Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dairy Free Brownies

What better time for yummy, chocolatey brownies than Valentine's Day? I dressed mine up with heart cookie cutters and they're perfect for a party! And as always, dairy free and safe for those intolerant or allergic.

This recipe calls for self-rising flour, if you don't have any on hand it's super simple to make your own. Just add 1 1/4 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon of salt to a cup of flour. It's easiest to make it one cup at a time, so you can make a batch and store it for future use.


  • 1/2 cup of Earth Balance (One half stick) dairy free margarine, softened
  • 1 cup of white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup of self rising flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 tsp. of real vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. of real almond extract
  • Handful of vegan chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9x9 pan. Beat butter and sugar until creamy. Add the eggs and mix well. Combine the cocoa powder, flour, and salt in a separate bowl and add to the wet mixture. Stir in the extracts. Pour and spread into prepared pan. I like to sprinkle chocolate chips on top just before baking so that the brownies cook up around the melted chocolate. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Insert a toothpick into the center to check for done-ness and allow to cool before cutting.

If you're interested in more dairy-allergy friendly treats this week, you're invited to follow me on Facebook and Pinterest, and to follow along on my blog!


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dairy Free Valentine's Day Chocolates

Let's kick off February with a week of Valentine's Day treats! As a mama to a child with a severe dairy allergy, I know all about how challenging holidays can be when trying to find special sweets if you or your child have to avoid dairy, so I'm going to share some of my favorite recipes. Even the dairy lovers will enjoy these treats!

My kids are always so excited when I make chocolates, and I love that I can make them with simple ingredients knowing that they're safe for my daughter. These chocolates are so easy and super delicious. I can't promise you won't want to eat them all yourself!

I use vegan chocolate chips purchased at Whole Foods, other brands of dairy free semi-sweet chips and dark chocolate bars would be suitable. The possibilities for fillings are nearly endless. For this particular batch, I made a coconut almond filling and chocolate truffle filling. The chocolate truffle filling is adapted from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. If you haven't already purchased this book, I highly, highly recommend it. It will open up an entire world of delicious, dairy free possibilities and teach so many tricks and techniques for dairy free alternatives. 

Servings: 28

  • One 12 ounce bag of 365 Everyday Value Vegan Chocolate Chips
 Coconut Almond Filling
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin coconut oil
  • 1/2 cup of chopped sweetened coconut flakes. I use Trader Joes brand.
  • 1/4 tsp. real almond extract
  • 1 tsp. real maple syrup
Chocolate Truffle Filling
  •  9-10 ounces of 365 Everyday Value Vegan Chocolate Chips
  • 1/4 cup of unsweetened soy milk
  • 2 tablespoons real maple syrup
  • 1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. real almond extract


For the coating, set up a double boiler and bring water to a slight boil. Stir chocolate with a silicone spatula as it starts to melt until it's smooth and satiny. I prefer to take it off the heat and leave the bowl over the pot of water to keep it workable. You can also microwave the chocolate in 30 second increments, stirring in between. 

For the coconut filling, combine all ingredients and mix until creamy.

For the truffle filling, heat the soy milk until just before boiling and remove from the heat. Mix in the chocolate, syrup, and extracts with a spoon until smooth. Allow it to cool to room temperature, it's okay if it's still slightly warm.

I used a heart mold I picked up at Michaels and a 2 teaspoon batter scoop. In each mold, I dropped about a teaspoon of the chocolate coating and spread it around the bottom and sides with a mini spatula.

Pop the tray into the freezer for 5 minutes or so until it firms up and is ready for filling. Scoop approximately 1/2 tsp. of filling into each mold and cover with 1 tsp. of chocolate coating. Tap the mold gently against the counter to level the top and drive out any air bubbles. You can put it back into the fridge or freezer for 10-15 minutes to harden.

Once they're hardened, pop them out and store them covered in the fridge. If your house is anything like mine, they won't last more than a couple of days. And they'll certainly be loved as a gift or at a Valentine's Day party!

New friends are always welcome! Follow me on Facebook and Pinterest, and follow my blog for more dairy free Valentine treats this week!


