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Maria VonTrapp had a great idea when she made those playclothes....

This apron is made from a damask tablecloth and an embroidered fabric placemat.  

Since the tablecloth is designed to be spilled on, this should be a pretty stain-resistant apron!

Why wear aprons?  You mean besides the fact that I always splash or spill when cooking?  And that I feel more feminine and domestic when wearing a pretty one?   Read through my favorite-ever story about aprons: Apron Evangelism, from Hillbilly Housewife.

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Another "tablecloth apron"; since the tablecloth was labeled "harvest", it was on clearance for $2.  The contrast trim and pocket are cut from a fabric napkin, also on clearance ($ .50). 

Other cheap sources of fabric can include new or used tablecloths you already have or from thrift stores (cut around any stains), sheets, curtain panels.  I've used all of these to make dresses before, too.   Make sure the drape of the fabric is what you want on your finished product.  A crisp sateen sheet will give a much different look than a silky damask tablecloth or satin sheet.

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This one is a rough copy of a mid-1900's vintage apron.  I was able to make 3 of these from one 60" round tablecloth ($5).

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After cutting out the main apron body, cut pieces of the placemat to fit where you want them.  Cut them out a little bigger than you need, to allow for seams. 

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Iron under any edges that need to be hidden, pin in place, then stitch. 

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This placemat was two layers thick, and so was difficult to turn under for a clean edge.  I found some 1/8" white ribbon, set that over the edge to hide the little frayed bits, then used a zigzag satin stitch the same width as the ribbon. 


The red tablecloth was 60x120"; I can get 4-5 of these flounced aprons from it, or twice as many if they're straight and simple.  And the placemat will be enough for trim and a pocket on two aprons. The green tablecloth was 60x72; it will only make two; the flounce is cut in a circle and takes up a lot of fabric.

For 50 free apron patterns, see here; it's also listed on my Favorite Resources page, 2/3 the way down, under "sewing".

Just think of the possibilities!
 
 
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What is  this?

My fridge is having issues.  It's about 6 years old, which is considered late middle age for a refrigerator.  There was water and ice on the top right fridge shelf, and food was frozen on the right side, but not the left side, of the fridge.  Clearly something was not going as designed.  And I really want it working well for all that Thanksgiving food!  (To be honest, though, when DON'T I want it working perfectly?) 

Also, the front half of the outside  of the appliance was warm/hot to the touch; the back half was cold.  That means the motor is working harder than it should.  What to do?  I am not fond of paying $100 for a service call, so I tried a couple simple things.

The external hot/cold problem was solved very, very easily.  I should have done this earlier; it is supposed to be done regularly  anyway.  I had forgotten; it's probably been two years.  The condenser coils collect dust and lint- they should be vacuumed or brushed off every six months. 
Mine were covered in a 1/2" thick 'blanket' of fuzz and dust.  They can't do their job of cooling with all that on there! 
I vacuumed the coils and everything else down there, then pulled the fridge out, unplugged it (don't skip this step!), and removed the back access panel to see how bad it was back there.  It was as coated as the front.   I cleaned that area out, using both a long-handled dishwashing brush and the vacuum.  That was last night.  This morning, the outside of the fridge is all the same temperature.  That probably means my electric bill should drop a little bit now, and the motor should last longer.  So how hard is it to clean your condenser coils?  Very, very, easy.  In some cases, you won't even need a screwdriver.  My refrigerator is a Whirlpool; to get instructions for other brands, and other repairs or maintenance, one good site is repairclinic.com 

Once you understand some of the basic inner workings of your fridge, not only will you have a new respect for it (and its inventors!), but you'll be able to problem-solve better, saving you money!

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This is the refrigerator grill, at the front bottom.  It's easiest to access with the door open.

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Some grills need to have a couple screws removed to pull it off/ mine just clips into place.  All I have to do is pull it straight out.  Normally I do this with two hands, one close to each end of the grill, but I had to have one hand free for the camera!

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These are the condenser coils behind the grill.  These have already been cleaned, or you would see nothing but lint!

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Sitting next to the fridge grill, this is a specialty brush you can buy to clean with.  It's bendable and close to two feet long.  Other things that work to clean this narrow space include:  some vacuum attachments, a pipe cleaner (those fuzzy things you use in craft projects), a flyswatter, a handled scrub brush. 

