Archive for November, 2013

Holiday Gift Guide: I <3 AZ!

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Want to get a unique gift for a friend or a loved one? Shop local! Arizona has so many local businesses that can cover most, if not all, of your holiday needs. A few years ago I challenged myself to buy my holiday gifts from only local vendors, and I did it! It took a little creative thinking, as most people ask for items that you would typically get at big box stores, but it can be done.

Below is a gift guide with some of my favorite Arizona gifts:

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1. Succulent Garden: Succulents are a great alternative to cactus. And there are so many varieties in shape, color and size. Head to the Desert Botanical Garden for the best selection in town (and check out their latest exhibit while you are there).

2. PB Americano Peanut Butter: PB Americano is a Wilderness Girls favorite – locally made, limited ingredient peanut butters in flavors ranging from classic to cinnamon honey to dark chocolate. You can order from their website, or check out their Facebook page to find out which farmers markets they will be attending.

3. Arizona Wine: Cottonwood houses several Arizona wineries that are producing some amazing wines. Arizona Stronghold “Tazi” (a white blend) is pictured here (and available at Safeway and Total Wine), but also check out Pillsbury Wine Company.

4. Millie’s Sweet & Savory Caramels: The owner and creator of Millie’s Caramels, Jill McNamara, is a “Jill of all trades.” In addition to making some of the best caramels in town, she is also a stellar photographer. Her flavors range from peanut butter & honey to my favorite, rosemary & cracked pepper. Check out her website to order.

5. Arizona Olive Wood: Michael McNamara, the creator of these stunning boards, is the husband of Millie’s Caramels’ Jill, and also an amazing photographer. He uses locally sourced wood and hand crafts these amazing wood boards. They are the perfect gift for anyone who likes to entertain as they are gorgeous as serving pieces (heck, forget serving pieces, these are truly art). Check out his website to order.

6. Arizona Wood Plaque: Keeping with the reclaimed wood gift theme, Citizen Home Decor has an etsy site that features many locally made wood products, including this plaque. They make other states too, so you can give far-flung loved ones an Arizona-made gift featuring their own home state.

7. & 8. Arizona Accessories: One of our favorite boutiques in Phoenix is Bunky Boutique. If you haven’t been there, go now! For the localist in your life, they have really great swag including t-shirts and necklaces.

9. I (Cactus) AZ Tote Bag: Holy Piñata offers a full line of the “I (Cactus) AZ” merchandise. And the best part? They donate $2 of your purchase to a local charity of your choice from their list of charitable partners including Florence Crittendon, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Desert Botanical Garden. Your gift not only helps your Arizona fan to proclaim their love, it helps to support the Arizona community at the same time.

10. Marlowe Designs Jewelry: I own a ridiculous amount of Marlowe Designs jewelry (Laura is my work colleague ). What I like about her style is that she not only does intricate beaded work that a lot of people love, but she also does a lot of jewelry featuring large, more organic/raw stones, which I love. Check out her website to order, or her Facebook page to find out what art festivals she will be at this season. She is also an avid wine fan, and has cork reindeer and necklaces around the holidays.

11. Runner’s Den: When I was training for my half marathon, I needed new shoes, but I was kind of intimidated to go into Runner’s Den, fearing that it would be too expensive. I was wrong. The prices are on par with bigger stores, and the staff is friendly and incredibly knowledgeable. They are also supportive of the local running community by featuring training videos on their site and running get-togethers at their store. If you need a gift for the runner in your life, I highly recommend either getting their gift there, or getting them a gift card.

12. I Am a Localist: This is one of the most unique gift ideas out there, and only $20 for a year-long membership. The recipient’s membership includes local discounts and freebies, as well as VIP and event opportunities (one of the sample experiences on the site is a personal styling session by the team at Frances). It’s the perfect gift for the localist in your life, and a great way, like so many of the gifts mentioned, to also benefit your local Arizona businesses.

This year, challenge yourself to get at least one gift from a local Arizona vendor. Every purchase helps to support the community by keeping our small businesses alive.

What are some of your favorite local Arizona shops to buy gifts from? Share them in the comments below.

Happy Holidays!

