourmet items and extra bottles of wine stocked in my kitchen for gift giving. For example, a jar of gourmet olives, a hunk of tasty cheese, and a box of fancy crackers presented in a pretty serving bowl would be much appreciated by a foodie friend.
I also maintain a supply of gift wrap and bags, baskets, cellophane paper, ribbons, tissue paper and other wrapping supplies to make the presentation effortless. I look for good deals on these items at the end of each season when they can easily be found on sale.
Keeping a stash of gift items and supplies is easy to do and doesn’t require a lot of space. You can dedicate one drawer in a dresser, a shelf inside a closet or cabinet, or simply keep a box under the bed. Additionally, keeping a gift stash makes each shopping excursion fun as I perpetually keep an eye out for interesting items to stock it with.
Do you keep a stash of gifts at the ready? What kinds of items do you find make great gifts in a pinch?
Pizza is a bit of an obsession at our house. Calling for delivery stopped being an option several years ago when I discovered a super easy, ultra-forgiving way to make pizza dough at home that tastes far better than any delivery service pizza I’ve had.
Before I discovered this method, I thought yeast-raised dough was temperamental and time-consuming, requiring lots of watching and kneading. Nothing could be further from the truth! With this recipe, I simply mix up my ingredients the night before and refrigerate the dough overnight. By the next day, the dough has risen and is ready to be used. It just requires a few hours on the counter to reach room temperature and it’s ready to be rolled out.
I love the flexibility of this recipe. Something comes up and can’t use your dough the next day? No problem, it will wait for you. Can’t use it for a few days? Just add in a tablespoon of flour (so the yeast has something to eat and can continue growing) and it will keep a few more days. You can actually prolong your dough for quite a long time this way. You can even freeze this dough. When you’re ready to use it, leave it out for at least 12 hours so that it has had time to thaw and reach room temperature.
Here’s my recipe. I am giving approximate measurements as I have learned that being exact is not required for this dough. In fact, I don’t measure any more and just kind of “eyeball” the proportions. If you don’t use salt, leave it out. If you are cutting out sugar, leave out the honey or use another type of sweetener instead. I like to use an Italian XX flour as I find it gives a crispy bite and a nice chew, but it is certainly not necessary.
Overnight Pizza Dough (makes one 16″ pizza)
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup warm water
1 teaspoon yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
Add honey to warm water and sprinkle yeast on top. Let sit for a few minutes and then gradually add flour and salt. Stir until ingredients are incorporated. Once all the flour is incorporated you should be able to form a sticky ball. If it’s too wet, add more flour; too dry, add a bit more water. Drizzle a little olive oil on top of dough to keep the surface moist and place in a covered glass container. Refrigerate overnight. Remove at least 2 hours before you plan to roll it out. Roll out on a floured surface, then transfer to baking sheet. Top with your favorite sauce and toppings. Preheat your oven to its hottest setting (up to 500 degrees) and bake for about 10 minutes. Enjoy!!
I’m not sure exactly when I fell in love with majolica but I have been collecting it for some time. This colorful, whimsical pottery always brings a smile to my face. While majolica can be found in all the colors of the rainbow, I prefer the rich greens and golden hues, particularly for displaying during the cooler months. I think it enlivens a space and creates a warm festive feeling.
Majolica typically features themes of fauna and flora, with an abundance of leafy patterns, which are my favorites. Antique majolica is tin glazed earthenware which has a distinctive metallic sound when “pinged.” The glaze in early pieces often contained lead so it’s more decorative than suitable for food use.
Majolica, also known as maiolica, takes its name from the Spanish island of Majorca. It was originally made by 14th Century potters and was popularized in the mid-15th Century. It was exported from Majorca to Italy during the Italian Renaissance and debuted in the United States at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876.
By the 1870s, majolica was being mass-produced for an expanding middle class in countries like England, France, Sweden, Portugal and the United States. Griffen, Smith & Hill was a prominent Pennsylvania manufacturer, who sometimes marked its pieces with “G.S.H.” or labeled them as “Etruscan Pottery.”
Over the years, it has fallen in and out of fashion, but was particularly attractive to 19th-century collectors. For the Victorians, with their heavy drapes and dark wood-paneled interiors, it brought much desired light and life to homes. This tactile pottery with its naturalistic shapes, vibrant colors, and often humorous themes appealed to a growing consumer society.
Due to over-production, majolica fell from fashion by the early 1900s. But it began to be re-discovered in the 1960s, and because of its popularity, reproductions abound today. Modern majolica is food safe as lead-based glazes are no longer in use.