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Army Mama Style: Nighttime Routine

Our nightly routine has been an ever-evolving process since the first child was born over 5 years ago. I have to admit that I haven't always been a routine person, so establishing a routine with my kids didn't come naturally to me.

When my oldest son was born, I encouraged him to establish his own sleep routine and planned the nighttime rituals around his natural sleep/wake patterns. He genuinely seemed to enjoy sleeping, but his sister who followed behind him 20 months later was another story entirely. My husband deployed shortly before her birth and returned right before her first birthday, and learning to manage both on my own was a challenge to say the least.

Once we achieved the goal of basic survival as I learned my new juggling act, we did find a routine that worked. It helped my oldest son from a behavioral standpoint to keep a sense of order about his day and night, and also encouraged a better sleep rhythm for my middle daughter. With our youngest daughter's arrival a year and a half ago, we've had to figure out a new nighttime routine once again.

Because of my husband's work schedule, my children sometimes only see him for an hour at night before bed so we try to maximize our time together and have dinner as a family, and our current routine is a reflection of that.
  • 4PM - We have a snack and the kids will play outside and may watch a show or continue their play inside.
  • 5PM - I get out pajamas and the girls get in the bathtub in the main bathroom while my son gets in the shower in the master bathroom. Once he was old enough to manage showering on his own, it made our routine much easier. Prior to that, all three took a bath at once. I line up the shampoo, conditioner, and soap and show him which order to go in and he's usually enthusiastic about it.
  • 5:30-6PM - The older two put on their pajamas while I dress the baby, and then my middle daughter usually gets a braid or ponytail for bed.
  •  6PM - I usually start prepping for dinner while the kids play. I try to stick with quick meals with 30 minutes or less of prep/cook time and I use the slow cooker quite often to cut down on the amount of time I have to spend in the kitchen on weeknights.
  • 6-7PM - Dad arrives home and we have dinner. They have the opportunity to play and talk with him before bedtime rituals. 
  • 7:45PM - Teeth brushing starts with my son and then my middle daughter follows. They each take turns picking up their room while the other brushes their teeth with me.
  • 8PM - Lights out for the older two, they're permitted to stay in their room and talk quietly and read. Our youngest daughter gets her teeth brushed and goes to sleep in her bed in our room. We usually keep our babies with us until age two once they start sleeping through the night to make nighttime parenting easier.
Different tasks may begin earlier or later but the general routine stays the same. Sticking with our flexible routine seems to help them transition through the day more easily and it creates the expectation of sleep, and going to bed is less of a frustration as a result. I've found that if we wait to do baths after dinner, everyone is tired and cranky so this setup works better because they can focus on spending time with dad once he gets home and the other evening necessities are out of the way. I've also found that following a routine enables me to have more patience when my battery starts to run low in the evening, and it's been really helpful when my husband is out of town.

That's an Army mama's perspective on nighttime routines!

Has a nighttime routine helped your family? Do you have any special rituals that make up your nighttime routine?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

DIY: Vintage Cane Back Barrel Chair Makeover

I completed this project several months ago after going on the hunt for a chair to add to my master bedroom. I never came across a chair that fit our color scheme, so I decided to find my own re-upholstery project on Craigslist.

This chair fit the bill, and for $30, was quite the steal. Naming this project "Super Ugly Chair" seemed entirely fitting at the time, complete with its bright 70's orange velour fabric. The owner also had dogs, golden retrievers to be exact, and I could tell from the smell that they must have loved sleeping on it. None of that mattered, of course, because this chair was about to receive a total makeover.

There are two parts to a project like this. The first is rather simple and involves priming and painting the wood and cane portion of the chair. The second involves new upholstery fabric and attaching it to the chair.

The first step in re-upholstering a chair of this type is dismantling it. The seat bottom had to come off first and that was achieved by flipping it over and removing the square head screws that had become firmly lodged into the wood over time. With a bit of muscle power I finally had the seat bottom off and could begin the task of removing the old, worn out upholstery.