Please Pass the Salt

Monday, November 25th, 2013

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Thanksgiving is right around the corner. In fact, it’s in 4 days and you should probably be thawing your turkey by now!

The impending holiday got me thinking about cooking which got me thinking about salt because we brine our turkey every year. Most days we don’t give any thought to it, but salt is an essential nutrient for humans and there are a whole bunch of different types out there to choose from, many of which I have never tried before.

We had a canister of La Baleine Fine Sea Salt and a box of Morton’s Kosher Salt in the cabinet but I knew there were more options and I wanted to taste and see them for myself. My first stop was one of my favorite spots, the bulk foods section of my local natural food store. There I found pink Himalayan salt and smoked sea salt. My next stop was Cost Plus where I purchased Fleur de Sel and Hawaiian Alaea Sea Salt.

My husband Jacob is a chef by training & trade, so I asked him to join me for this culinary experiment. We lined up all of the salts and tasted a few grains of each and then cleared our palates by drinking water. Our first thought — they’re all salty.  For the most part the tastes were the same but there were important differences in each variety’s intensity, size and crystal texture. Some were subtle and others were bold. Some lingered on the tongue while others faded more quickly. We were intrigued to see how one thing could be so similar and so different at once.

Sea Salt: (not pictured) I see sea salt as a replacement for table salt. The iodized table salt that may be in the back of your pantry right now is chemically altered and filled with anti-caking agents. Technically it is salt, but it’s a lot of other things too and if you ask me “tasty” isn’t one of them. If you find you have some lurking in your kitchen, use it for salt paintings, but don’t eat it. Get yourself some fine sea salt instead.

Kosher Salt: This is the workhorse, the salt of chefs at work and at home. Kosher salt has large grains, which lead to even distribution of salt on the food, slower melting and more flavor. Kosher salt does the trick for rimming your margarita glass – no need to buy pricey “margarita salt” when this is what likely rims the glass in your favorite Mexican restaurant.

Himalayan Pink Salt: The most mild of the salts we tasted. I’ve heard that the chemical balance in pink salt is quite close to that within the human body and while I didn’t find any hard data to confirm that in my research for this post, I am inclined to believe it because this salt tastes just like tears.

Fleur de Sel: One of the most famous salts in the world, this large-crystal grey salt is “farmed” from the ocean in France. The grains are enormous, and have a clean salt taste while still being mild. This is a beautiful finishing salt for when you want to see the grains of salt on the plated food. Great for desserts, it would impart a really nice balance sprinkled on cupcakes, caramel or flan. Fleur de Sel was Jacob’s favorite.

Hawaiian Alaea Sea Salt: This salt is harvested from the ocean and mixed with the red alaea clay that is only found in Hawaii. The clay brings an earthy taste to balance the sharp saltiness of coarsely ground crystals. Hawaiian Alaea was my favorite of the group and I imagine it would make the best soft pretzels ever. This is another one that would hold up really well as a finishing salt or make a strong impression on the edge of a margarita glass.

Smoked Sea Salt: Jacob and I are calling this one a novelty salt. It would be good shortcut if you’re looking for a smoked flavor but don’t have the time or equipment to actually smoke the meat. The smoke flavor was very strong and, in my view, overshadowed the salt with an almost ashy aftertaste. This one is pretty unpopular in our kitchen and I won’t be buying it again.

A word of advice on seasoning with salt from Chef Jacob:

The first thing they teach you on the first day of culinary school is to wash your hands properly. The second thing they teach you is how to use salt to build flavor. That’s how important it is. If you start a dish with olive oil, onions and garlic in a sauté pan (and you should start many dishes this way) the next thing you reach for should be kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper — not that stale gray pepper dust in the tin, fresh cracked pepper. Next, you add in your other ingredients, tasting and seasoning as you go, building up the flavor layer by layer. Keep tasting and seasoning as you work so you don’t get too much of something. Remember you can always add but you can’t subtract.

Want to learn more? The most helpful guide I found online is this Sea Salt & Gourmet Salts Guide from SaltWorks.us. It’s a breakdown of the major types of salt and what they’re typically used for. Please leave a comment below if you think there’s a salt I missed that I need to try. Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday Finds: Toys!