Majolica is soft and porous and chips easily, so older pieces that have survived can be quite valuable. I have purchased most of my pieces at antique shops, estate sales and online, but occasionally I see a piece at a flea market or thrift store. Even with a chip or hairline fracture, I feel quite lucky if I find a piece for under $40 and when I do, I snatch it up! However true collectors covet early pieces in excellent condition which can be much more costly, in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
For my fall display, I added in a couple of small ceramic pumpkins, some beaded fruits in warm colors and a burlap covered wire basket. This display should transition nicely into the holiday season. After Thanksgiving, I will likely change out the pumpkins and beaded fruits for a few Christmas ornaments and perhaps add some twinkle lights. Stay turned for its next incarnation.
I recently purchased a bunch of seeded eucalyptus as filler for a flower arrangement and noticed that the eucalyptus long outlasted the rest of the arrangement. I didn’t want to toss out this fragrant plant material and considered how I might reuse it. Knowing that the lovely fragrance would intensify with steam, I decided to tie it up with some kitchen string and hang it from the handle of my shower.
Eucalyptus has a clean, menthol-like fragrance. When exposed to steam, it releases beneficial oils that are thought to have numerous health benefits.
It is antiseptic and soothing to wounds. It is also antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and decongestant in nature, which makes it a useful ingredient in many medicines that treat respiratory problems, including allergies, sinusitis, and bronchitis. Using it in the shower is a perfect way to open up stuffy sinuses.
Eucalyptus oil also has a cooling, refreshing effect that is thought to remove exhaustion and mental sluggishness. Who wouldn’t benefit from that when getting ready in the morning?! It can also be used as a bug repellent and in homemade cleaning solutions. Added to a carrier oil and massaged into the skin, it is great for sore muscles and arthritis.
Could you benefit from hanging a bunch of eucalyptus in your shower?
For my end of summer dinner party a few weeks ago, I decided to go with a beach theme. I love the anticipation a menu provides and enjoy preparing menu cards for my guests. Because the beach theme lent itself to a watery, free-flowing design, I thought a little watercolor art would be well-suited. This project requires little to no artistic talent and it was fun to do. Here’s how.
I used 4″ X 6″ heavy card stock for my menus but you could also use watercolor paper which is more textural and durable. You want your paper thick enough to be absorbent and hold up to the water, but not so thick it won’t go through your printer.
I used an inexpensive palette of watercolor paints from the craft store and a paint brush I had in my art supplies. Fill a small container with water. Dip your brush into the water and then into the paint.
Experiment a bit on inexpensive paper before working on your card stock to get a feel for how the paint will look. I used mostly blue, light green, purple and tan colors for this project. If the color is too dark, just add more water to your brush and it will become more translucent. If you want more saturated color, use less water and load up more paint on the brush.
Once you are confident with your technique, start applying the paint to the cards.
Swirl, blend and mix the paint colors together until you are pleased with the results.
After I was finished with the background art, I loaded up my brush with paint and tapped it across my finger spraying each card with paint to mimic the look of splashes and bubbles.
The paper will likely be damp after you are finished. To keep it from curling, press it flat under a few books for a few hours or until dry. This will also help it to go through your printer. (Note: be sure to change your printer setting to thick or photo paper before printing.)
Design your menu layout. I used a sea shell motif from a free clip art website and the “Fortunates December” font which has a breezy casual feel. Click here for the free download.
Once your design is ready and your cards are dry, print out your menus.
This technique is really easy and the results are surprisingly professional. Plus, I like that each guest can take home an original piece of “art” as a memento of the evening.
The same watercolor art was used to make tags for the parting gift I gave my guests. I placed small containers of sea salt in cellophane bags and added nautical wooden medallions from the craft store. Blue and turquoise markers were used to paint the wood medallions. Tied up with a piece of raffia, these favors complimented the theme of the party and let our guests know we appreciated them coming.
This is a fun and easy project that can be used for many things, e.g., place cards, gift tags, craft projects. It can also be adapted to the seasons or holidays. Can you picture it in golds, oranges, greens and browns for fall? Or how about vibrant floral colors for spring? I can.
It’s September already and I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to usher in fall. But as a last hurrah for summer, I invited a few friends over for an end of summer dinner party. Today’s post will focus on the table setting for that dinner.
A relaxed beachy vibe seemed an appropriate way to bid summer adieu. After searching around my house, I realized I had most of the items I needed on hand. Here’s how I put it together.