Lots of staple removal followed in order to remove the upholstery fabric from the wood base. For this particular chair, there were several layers between the spring base that you see and the fabric. Because I was planning to make an entirely new cover, I carefully removed all of the old fabric, foam, and batting and saved it as a template for my new materials. This chair also had piping so I saved that as well.

Once the seat bottom was removed and dismantled, I went to work removing the seat back. The seat back had a groove for the piping to be stapled into, so I carefully removed it with needle nose pliers (a necessity for the 100's of staples I removed) and pulled the upholstery fabric away. Underneath was a layer of foam, a piece of firm cardboard, batting, and another layer of fabric. I saved everything for template making later on.

Once all of the upholstery was removed, I gave the chair a very thorough cleaning. It had A LOT of furniture polish buildup that needed to be removed before sanding. This is one of those times where you want to go to your local chain home improvement store and buy the industrial strength goo and grime remover, otherwise it can clog up your sander and make refinishing the wood a real pain.

I followed my typical routine of sanding with 80 grit sandpaper on my palm sander to remove the old finish and followed up with 180 grit to smooth down the wood in preparation for priming. Don't forget the face mask, several decade's worth of who knows what is being turned into microscopic particles.

I decided to use spray paint for this project and went with Rust-Oleum white primer. If you go with a spray paint and haven't applied it to furniture before, shake the can really well and opt for warmer temperatures in a well ventilated area because it will spray on easier. Wear gloves and a mask and take your time applying a thin coat in a steady, sweeping motion back and forth across the piece at the recommended distance on the can. I applied one coat and sanded lightly before applying two coats of Rust-Oleum Painter's Touch in Heirloom White. I opted for the satin finish and really fell in love with this color because it's so versatile for just about any interior style. Use an angled sanding block in between coats of paint to remove any drips or imperfections. I used a finishing coat of Minwax Polycrylic in satin finish. I use this sealant most often because it's low odor, dries quickly, and won't yellow on lighter colored paint. 

Can you believe how different it looked already? It's amazing what a new coat of paint can do for a piece of furniture, isn't it?

Now that the wood portion of the chair was finished, it was time to tackle the upholstery. I planned to replace all of the old foam and batting in the seat cushions, so I headed to Joann and picked up two 22x22x2 inch packages of Nufoam for the seat bottom and one package of the 22x22x2 for the seat back, a roll of 100% polyester batting, spray adhesive for making the bottom cushion, cotton piping, a zipper for the bottom cushion, and about 6 yards of heavier weight upholstery fabric (three kid proof). I also used a heavy duty staple gun and glue gun for re-attaching the upholstery.

For the seat bottom, I used a seam ripper to disassemble the seat cushion and used the old pieces as a tracing template on the new fabric. I recommend taking pictures of the process and marking your pieces so you can reference it during reassembly. Also make a note of your seam allowance and make any adjustments if necessary. I use a rotary cutter for quicker cutting of my fabric pieces. I didn't have a pattern for this but assembly for the bottom cushion cover is pretty self-explanatory. You can use a straight stitch in conjunction with a zig-zag stitch for stronger seams or use a serger.

For piping, I measured the length of the old piping and cut a long, rectangular piece of fabric to match. I laid the piping in the middle of the wrong side of the fabric and folded the fabric in half. I did a straight stitch down the long, open side as close to the piping as possible by moving the needle to the farthest outer position. You can straight stitch back and forth over both ends to secure it. I glued the two pieces of 22x22x2 Nufoam together with spray adhesive and used a bread knife to cut it into the same shape as the old cushion.

I followed the same method for the seat back and traced the old upholstery pieces onto my new fabric. Because the chair has an open back, the back fabric needed to be stapled on first. I stapled into the original groove in the chair that I had previously removed staples from and started from the middle and worked my way out, stretching the fabric as I went. Next came a piece of batting, a piece of firm cardboard cut to fit the dimensions of the back, and the remaining piece of  22x22x2 inch Nufoam cut to size. I needed an extra set of hands for stapling the final piece of fabric down and pulling it tight enough, and followed the same process of working from the middle to the outer corners. The seat bottom had its fabric re-attached in a similar fashion.