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The back service panel.  The fridge has to be pulled away from the wall to access it.  Before removing the screws here, cut off the electric current: unplug the fridge or turn it off at the circuit breaker.  Turning the control off inside the fridge will not do it.  These screws had a six-sided head; use a rachet if you have a head to fit, or a wrench.  Or maybe yours are regular screws. 

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What it looks like inside, after cleaning.  The long greyish-white thing on the left is the evaporation tray, right behind the post in the center is the condenser fan and motor, and the black thing is the compressor.  Behind the compressor are more condenser coils to clean off. 
This back area does not get dirty as quickly as the front, so a cleaning every year or two should be plenty.

 
 
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It's that time of year...

to make gingerbread houses!  Whether you want to make one for a competition, or just make something fun with your children, here's my family's tried-and-tested favorite recipe for eating AND building. (See here for a gluten-free recipe, or just substitute a GF flour blend in place of regular flour.)  We have a yearly tradition of everyone in the family decorating a small house.  If you want a recipe that will bake up thin yet strong, suitable for competition-level houses, the next couple pictures are of this one.  The eating/building recipe has more leavening and therefore a lighter crunch.  The 'building' recipe, below, is also good, but more dense.  Be sure to roll this one thinly!!!

See here for Part 2- Assembling and Decorating

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For the full recipe, along with more instructions, tips, and things I've learned, it's also on the link above.  Put in a large bowl or medium saucepan: 1 1/2 c. light corn syrup, 1 1/4 c. brown sugar, and 1 cup butter.  This will be easiest if you cut each cube of butter into 5-6 chunks.

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Heat in the microwave about a minute or until everything melts and can be stirred together.  If using a saucepan, heat over medium-high, stirring until the sugar and butter melt.

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Add the dry ingredients to the bowl:
6 3/4 c. flour, 1 Tbsp. cinnamon, 1 1/2 tsp. ginger, 1/2 tsp. salt.

I like to grab the dry stuff with my fingers and mix lightly before mixing it with the wet, this saves the step of pre-stirring all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl first.  

Stir until everything is mixed well.

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This dough will be warm and firm yet soft; it gets stiffer as it cools.  It's easiest to roll out while still warm. 
If it gets too stiff, return to the microwave for 30 seconds to rewarm it.    

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Divide dough into 2 or three pieces.  Working with one a time, roll  directly onto parchment, if at all possible.  This will save you immeasurable aggravation! 

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Try to get it an even 1/8" thick.  As you can see, this is quite thin.  The corn syrup gives this dough a lot of strength.

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Put your pattern on top of the dough, and cut around each piece.  Try to have each piece touching as much as possible.  The easiest way to cut them, by far, is to use a pizza cutter or pastry wheel.

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Bake until golden brown and firm to the touch.  Pull out of the oven, and IMMEDIATELY re-cut the pieces, if you need them to be exact.  They will have spread a little bit.  If you're making eight houses for your family, you can skip this step! 

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My favorite part of baking gingerbread houses: eating the 'twigs', the skinny little pieces trimmed off the house parts.  They are addictive!    

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To make stand-up trees, cut out two for each tree.  Cut a section out of the middle of one of the pieces, as wide as your dough is thick.  You'll 'glue' one  of these halves on the front of the whole tree, the other half on the back.        

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Cool on a cooling rack.  When all the way cool, I like to stack all the pieces for one house in each stack.  Here are five houses, ready to put together.

Next is the really fun part- decorating!  That will be another post in a couple days.
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It's the little details that make gingerbread so fun!

 
 
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This is a smooth, lemony, egg-based baked pie.  Use a fresh lemon for the best flavor, one is all you'll need.  If you only have bottled lemon juice, be sure to use the lemon zest, or about 1 tsp. lemon extract, or 4-6 drops lemon oil.  The zest gives more flavor than the juice does.

Lemon Chess Pie

5 eggs
1 3/4 c. sugar
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
2 Tbsp. cornmeal
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. (1 stick) melted butter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Beat the eggs in a medium bowl, then add sugar, juice, zest, cornmeal, salt, and butter.  Pour into a parbaked crust, put on the lowest rack so the heat will set the crust.  Immediately reduce temperature to 325 or 350 degrees.  Bake for 50-60 minutes, until all but about 1” of the center is set. Jiggle the pie to check that- it will jiggle like Jello instead of like water.  (If 1" of the center still seems like liquid, that's OK;  the center will continue to cook as it cools.)  Cool on a rack.  Store covered in the fridge.