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Ever find something on your trip down the internet rabbit-hole that you just have to share with the world? The Wilderness Girls do! Every week we will link you to our favorite bits of the internet right here on Friday Finds. Click the links below to check out this week’s selections – it’s all about toys!

OneWorld Futbol: A nearly indestructible soccer ball, that will stay inflated even if it’s punctured. The best part? If you buy one, they’ll give one to an organization that works with disadvantaged youth.

Homemade Toy Ideas: Lots of great ideas for toys you can DIY with household items you typically throw away!

GoldieBlox: Even back in the day when I was in college, engineering schools were desperately trying to get more female students to join their schools. Someone got smart and decided that it might be a good idea to start marketing to girls at a younger age who are interested in building. Check out this great commercial for GoldieBlox (and I also like how they took a Beastie Boys song and turned its lyrics into a more empowering message).

Melissa and Doug Toys: When Jenny told me about GoldieBlox, I got excited thinking about toys. I love the idea of giving girls lots of choices in playthings. Some of our favorite toys come from Melissa and Doug. These toys are often handmade of natural materials. I couldn’t find a specific sustainability statement from the company but I know these toys are durable and can entertain many children in their useful life. There’s one of those 4R’s I love – Reuse!

Green Toys for Kids: A more exhaustive search for eco-friendly toys brought me to the inhabitat.com 2012 green gift guide for kids. It looks like they publish their guide in early December so I hope we see an update in a few weeks but there are some great buys here that will teach the kiddos important lessons about environmental sustainability while they have a lot of holiday fun.

Don’t forget to check out our blogroll in the menu bar to see more sites that we are addicted to. Find something that you would like to see shared on Friday Finds? Send us an e-mail at editor@thewildernessgirls.com and you could be featured on TheWildernessGirls.com.

Tips for a Successful Family Photo Shoot by Bryan Babich Photography

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Bryan here, photographer at Bryan Babich Photography and Wilderness Hub. I have been looking forward to this Wilderness Hub’s takeover of the blog for a while.

If your family is anything like ours, you seize the opportunity of having everyone together on Thanksgiving to capture the classic annual holiday photo.  Before you pick up that camera, Polaroid Instamatic or iPhone, here are a few quick tips that will get your shot to look a little closer to a modern Norman Rockwell painting than something from the awkward family photos website.

Wear solid colors.
Ditch those crazy patterns that bring a bit of fun and flare to everyday life, and opt for solid colors, as patterns can be distracting. That being said, you don’t have to go to extremes to ensure that everyone is in white shirts and blue jeans. Choose solid pieces, in colors that are not overwhelming, to bring a little more harmony to the photo.

Pick your spot.
I know a few people who have already put up their Christmas décor. If this includes you, now is the perfect time to capitalize on that. If not, no problem. Find a roomy area of your home or outside to be the backdrop of your photo.

Do not shoot into the light.
Avoid taking pictures where the subjects are backlit (meaning the light is coming from behind the subject). You want to make sure that the subject is facing the light so that their face is not in shadow. This tip really is an oldie but a goodie, but because people can get lost in the moment, it is worth mentioning.

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Don’t shoot your subjects in direct sunlight, or with the sunlight behind them. (Jenny is providing a prime example of the face you will get if you do so.)

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Do try to get everyone out of direct sunlight, to lessen the squint effect, if shooting in the morning.

Avoid the firing line.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many family photos I have seen (or family photos I have been in) where people are arranged in a straight line on a flat plain. The idea is that you are taking a family photo, not lining up the “usual suspects,” so mix things up. The tallest people should be in the back and towards the center, shorter people and little ones in the front. Arrange members of the family to show how they are connected to one another.

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Don’t mix loud prints or line up your family as if you are trying to recreate the poster for “The Usual Suspects.”

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Do go for solid colors, group family members by height and connection and flash a big smile.

Why so serious?
The stoic serious look is out; smiles and connectivity are in. Give that camera a smile. Ask everyone in the photo to think about his or her favorite Christmas moment while looking at the camera, or a favorite family moment. You would be surprised how thinking about those moments actually translate to the final image.

Have fun.
Grab a bright red fedora, some reindeer antlers or a Santa hat and enjoy the moment. Fun spots of color and shapes can make the image memorable and fun to look at.