The seat back piping helps cover up the staples and raw edge of the fabric. I applied hot glue into the groove in the seat back and pressed the raw fabric edge of the piping into it. The ends of the piping would be stapled underneath the seat bottom once it was re-attached with new screws.

And there you have it! A $30 Craigslist find turned into a one-of-a-kind piece of furniture!

This week I'm linked up to:


Monday, January 28, 2013

Lessons in Low Desert Urban Winter Gardening

For the first time since moving to the Phoenix area, I was able to take advantage of our winter growing season. We were lucky enough to find a rental home with raised garden beds with adequate space for a variety of vegetables. I was inspired by square foot gardening and set up our beds in a similar fashion. Gardening for the newcomer can be a big adjustment here because our planting schedule is so different from other parts of the country. If you're curious about what and when to plant, this is the calendar I like to use.

                                                                            Source: thischickcooks.net via Katie on Pinterest

According to Sunset climate zones, Phoenix lies in zone 13 and we have the unique advantage that a subtropical low desert offers of mild winters with low temperatures averaging 36-42 degrees. The Phoenix area also experiences an urban heat island, meaning our temperatures are higher than the surrounding desert and more rural towns because land development, like concrete and asphalt, absorb heat during the day. Occasionally, we experience "extreme lows" during the winter months and unfortunately it can be tough to keep plants alive during sustained periods of freezing.

This particular Fall and Winter proved to be challenging for our garden because we had a longer period of warm temperatures, and then several periods of warming and cooling interfered with early growth. Once our colder temperatures set in, plants experienced much slower growth and that interfered with necessary maturity in order to withstand freezing. Many of us with Winter gardens were suddenly faced with a record freeze not seen since 1988.

We were able to pick beets and carrots ahead of time, but all but one lettuce and two collard greens were lost to the freeze. I was really disappointed to lose our pea plants just as pods were beginning to emerge.  Our pomegranate tree's status is yet to be determined. Our citrus trees seem to be okay. Fortunately, we have a local grower with several heirloom varieties of tomatoes and lettuce who was able to locate a greenhouse to protect her plants and we're able to get transplants for the growing season beginning in February. We'll be able to have more vegetables before the temperatures start to heat up again in the coming months.

 Jerusalem head lettuce

This lead me to research what options we have to maximize our growing season and keep plants healthy during our rather unpredictable weather, so I thought I'd share them here for anyone growing in this zone.

When planning your Fall/Winter garden:
  • Choose the earliest maturing varieties of plants. Most planting begins in September, so choose plants that will mature quickly before the coldest temperatures arrive in January. You can do this by counting back from what would be the first frost date according to our growing calendar (the reverse for everyone else) that's usually predicted for mid-December to mid-January. The last frost date is usually early February, so mid-February is a good time to put new plants in. 
  • Utilize container gardening for frost sensitive plants so you can take your plants inside if you anticipate freezing temperatures. Choose varieties intended for containers and they'll grow well here in the cooler months with proper watering and fertilization. Keep an eye on soil moisture on warm days as the sun heats the container, and move heat sensitive plants to shade. Even during the winter, it isn't unusual to experience 80+ degree temperatures during the day and have the temperature drop 40 degrees overnight. 
  • Consider transplants instead of seeds, and extend the growing season by using a cold frame or green house.
  • Landscape lighting and even holiday lights can help protect plants and trees from frost, so it's worth giving those a try in addition to covering with a sheet if freezing temperatures are expected. 
I'm finding that most growing calendars for the Phoenix area are rather optimistic about winter weather and are usually based around best case scenarios, but I have higher hopes for the February-May planting season if we have mild temperatures leading into Spring. In the mean-time, we'll get everything cleaned up and ready for a new round of planting.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

DIY: 1930's Oak Dresser Restoration

One of my favorite activities is furniture restoration. I love taking old, warn out pieces and giving them new life with a little paint and elbow grease. I'm also cheap, and would much rather restore an older, sturdy piece of furniture rather than pay three times as much for MDF and particle board. There's just something about old furniture and the history behind an item that adds so much character to the home that most modern furniture can't replicate.