Pat-in-Pan Crust
Looks and tastes just like a rolled-out crust, but is much easier, and does not get tough from handling it.

1 stick butter (1/2 c.) softened but cool
2 oz. cream cheese, softened but cool
1 ¼ c. flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
¼ tsp. salt

Coat a 9” pie pan with cooking spray.  Beat together butter and cream cheese until very smooth.  Add all else, beat 20-40 seconds more until it looks like coarse cornmeal.  Scrape sides of bowl, beat until large clumps form.  Set aside 3 Tbsp of dough for top edge.  Evenly press remaining dough onto bottom and up sides of the pie pan.  On a floured surface, roll each Tbsp reserved dough into a 9” rope, put around top edge of pan; flute edge.  Wrap and chill 1 hour, preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Roll out and prick with a fork; bake until golden, 35-40 minutes.  Cool on rack.

To "parbake" this crust, you're going to "par"tly "bake" it: cook 20-25 minutes, until the crust looks dry but not browned.  Pour the filling in while crust is still warm.

If you’re making multiples of this, it’s easiest to use an upright mixer and wire beaters.  You’ll use about two cups of the dough, loosely packed, for each crust.
 

This recipe is from  this week's Custard Pies and Pie Crust class- the two-page handout is on the link. It includes recipes for several custard pies: Pumpkin Pie, Pecan Pie, Poor Man's Pecan Pie (Pecan Pie recipe, but using toasted rolled oats INSTEAD of pecans), Rhubarb Custard Pie, and Cranberry Pie. 
 
 
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Most grocery stores start having 'baking sales' right about now.  I usually stock up for the coming year whle these baking ingredients are cheaper.  This year the sweetened condensed milk price hasn't been as low as usual. 

What can you use if you don't have sweetened condensed milk? (If you want one without dairy or table sugar, see here.)

While playing with it in recipes, I've learned a couple things about it.  One 14-ounce can is roughly the same as adding 1 cup of evaporated milk and 1 cup of granulated sugar (more accurate is 7 oz. evaporated milk and 7 oz- which is 1 cup- sugar).  You can also use half-and-half, whipping cream, coconut milk, coconut cream, or powdered milk mixed to double strength.  If you need it to be rich and are using powdered milk, add a couple tablespoons of butter.  Cream of coconut is a pretty good substitute; use the same amount.  Coconut cream is my favorite to use in this when cooking for dairy-sensitive people.  You can find it, and sometimes coconut milk powder (mix to double strength for coconut cream consistency), at Asian markets.    See photo at bottom of post.

Note-Cream of coconut and coconut cream are NOT the same. Cream of coconut can be found with the drink mixers in any grocery store. It's made of coconut milk, sugar, and stabilizers.  Coconut cream is the thick liquid extracted by crushing or grinding coconut meat. -  I've found that this homemade "sweetened condensed coconut milk" does NOT set up in the no-bake cheesecake recipe.  The homemade stuff made with actual dairy does work.  I suspect it has something to do with dairy curdling- and coconut not- when mixed with citrus juice.

If your recipe is not going to be baked, as when you're making Two-Minute Fudge, stir together the milk and sugar, then bring it to a boil to dissolve the sugar crystals.  If the food you're making will be baked, the sugar will dissolve as the food cooks.

This substitute also works in reverse: when you have a recipe that calls for 1 cup milk/cream/half&half and 1 cup sugar, you can add a can of sweetened condensed milk!

To see how to make delicious thick apple-wedge-dipping caramel, see the instructions for Making Tres Leches Cake.  Just cook the sweetened condensed milk, don't add anything else to it.

Here's a recipe for sweetened condensed milk using powdered milk:

Sweetened Condensed Milk
– for the closest version to a 14-oz can, use

1/2 c. (non-instant) powdered milk
1/2 c. water
1 c.  sugar
0-2 Tbsp. butter

 If you like to be precise, use 1 1/2 Tbsp. less than 1/2 c. water (this also gives a slightly thicker result, like the can), but the first way is very close (yields 14 3/4 oz)    Other recipes use more -or less- of any of those ingredients.  Really, they all work. That said, the 'closest' version costs $ .39 if you use no butter, and $ .53 if you use 2 Tbsp.  What a deal! One important thing to know- these recipes call for hot or boiling water so the sugar gets completely dissolved. Otherwise you get grainy condensed milk.  I usually put my sugar with the water, then microwave and stir until the sugar dissolves.  Then blend with the milk powder and butter.