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Now that you have the secrets to a great shoot, grab your camera, and your loved ones, and snap that perfect family photo!

My Thanksgiving Table: One Place Setting, Three Ways

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

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I can’t believe that Thanksgiving is only a week away! This year, we’re staying in Arizona and will be hosting a small group for dinner at our house. Though we’ll be a tiny bunch, I still want dinner to feel special, and plan to set a charming table.

As I played around with different color and theme options for my table, I thought about my post from last week. I wanted to stay true to my concept of decorating for the holidays by combining pieces I already own with items that can be used throughout the year, for more than one holiday.

I thought that it would be a fun challenge to style one place setting three ways. I started with the basics, a muslin tablecloth, burlap placemat, white dishes, mason jar cup with a black and white striped paper straw and simple enamel flatware.

White, Brown, Gold & Black

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I love that this place setting is rustic with a touch of glitz. The place mat and napkin were both made with fabric purchased from Joann Fabrics, I left the edges raw. The pumpkin is from the dollar spot at Target (I covered it with gold glitter) and the place card was made using a simple manila tag, stamped with a sweet message and tied with twine.

White, Brown, Green & Black

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For this place setting, I flipped the polka dot place mat over to create a more subdued vibe. The napkin was made with fabric purchased from Joann Fabrics. I painted a little pumpkin black and for the place card, I stitched my guest’s name onto a simple manila tag (using embroidery thread) and tied it around a mason jar with yarn.

White, Brown, Ikat & Gold

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This might be my favorite place setting of the three! The simple burlap place mat stayed (though I think it would look great with the polka dot side up too). The napkin was made with fabric purchased from Joann Fabrics. I reused the glittery gold pumpkin and stamped a delicate white feather with the word “thankful”. The place card was made using a simple manila tag, stamped with my guest’s name and tied around a mason jar with yarn.

Are you doing anything special to personalize your Thanksgiving table this year?

Healthfully Surviving Holiday Parties

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

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I love holiday parties — getting together with friends to laugh and relax through the stress of the season. But how do you navigate the spread of appetizers and cocktails and make healthy choices? As I said in my previous article on healthy holiday tips, I don’t think avoiding every calorie-laden goodie is a successful method of getting through the season. It’s all about making smart choices in both your food and spirit selections.

Here are my quick tips for eating at a holiday/cocktail party:

* If possible, eat beforehand. Stick with something like a basic salad with a lean protein. It will fill you up, but not so much that you can’t still enjoy an appetizer or two.
* If you can’t eat beforehand, load up on vegetables or salad and eat smaller portions of the cheeses, meats and carbs.
* Socialize! You will find that if you talk more, you will eat more slowly. When you eat slowly, you are more aware of when you are full, and will not eat as much.
* Pace yourself. Start with small portions and get more if you are still hungry. We all tend to clear our plate, so the more you get initially, the more you will eat.
* Don’t beat yourself up. Food is supposed to be enjoyable, so don’t berate yourself if you splurge and ignore all the rules above. Just make sure to balance out that evening with healthier meals during the week.

Now that we have covered food, let’s move on to spirits. In investigating tips on better booze/mixer combos to drink, I stumbled upon a great WebMD article with great tips on partying responsibly. Here is a summary of those:

* Alternate alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks to save calories. (This will also help you to eat less, as if you are anything like me, the more you drink, the less reserved you are about what you are eating.)
* Choose wine, light beer, or simple cocktails made with low-calorie mixers.
* Skip the mixer altogether.
* Dilute your drink.
* Have a game plan. Decide beforehand how many cocktails you are going to drink, don’t drink on an empty stomach, and know your limits.
* Don’t drink and drive. If you have had too much, have a friend take you home, or call a cab.

The key to healthy eating is planning. So, before you head to that party, know your limits (both in food and drink), and enjoy! The real fun of a party is the stories you tell, and the experiences with your friends and family.

Cheers to all of you for a healthy, safe and happy holiday season! (And again, do not drink and drive!)

What are your tips for getting through parties while staying healthy? Leave them in the comments below.