I purchased this piece for $50 from a woman on Craigslist who used it to store her cycling equipment, and although it was sturdy, it needed some TLC. Craigslist is an excellent source for antique furniture, and usually less expensive than an antique store because people are looking to get rid of items quickly. If I happen to see a piece but don't want to pay the asking price, I'll usually make an offer and ask the seller to contact me if it doesn't sell within a few days when they're more motivated to take a lower price. In this case, I pointed out the amount of work I'd have to do to restore the dresser into usable condition and the seller was happy to negotiate. 

One thing I love about old furniture is the craftsmanship. Dovetail joints are characteristic of antiques and higher-end furniture and are more sturdy.  The previous owner applied contact paper inside the drawers, so I gave it a good cleaning to remove the left-over residue, furniture polish buildup, and grime that can gum up the sander. 

My first step in the restoration process was to tighten up the joints with wood glue and clutch bar clamps. I prefer to use Gorilla wood glue because it only requires clamping for 20-30 minutes and is sandable and paintable. Be sure to wipe off any excess glue before it dries. If you intend to stain or paint and your piece of furniture has any large gouges or scratches as mine did, use a stainable wood filler such as Minwax. It helps to leave a raised edge on the wood filler when applying so that it matches the surrounding wood once you sand it.

After allowing the glue to dry overnight, the piece was ready to be sanded. I started out with 80 grit sandpaper on my palm sander to remove the existing finish. Then I switched to 120-grit sandpaper to smooth out the wood before priming. In order to maintain character with an older piece, you don't have to sand away all imperfections. Some people prefer to use chemical products to remove old finish but I try to avoid them whenever possible. With either method, don't forget to use a face mask to avoid breathing in dust and who knows what else. Your nose and throat will thank you for it.

And don't forget your tack cloth. Why not just any old cloth? Because tack cloth is "tacky" just as its name implies and helps pick up all the dust that a regular cloth leaves behind, and it helps shorten the amount of wiping you have to do. I use this after sanding off old finish and between coats of paint and sealant after a light sanding.

You have a couple of options when it comes to priming. I prefer to use a product specifically for priming and I find Zinsser offers the best coverage and the widest range of products depending on my needs. While you have the option of not sanding before using their products, I don't skip this step because I want to ensure a durable finish (a necessity in a house with three children). For this particular project, I used Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 because it's water-based, low odor, washes off with soap and water, and can be re-coated in an hour. You still want to paint in a well ventilated area but it helps cut down on the stinkage a lot.

I've used many tools over time for primer and paint application but my favorite always ends up being a cabinet/door foam roller because it leaves a smooth finish without a bunch of flaws to sand away. The 4 or 6 inch roller is adequate for most furniture and I found this one at Lowe's with the included paint tray. If you have any detail work, some inexpensive foam paint brushes will get into corners easily without leaving any bubbles or streaks behind. Whenever you apply any kind of finish to bare wood, remember to work in the direction of the grain (in other words, the direction in which the lines on the wood travel). An angled sanding block with a fine grit, usually found in the paint section of most chain home improvement stores, will be your friend for this project. Use it lightly in-between coats of paint and finishing sealant to achieve a smoother surface.

I debated over paint colors for a while and decided to choose a light gray since the dresser would end up in our bedroom, and the color scheme is white/black/gray-blue/yellow. A lighter color on a large piece of furniture also helps keep it from overpowering the room. At first, I decided on Benjamin Moore's "Silver Half Dollar" but after a rather unpleasant experience at the local hardware store, I went to Lowe's and picked up Valspar Ultra in "Gravity".

I decided to do something different with the top of the dresser and give it a bit more character by staining it instead of painting. I went with Minwax dark walnut because it contrasted well with the light gray and gives the piece a more modern feel. Stain is incredibly easy to apply with a synthetic brush and using an old cotton rag (or old cloth prefold diaper if you're like me) to wipe off the excess after allowing it to penetrate the wood for 5-15 minutes. After priming, painting, and staining, I left it to dry overnight with the intention of sealing the next afternoon. Little did I know that I was about to experience the amazingly porous nature of red oak.

The next day I was greeted with this. You see, red oak fibers resemble 1000's of little straws and they draw in finishing agents like you wouldn't believe. But they also have a tendency to bleed the finish back out after the surface has begun to dry.