For more recipes using powdered milk, see the post from 10/25/10

or the recipes from
The Wooden Spoon Cooking School.  For the class handouts for all the Wooden Spoon classes, see myFavorite Resources page.
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There are a few previous posts on finding, choosing, buying,storing, or dehydrating pumpkin-

This one is on just preparing it.  If you want pumpkin recipes, see The Great Pumpkin e-book, available for free.

The simple version is: cook until soft, mash or puree, use or store it.  If you need details, this is the post for you!

I prefer to steam my pumpkin, that way I can keep the skin on and get the extra fiber and minerals from it, and waste less.  You can bake it if you prefer; cut in half, clean out the insides, and bake, cut-side down on a cookie sheet.  Plan on about an hour at 350 degrees. Baking is a better option if you're using a thick-skinned squash like Hubbard or Acorn (which work fine in pumpkin recipes, by the way).

If you're steaming it, start by scrubbing off any dirt.  If there are little blemishes, cut them out or scrape them off with a paring knife.  Some are only skin-deep.  Cut off the steam and blossom end.  Those little brownish-grey bits never will soften up.  They won't hurt you, but they're not pleasant to eat.

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Cut the pumpkin in half.  Scrape out the strings and seeds.  A spoon is a great tool.  Don't worry about getting all the strings out.  They puree.  Seeds don't. 

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Cut the pumpkin in strips about 1 to 2" wide.  These will be C-shaped.  Turn them on their sides and cut crosswise to make roughly square-shaped pieces.

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Put about 1" of water in the largest pot you have.  When it comes to a boil, fill the pan with the pumpkin pieces.  Bring back to a boil, put a lid on it, and let simmer until tender.  It takes about the same amount of time as it does to boil cubed potatoes: about 30 minutes for bigger chunks, less for smaller ones.

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When the pumpkin is done, it will be translucent.  A fork or knife poked into a piece will meet no resistance.  You can still puree it without it being fully cooked, but it's harder on the machine.
Mash with a potato masher if that's all you have (but it won't get rid of strings).  I use a blender and usually have to add about 1/4 c. of the cooking water to get it to puree.   A food processor would work great. 

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If you have more puree than you'll use within a week, measure the extra into containers or freezer bags.  How much will you use at once?  Store that much in each container.  I always make two pumpkins pies at a time, which takes 4 cups.  So I freeze pumpkin in 4-cup batches.  If you only want 1 cup at a time for a batch of cookies, freeze some in that amount.  Label them with the contents, amount, and the date.  Best if used within a year, but they'll be fine so long as they don't get freezer-burned.  It won't make you sick even then, but you'll need more spices to hide that nasty flavor.  I sometimes find 3- or 4-year-old bags hiding in the back of the freezer; they cook up just fine.
So that the bags lie flat for storing, you can freeze them on a cookie sheet.  This has another benefit- if your bag happens to pop open while freezing, spills are caught on the tray.  Yep, I learned this one the hard way.  Actually, they'll stack in a less space if you freeze them already stacked up.  Just make sure those bags are going to stay closed!

This reminds me of a quote seen today: "Always learn from others' mistakes.  You can't possibly live long enough to make them all yourself."

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What about the seeds you scraped out?  Well, you can toss the whole lot out into a flowerbed or pot outside, and see what grows next year.  We prefer to eat them.  With your fingers, sort out the seeds.  It's a slippery job, but you'll get the hang of it.  The strings go in the compost pile outside.  If you want to save seeds for next year, put some of the seeds on a paper towel and let them airdry for a couple weeks.  Store them in a paper bag or paper envelope.  They'll mold if stored in plastic.  Label them!  Be aware that unless you have a non-hybrid pumpkin, what grows next year will not be exactly the same size, shape, or variety.  But it will be pumpkin.  Plant in the spring after the last frost.  Plant 3-4 seeds close together, and allow them about a 2-4 foot radius for the vines to spread out.

To bake them instead, drizzle with 1-2 tablespoons of oil (this makes them MUCH easier to chew and digest!), sprinkle with salt, and bake until they've turned golden brown.  Use any temperature from 350 to 400 degrees, baking will take anywhere from 7-20 minutes, depending how wet they were and how hot the oven is.