Aug 18

I am not a great cook. Cooking is quite a chore for me (yes, I’m a lazy mom), but I enjoy baking. One of my favorite foods to make are muffins! I love how versatile muffins are, and I love that you can throw just about anything in them and they’ll taste good. Growing up, my mom’s muffins ranked as my favorite thing she made for us (even above cookies!).

I have made tons of muffins in my life, and I usually improvise heavily. However, I have learned a few important tricks for making sure your muffins turn out yummy every time.

My Secret Muffin Tricks:

  1. Use enough sugar/sweetener. If you want people to love your muffins, don’t skimp on the sweetener. This is an important point if you’re making muffins to share with others (at work, or as a housewarming gift). If you’re eating them at home when they’re hot, you will still love your muffins even if they only use 1/4 cup sugar. The best muffins are always sweeter, though! And people are used to “muffins” at Starbucks or a bakery, and those things are basically cake.
  2. Always add sugar sprinkles on top. Use either turbinado sugar (“Sugar in the Raw”) or clear sprinkles from the cake decorating aisle. These up your muffin game exponentially.
  3. Make sure there’s a WOW ingredient. Don’t just make muffins with no additions. Plain flour muffins are completely missing the whole point of the muffin. Muffins with shredded veggies will be moist and delicious, and people won’t know why. You can use ugly fruit up and make it delicious in a muffin. You can use up leftovers, even weird ones. If you make juice with a juicer, don’t overlook the leftover pulp as a great addition to muffins. It adds fiber and flavor.
  4. But don’t add too many WOW ingredients. For an improvisational cook, it’s tempting to throw craisins, coconut, AND chocolate chips in a muffin (they’re alliterative!), but trust me when I say you really don’t want to add them all. Choose one, or maybe two. Save your other great ingredients for your next batch.
  5. Use cupcake liners, but grease them with nonstick cooking spray. Pop them into the muffin tins, spray them down, add muffin batter. Nobody wants to lose half their muffin on an unforgiving paper liner.
  6. Don’t overmix. They get tough if you stir them too much.
  7. If you want them to keep a few days longer: add more sugar, more oil. These help to keep them moist longer. Or, pop them in the freezer and they’ll keep for quite awhile.

My favorite base recipe is the Tightwad Gazette Universal Muffin Recipe. I use it as a rough guideline and generally use the following ingredients in a batch of muffins:

A note about sour milk: I like to use multiple leavening tricks because muffins can be notoriously heavy. Therefore, I always use sour milk (milk + vinegar) and baking soda, and it doesn’t hurt to add an extra egg. Blending the egg in the blender also helps!

Mix in a large bowl (dry ingredients):

  • 2.5 cups of flour (white, whole wheat, or any other kind of flour)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda (only if you use vinegar or buttermilk, otherwise, omit – the soda & the vinegar make a reaction that adds lightness)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sweetening ingredient (sugar, honey, etc.)
  • Spices, possibly, as desired

Mix in blender (wet ingredients):

  • 1 cup milk plus 1 tablespoon vinegar (sour milk makes tender, delicious muffins! Or, omit the vinegar and don’t forget to skip the baking soda too.)
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1-3 eggs (3 eggs make a really nice fluffy muffin; 1 egg is more economical)
  • Flavor extract (I like vanilla and/or almond)

Stir dry ingredients together. Blend wet ingredients. Combine in bowl until just mixed. Spoon into paper liners (sprayed with nonstick spray) in muffin tins. Bake at 400 F for 17-20 minutes.

Additions:

Additions can be pretty much anything, from raw or cooked veggies (carrots and zucchini are favorites) to leftover popcorn (yes, you can use it in muffins – it’s pretty good, too!), berries or other fruit, chocolate chips, nuts, healthy stuff (wheat germ, bran), and so on. If you have a leftover that you need to get rid of, you might do well to use it up in a muffin.

You’ll have to decide whether these additions go with the wet ingredients in the blender, or the dry ingredients, or whether you’ll fold them in after the principle ingredients are combined.

To blend or not to blend:

  1. Figure out if you want the addition to be a prominent flavor (if you don’t, then blend it)
  2. Figure out if the item is wet or dry (duh, right?)
  3. Figure out if the item will be mashed beyond recognition unless you fold it in at the very end (I’m looking at you, blueberries!)

If you blend it:

  • The item will be turned into pulp, with nearly no discernible pieces in the muffin. It will also reduce the strength of the flavor of the item. For example: you can blend a ripe banana in the blender and the banana flavor will be harder to detect (it won’t taste like banana bread at all). If you blend blueberries, the delicious berryness will be undetectable. Don’t blend your star ingredient.
  • Instead of chopping them, just blend raw veggies like carrots or zucchini to shred them. Just put them in the blender first with about 2 Tablespoons of liquid. Blend until they’re cut up into small pieces.
  • If you want to add color, shred a bit of the colorful ingredient with the wet ingredients (half a cup of berries will give your muffin a fun tint).
  • If you use a lot of pureed cooked veggies or fruit, your muffins will have a tough outer crust, but added inner moisture. For lower fat muffins, you can omit oil if you use pureed fruit.