Advent Calendars

Monday, November 18th, 2013

The tradition of Advent means different things for different people.  For some, an advent calendar is just a countdown to Christmas and there is nothing wrong with that, but for me Advent is much more. This is the time of year time when Lutheran Christians excitedly await the arrival of the Christ Child on Christmas morning.  In addition, Advent is the beginning of our liturgical year (the church calendar). Since we now have a daughter, it feels like time to upgrade the cheap-o snowman themed countdown calendar Jacob and I have used for a decade in favor of something more.

December 1st is fast upon us so I turned to the only place a person in this situation can turn: the Internet. Specifically, Pinterest. In my search, I found several types of advent calendars from super simple to over-the-top.  I prefer the simple crafty calendars made with natural or recyclable materials. I was particularly fond of those designed for re-use year after year.  I love the sustainable aspect of that, but, even more so, I love the element of tradition that exists in bringing out the family advent calendar each year.

Here are a few of my favorites organized by material type:

Recyclable Materials (diverted from landfill)

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Design and photo by Morning Creativity

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Design by Nadine Reeves Photography by Ryan Brook/TC Media for Canadian Living

Reusable Fabric Bags

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Design and photo by SevernHomemade on Etsy

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Design and photo by womaninreallife.com

Paper-free “Paper” Chains

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Design and photo by lovestitches

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Design and photo by humbleBea on Etsy

Now to make a decision and get crafting. Which of these do you like best? Have you checked out the plethora of advent calendar options on Pinterest? Share your ideas in the comments below.

My Favorite DIY Pins: Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Can I tell you a secret? I love holiday decor. But, I hate that so much of it is limited to use around one specific holiday. It seems crazy that we make and collect all of these lovely, festive bits only to have them on display for a few short weeks each year.

This year as I’ve added to my holiday stash, I’ve been trying to follow a few simple rules. First, I’ve been looking for easy DIY pieces that can be used across a number of holidays or even year around. They also need to work with the style of our home, adding a hint of holiday cheer without the cheese factor. Finally, I’ve tried to avoid buying pieces that were similar to something I already own. If I do buy to replace, I donate the old items.

I’ve been scouring Pinterest for weeks and have found some really lovely DIY projects that I wanted to share with you. Hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze in a few of these projects before Thanksgiving!

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1., 2., 3., 4., 5.

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6., 7., 8., 9., 10.

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11., 12., 13., 14., 15.

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16., 17., 18., 19., 20.

Need more inspiration? Head over and check out our Thanksgiving board on Pinterest.

Christmas Cookie Swap

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

I love Christmas baking. I love the new recipes and the tried and true recipes. I love everything about the sweet aromas and time-honored family traditions. That is until I’m three batches into the fifth recipe and I hit the wall, cracked-out on sugar and surrounded by spilled flour and soiled Kitchen Aid parts. I want to provide Santa a bountiful arrangement but I don’t have the patience to create so many different varieties of cookies. What is a Wilderness Girl to do?

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Enter the Cookie Swap. The cookie swap is a brilliant event for which each participant bakes several dozens of one type of cookie to exchange with other bakers. You choose your favorite recipe and mass-produce one type, and at the swap, you receive a wide selection of cookies in return. All the variety with none of the hassle of testing and buying ingredients for a bunch of different recipes. The beauty of a Cookie Swap is that it can be as relaxed or as fancy as you want it to be. It can be a small swap between just a few friends, or it can be a bigger group with friends of friends who you’re meeting for the first time. You can do a ballot for cookie superlatives such as best cookie, easiest recipe and most unique, or you can just appreciate each cookie on its own. Whatever you choose will be fun. After all, it’s your party, you can swap how you want to. Regardless of how simple or detailed your party will be, there are a few steps that are crucial to the success of your Cookie Swap:

Planning
You must get your Cookie Swap on the calendar early because aint no’body got time for that during the weekend before Christmas. Don’t worry about having the party too early because most cookies freeze really well and you will be grateful for your frozen stash when unexpected guests pop over and you’re able to whip up a cookie tray and hot cocoa bar on short notice.