Layers are key to setting an interesting table. I initially decided to forego a formal tablecloth because I wanted to allow the wood dining table to be exposed. The table has a rustic rough-hewn quality that I thought was fitting for a beach theme. But after a trial run, it looked a little too stark, so I added a striped cotton Turkish towel diagonally across the table. The diagonal placement allowed some of the wood to show and kept the table casual, while the additional fabric warmed up the table and added subtle pattern.
I used a gauzy piece of wide sisal ribbon as a runner and placed it down the length of the table. Its color and texture reminded me of sand. Instead of flowers, I placed a few conch shells and a piece of driftwood in the center of the table as my centerpiece. Tea lights in wavy glass votive holders were placed around the centerpiece and a few sprigs of gray-green foliage from my yard were tucked in here and there to add additional color and life.
A round woven sea grass placemat gave each place setting its foundation. I decided to use a set of handmade white plates for the main course. Their organic, uneven texture reflected the relaxed vibe. Set on top of the sea grass placemats, they became the base upon which the other dishes were placed.
Vintage majolica plates were placed on top of the white plates for the second course. Their leafy veining resembles the look of seaweed and the blue-gray color reminds me of the sea on a cloudy day. The undulating edge is reminiscent of the waves of the ocean and further reinforces the theme.
I needed small bowls for my first course, a chilled cantaloupe gazpacho. I found a boxed set in various shades of watery blues and greens at a discount store and thought they were perfect. At only $12.99 for a set of eight, how could I resist?
The linen napkins were a lucky find at a thrift store. I thought the sand color and metallic stitching on the border recalled sea shells on a sandy beach. I gathered them up simply with turquoise sea glass napkin rings.
Hand painted menu cards announcing the coming meal were placed to the sides of the soup bowls. I used watercolor paints to create streaks, swirls, and splashes on each card. These unique hand painted menus became mementos each guest could take home. Stay tuned next week for a tutorial on how to make these menu cards.
Once the cutlery and glassware were added and the candles were lit, the table really began to sparkle and glow.
That sparkle and glow only intensified when our guests were seated around the table enjoying the meal. I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye to summer.
Did you ever eat something at a restaurant and wish you could duplicate it at home? Did you know that there are websites dedicated to developing recipes that closely mimic restaurant recipes? Lucky for us, there are some very creative cooks out there with superior palates who have been able decipher the ingredients and cooking techniques for many popular restaurant dishes. Their websites “hack” some of the most popular restaurant dishes around so that you can make them at home!
If you don’t find the recipe for your favorite restaurant dish on any of these websites, try typing in the name of the restaurant and the dish you’d like to duplicate. Then add the words “hack” or “copy cat” to the search. As long as it’s a well-known restaurant, you should get several results.
For example, I adore the chicken lettuce wraps at P. F. Chang’s and wanted to see if I could recreate them at home. I did a search for the recipe for P. F. Chang’s chicken lettuce wraps. Lots of results came up, but the one I decided to make can be found here.
The verdict? My chicken lettuce wraps were salty, crunchy, fresh and sweet with the same hint of smokiness that the restaurant version has. The special sauce had the same taste and texture as the restaurant version. In fact, if tasted side by side with P. F. Chang’s version, I’m not sure I would be able to tell the difference!
I will say that I don’t think P. F. Chang’s has anything to worry about. This was not a simple dish to make. The amount of time, specialized ingredients, number of steps, and the overall mess involved in making this particular dish prevents me from making it often. I will continue to visit the restaurant for it most of the time, but it is nice to know that if I want to make it at home, I can reproduce the restaurant version pretty well.
What’s your favorite restaurant dish? Can you hack it?
On a recent trip to the lovely city of Montreal, I felt I was almost in France–but without the long plane ride! Because my vacation would not have been complete without a thorough sampling of the local cuisine, I signed up for a tour called “Flavours and Aromas of Old Montreal.”
Our tour was led by the very enthusiastic and knowledgeable Lorna Schectman-Greenberg of VDM Global Tours. We headed to Old Montreal on foot to explore some of the best hidden food purveyors in town. Not only was Lorna extremely well-versed in the cuisine of Montreal, she also had extensive knowledge of the history, culture and architecture of the city. We were lucky to have such a well-informed guide to lead us through the charming cobblestone streets of Old Montreal.