After a bit of searching, I found a couple of different remedies but decided to wipe off the bubbling stain with mineral spirits and keep an eye on it for additional bleed-through. After another 36 hours, I put on another coat of stain and wiped well and left it to dry for 24 hours. Some additional bleeding occurred but I found letting the first coat dry completely helped seal up the pores. Another option is to coat the wood in 1 or 2 pound cut shellac before staining in order to seal the surface, and then apply a gel stain.

Keep this in mind if you intend to refinish an oak piece. I didn't have any trouble with the wood accepting paint, thankfully.

Finally ready for finish! Again, lots of different options with protective finish but I prefer to use a water-based sealant because it dries quickly and is low odor. I used Minwax satin polycrylic because it gives a hint of shine but is still wipeable for whatever my kids decide to spill on it at any given time. I applied it over the entire piece with a foam paint brush. I prefer this method to a brush because there aren't any streaks from bristles or bubbles. If you decide to use polyurethane, keep in mind that yellowing of the finish is a possibility when paired with lighter paint colors.

After a long weekend project that turned out to be even longer due to some unintended learning experiences, the dresser was ready for knobs. I ended up purchasing ten 1.25 inch matte black cabinet knobs at Lowes for $30. Add $15 worth of paint and additional supplies I already had on hand, and this project cost under $100 for a dresser that could easily retail for more. I'm very happy with the finished product and love the look in our bedroom.

I hope you've enjoyed following along and you're inspired to look for your own one-of-a-kind antique piece!

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An Introduction, a Challenge, and a Welcome

"I am an inveterate homemaker, it is at once my pleasure, my recreation, and my handicap. Were I a man, my books would have been written in leisure, protected by a wife and secretary and various household officials. As it is, being a woman, my work has had to be done between bouts of homemaking." 
         - Pearl S. Buck
Upon entering motherhood, I remember the exact moment I held my first-born and knew with such intensity that I would give my whole life to him. No other moment in life compares to that feeling. And yet, in the coming weeks and months, I quickly realized that I was faced with the ultimate conundrum that all mothers contend with: redefining ourselves as women and discovering our identity as mothers at a time when self confidence is rather fragile. Maintaining a sense of identity isn't something typically covered in all those parenting books everyone insists you read, and yet it's a crucial task that we must endure.

This hasn't always been an easy undertaking as a military spouse and the unique challenges that accompany our lifestyle, and redefining and growing as a person is something I've dealt with after the addition of each new child. Over time I've realized that there are ways to puzzle motherhood and sense of self together in a way that works.

The challenge: Pick something to expend energy on. Seriously, anything. Better yet, step outside the box and take a chance on something new. It could be as simple as starting a new hobby or as challenging as training for a marathon. It's okay if motherhood and your latest undertaking overlap. If you pursue something and work hard enough to produce a positive result that evokes personal satisfaction, that energy will radiate to all corners of your life. The goal isn't perfection, or impressing anyone, but to build layers and depth of character that fosters a greater love and understanding of ourselves and those around us.

Motherhood presents a one of a kind opportunity to learn about all of our amazing strengths and abilities. Achieving a deep sense of fulfillment with our lives by investing in our personal growth is more permanent than spending a weekday getting a manicure or massage (although they have their place) because we're working on seeing life through a new set of eyes.

Because sometimes, the greatest challenge we face is changing our perspective on what constitutes fulfillment.

It's a simple theory, but this approach has helped me develop a greater sense of joy as a mother and woman. I've also discovered more opportunities to attain the types of experiences and relationships with others that I really want out of life.

I have always been inspired by the endless amount of creativity that exists in the world and I'm constantly looking for new ways to put my creativity to use, whether it be turning the latest house into a home, DIY projects, seeking out new experiences with my children as we embark on our homeschooling adventure, or finding ways to simplify and organize my life so I can spend more time on the things I really want to do.

And so, it is my hope that you'll be inspired to accept the challenge and try something new. And if you're in the midst of tackling a new endeavor, please feel free to share your progress! Welcome!