Invitations
Take the time to do “real” paper invitations because an invitation sets the tone for your party and it gives your guests all the important details of your swap. There are so many adorable options available online at every price point (including free), that I curated a little collection for you to peruse on Pinterest. The invitation is where you tell your guests the when and where, and how many treats to bring (along with whether to package them separately or bring them all in one big container to be divvied up during the event). If you want them to hold out a dozen for sampling at the party let ‘em know on the invitation. If you have anyone in the group with food allergies, the invitation is the perfect place to spread the word. It is also OK to specify “homemade” on the invite if you suspect someone might go with store bought. After all, the whole point is to swap treats with your friends, not those little guys who bake cookies in the hollow tree, right?

Recipes
Pre-plan how you want your guests to share their recipes with each other. You can provide blank cards with your invitation or ask your guests to create a recipe card to share. Perhaps you’re collecting all the recipes to include in a little booklet as a party favor. For a more sustainable option exchange recipes via email.

Packaging
Here’s your opportunity to get creative and reduce the amount of packaging each person uses. Ask your guests to please bring all of their cookies in one large container instead of individual zippie bags. Then, provide cookie tins to each of your guests to take their swapped cookies home in. You’ll still need parchment or freezer paper on hand to wrap up particularly sticky or fragrant cookies that don’t store well with others, but the majority of the packaging can be done with tins which last for ages, can be reused year after year and are recyclable at the end of their useful life.

The Wilderness Girls did a little Cookie Swapping last weekend, and here are our recipes:

Christie’s Recipe: Nigella’s Christmas Chocolate Biscuits

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Christina’s Recipe: KISSES Macaroon Cookies Recipe

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Jenny’s Recipe: Betty Crocker’s Cream Wafers

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Why this cookie is special to Jenny: These were my Aunt Eileen’s favorite cookies, and I remember many a year that my mom and I would go to her house to make them. They are a great kid-helping recipe too. You can have the kids in your family help cut them out, poke the holes in them with a fork, or ice them. We always did the traditional pink, green and yellow icings, but nowadays the icing color possibilities are endless!

Rachael’s Recipe: Mamaw’s Nut Cups

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Why this cookie is special to Rachael: When I was a girl, my Mamaw, my Mom and I would sit in Mamaw’s tiny yellow kitchen making nut cups for hours and hours because she never just made one batch. All the time we thought we were making cookies we were really making memories and our own family tradition. This will be Elizabeth’s first year in the kitchen making Nut Cups with Mom and Grandma and the tradition continues.

We had a great time hanging out together and visiting over warm cups of cocoa and more than a few cookies. It was such fun to hear the stories and traditions behind each selection and share some of our favorite treats with some of our favorite girls. Will you try a cookie swap this year? What recipe would you take if you were invited to one?

A Tisket, A Tasket – Let’s Make a Guest Welcome Basket!

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

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With the holidays fast approaching, many of us have family or other guests coming into town to visit. A great way to make those staying with you feel welcome is by putting together a basic guest basket for their room.

A guest basket should consist of items usually forgotten when traveling. Although a larger initial expense, it is inexpensive to maintain, since most guests will not use all the items on each visit.

The image below shows some items you might include:

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1. Basket/Container (Target has a great selection of organizers.)
2. Lip Balm
3. First Aid Kit
4. Mouthwash
5. Makeup Remover Towelettes
6. Gum
7. Wrinkle Release Spray/Static Guard
8. Lint Roller (especially if you have pets who shed)
9. Toothpaste
10. Shaving Cream & Razor
11. Lotion (I like a relaxing scent like lavender)
12. Sunscreen
13. Hairspray
14. Mani/Pedi Set, Nail File, Nail Clippers
15. Baby Powder
16. Hand Sanitizer
17. Floss
18. Cotton Swabs

Some additional items that would be good to have on hand are a box of tissues and a toothbrush (this is a great way to use all those brushes your dentist gives you).

I leave my guest basket on the dresser along with a vase of flowers, a few squares of Ghirardelli chocolate, a couple of bottles of water, and either some magazines, a crossword puzzle or Sudoku book and a pen.

The holidays can be hectic, so providing your guests with a room that is comfortable, and stocked with the basics, will make their stay even more enjoyable.

If you received a guest basket while visiting someone during the holiday season, what would you like to receive? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.