Our first stop was at “Marche de La Villette,” a French restaurant and butcher shop with a marvelous selection of gourmet meats, cheeses, and condiments. We sampled two types of pâté, both served on perfect slices of baguette. One was a blend of veal and duck, and the other, a duck foie gras. This tasting required me to make two exceptions to my usual dietary restrictions–veal and foie gras. I don’t normally consume either because of the inhumane treatment the animals typically endure in the production of these foods, but because it was part of the tour and as only two small bites were provided, I made an exception. I found these pâtés to be a little coarser in texture than most pâtés I’ve had before. They were hearty and substantial, perfectly seasoned, and full of flavor. Despite leaving the restaurant with a bit of a guilty conscience for the sake of the animals, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed both decadent bites.
Our second destination was a Portuguese bakery called “Cantinho de Lisboa,” famous for their pastéis de nata. These bite-sized egg custards in flaky crusts were luxuriously rich, but also quite delicate. The light crunch of the phyllo-style crust combined with the cool creamy custard filling was the perfect juxtaposition of textures. While the Portuguese population of Montreal is quite small, this bakery has made an indelible mark on the culture and cuisine of Old Montreal and is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
Our next stop was “Masion Christian Faure,” a patisserie owned and operated by award-winning French pastry chef, Christian Faure. In addition to the restaurant and patisserie, Chef Faure opened a cooking school at this location in 2013 to teach authentic French pastry making techniques in Canada. We sampled their macaroons. Given the variety of offerings, it was a difficult decision but I opted for the coconut flavor. It was delicate and light, with just the right combination of crunch and chew. Taking a cooking class here is definitely on my bucket list!
We then trekked to a restaurant-bar along the St. Lawrence River waterfront called “Faste Fou.” Here we sampled smoked meat sandwiches, a signature dish of Montreal. While no one knows for sure who “officially” introduced smoked meat to Montreal, experts seem to agree that the dish is likely Romanian and Jewish in origin. Beef brisket is salted and brined in spices before being smoked and cooked. Sliced thinly, it is typically served on rye bread with plain mustard. It is often likened to pastrami, but it comes from a different part of the animal and I found the flavor to be a bit more subtle.
Our final stop was “Delices Erable & Cie,” a boutique that specializes in maple products. Quebec leads the world in maple syrup production and maple products are considered emblematic of Canada, so no food tour would be complete without a maple sampling. In addition to multiple types of maple syrup, this shop offered maple coffee and tea, maple candy, maple butter, maple mustard, maple gelato…you get the idea! I enjoyed tasting the wide array of samples that were available in the store. I purchased some of their maple pork rub and a cranberry-maple-nut topping for baked brie. I look forward to sharing these goodies, along with memories of my trip, with friends back home.
While not included in our tour, Lorna also educated us about two other important foods of Montreal: poutine and the Montreal bagel. Of course I would have been remiss not to give them both a try while there!
There are gourmet versions of poutine involving things like foie gras, duck breast, and steak, but the classic version is comprised of french fries topped with cold cheese curds and hot gravy. Poutine cannot be considered a diet food by any stretch of the imagination but it is a filling comfort food apropos for fueling young hockey players and long Canadian winters.
The Montreal bagel differs from most bagels in that it is dipped in honey-water before cooking and is baked in a wood-fired oven which gives it a somewhat smokey flavor. It is served with cream cheese or butter and is typically eaten for breakfast.
The tour provided an excellent overview of the multi-cultural food legacy of Montreal. It was a delight to experience these foods and discover hidden purveyors I would never have found on my own. If you have the opportunity to visit Montreal, I encourage you to explore the unique cuisine of this lovely city. You’ll be glad you did.
Note: All opinions expressed are my own. I have not received compensation of any kind from any of the establishments mentioned in this post.
I began learning to sew when I was in the eighth grade. I begged my mother to teach me much earlier, but she believed I should wait and learn the “correct” way by taking a home economics class at school. I remember eagerly buying my first pattern, a smock top with a yoke, heart-shaped pockets, and butterfly sleeves. (Yes, I know I’m dating myself here!) I searched the fabric store for just the right fabric, thread and notions. I selected a white cotton background with little navy blue sailboats floating across it. The yoke and pockets were a coordinating navy blue and I trimmed it with oversized rick rack. As a first attempt, the end result was amateurish, but I wore it proudly and couldn’t wait to tackle my next sewing project.
In the years following, I made much of my own clothing, taking on increasingly more difficult projects. I must admit that I was not a perfectionist about my early stitching endeavors. Impatient to get the piece finished, I usually sped through the process, leaving puckers, crooked top stitching, uneven hemlines and other signs of a novice seamstress in my wake!
My sewing skills did improve over the years and my interests later shifted from clothing to home decor. Sewing for the home is relatively easy compared to making clothing, as it tends to be mostly straight line stitching. I’ve probably saved thousands of dollars by making my own curtains, duvets, pillows and slipcovers. One of my greatest pleasures is revamping a tired room with fresh pillows or new curtains and I love giving my home a custom look on a budget.
Given the influx of inexpensive textile imports over the past few decades, it is often no longer cost effective to make one’s own clothing or home furnishings. However I still enjoy the process of occasionally pulling out my sewing machine and creating something unique.
Did you ever sew a garment or something for your home? Do you remember your first sewing project? If so, I’d love to hear about your creations.
One of my favorite things to do is visit wineries and participate in their tasting programs. At winery tastings, one usually samples a flight of five or six of the winery’s current offerings. But a winery-style tasting certainly is not the only way to taste wine. There are vertical tastings, horizontal tastings, wine-food pairings, Old World vs. New World comparisons, etc. Tastings can be designed according to your budget and can be tailored to the skill level and interests of your guests.
Regardless of the type of wine tasting, the primary goal is to have fun and enjoy the wine! Secondarily, tastings are an opportunity to train your nose and palate to appreciate the subtle and not-so-subtle characteristics of each wine.
I decided to host a blind tasting, which is a tasting where guests are kept unaware of the wines’ identities. I disguised the labels of five wines of different varietals. Guests were asked to identify the varietals from a list of options.
I believe that wine is best when accompanied by food so I added a “grazing table” so that there was always something good to eat alongside the wines. A wide variety of cheeses, olives, condiments, nuts, and other “small bites” were provided to allow guests to create their own pairings.
Step by step, here’s how this event was put together.
1. Select your wines. I selected five wines, consisting of two whites and three reds. I chose single varietal wines because I knew blends would likely be difficult for my friends to decipher. The only information I gave my guests was that all of the wines were from California, with one exception.
2. Cover the labels on each bottle. I made bags out of burlap fabric, tied them up with jute strings, and added tags with numbers indicating their order in the tasting. Start with the lightest wine and work your way to the boldest or heaviest. If you don’t know how to order the wines, the internet is there to help you.
For whites: http://winefolly.com/review/beginners-white-wines-list/
For reds: http://winefolly.com/tutorial/the-spectrum-of-boldness-in-red-wines-chart/)
3. Give clues. A card with a brief description of every varietal included in the tasting was provided to each guest. This helped narrow down the options, but to make things a bit more interesting, I added one additional white and one additional red to the list that were not included in the tasting. (Yep, this threw off even the best tasters in the group!)4. Provide cards for scoring, rating, and guessing the varietal. This gives your guests an opportunity to reflect upon the flavors and characteristics of each wine, to indicate how much they liked it, and to make their best guess at the varietal. I added a few additional questions for bonus points in case there was a tie. Here’s a free editable download of the card I designed: eclecticgirldesigns.com/winetastingscorecard.docx
5. Decant each wine before pouring. Although this step is not essential, virtually every wine benefits from decanting. It oxygenates the wine and allows it to “breathe.” Decanting enhances and softens the flavors in the wine, particularly young wines and is a trick than can make an inexpensive wine drink much better. It also helps remove any sediments that have accumulated in the bottle. Even a brief decanting of 5 or 10 minutes can make a big difference.
6. Provide a spittoon. This is a container for pouring out wine that isn’t wanted. Tasting wine is a very individual experience and you shouldn’t be offended if not everyone likes everything you serve. I used an ironstone pitcher but any opaque container will work.
7. Reveal and tally. After all the wines have been tasted, reveal the labels. Tally up the scores and determine the winner.
This is the first wine tasting party I’ve hosted but it certainly won’t be the last. It was fun, interactive, and provided an atmosphere of good-natured competition that allowed us to get to know one another better.
Putting a wine tasting party together isn’t difficult. It takes a little time to select the wines and assemble the foods, but because I chose to serve mostly prepared foods, it didn’t require a lot of time in the kitchen. I was able to spend most of the evening enjoying the company of my guests. It also provided an opportunity to share some the special wines from my cellar.
If you decide to try a wine tasting at your next gathering, remember it isn’t rocket science and shouldn’t be an intimidating experience. The most important thing to remember is to have fun!