If you don’t blend it:

  • You might want to mash it (as in bananas)
  • You might want to fold it in gently after all the ingredients are combined (again, berries)

This info is all by Heather Mann. Please do not reprint in any form without permission!

May 25

It’s time for summer craft fairs, everyone! Here are some tips for planning your craft fair experience: things to think about before you go, tips that will make your booth better and more effective, how to market to people who shop at your booth, and ways to make your craft fair-ing more pleasant.

Craft Show Resources:

Other Random Love:

Mar 21

We’re doing a Lightbox-Along in March, and this month, I’m also providing some photo tips. Previously on CROQ (read in the “LOST” narrator voice!):


(photo by Amy at the Red Chair Blog)

And now, let’s talk about what happens when you don’t have a good photo of your own to use in your blog. This can happen if you are just writing an article with no particular project associated with it, or maybe if you forgot to take photos when you were doing your project. There are some common courtesies you should follow when using other people’s photos.

On Dollar Store Crafts, I often link to other people’s craft projects. I usually post one of their photos along with a short synopsis of the project and a prominent link to the original project. Here are some rules I abide by when using other people’s photos.


(photo by Alexa Westerfield, Swell Designer)

1. Don’t hotlink

Hotlinking is when you point to another site as the source for your image. It’s not nice to leech other people’s resources for your blog. Download the photo from the host site and then upload it to your site to include it in your post, but before you do:

2. Check for photo rules

Blog owners often have rules regarding using their photos somewhere on their blog (usually on the front page). Some will say things like “feel free to use a photo if you use a link back to the original post” or maybe “please don’t use my photos without permission.” You need to follow any rules set out by the photo’s owner.


Check to see if the photo is available for general use. At flickr, you will see photo rules in the column on the lower right side of the photo. If you see “Some rights reserved” you can probably use the photo on your blog without contacting the owner before you post it. You should still let them know you are using it and leave a link to the post where you’re using it, but I’ll talk about that in a minute. If you want to use it on materials that you’ll be selling, you definitely need to get firm permission before using the photo.


(photo by Nikki at Salty Pineapple)

3. Ask for permission

When in doubt, ask for permission before you use a photo. Photographers will almost never refuse your kind request to use their photo on your blog!

4. Leave a comment

Even if the photographer doesn’t require you to contact them before you use their photo, you should leave a comment. It’s probably the only payment they’ll receive, so leaving a nice comment is the least you can do! Information you should include in your comment: where you used it (with a permalink to the post where it’s used), and a nice compliment is optional, but friendly!


(photo from Cover a Composition Book Tutorial by Sister Diane at Craftypod)


5. Give credit and a link

Give credit to the original photographer (by name, if possible) with a link to the original place where you found the photo. Bonus points for also linking to the photographer’s blog (if you found it on flickr, for instance). Link love is always appreciated. You can put your credit below the photo (even in a smaller font is fine), or at the end of the post.

6. Don’t post ALL their photos

If you use another person’s images, restrain yourself. Choose one (or two) to illustrate your point, and refer the reader to the photographer’s site if you want them to see more. If you want to stretch the images into more, crop your favorite details from the same photo and use the detail photos in multiple places in your post. I guess what I’m saying is, don’t just copy someone else’s work for your blog. That’s boring and lazy.


(Still Life: Vintage Enamelware Kettle by Wendy at Momsational)

Additional Resources:

FIND IMAGES:

  • Flickr is a community photo-sharing site. My favorite trick is to do an advanced search of my contacts’ photos for the photo subject I need. That way, I spread the love to people I already know, if possible.
  • Stock.xchng is a free stock photo site where you can download photos for use in print or on the web. If you use one of these photos, it’s nice to leave a comment with a link to your blog, since these photographers are providing their images for free. (I have even sent print samples to photographers when I used their photos in graphic design projects, just because it’s so fun to see your work in print.)
  • DeviantART: you can often find good illustrations or photos to accompany your posts here. Remember to check for permissions to make sure it’s okay to use an image before you use it.
  • Find free vector illustrations at Vecteezy.
Mar 16

You’ve learned my photography rules to live by, but here are some technical things you should know when using photography in blogging. Today I’m focusing on things to do when using your own photos on your blog. Check back for my next post, 6 Ways to Use Other People’s Photos.

1. Resize your photo before you upload it to your blog

Ginormous photos increase loading time for your blog, and aren’t usually necessary. Sure, your blog automatically displays a photo at the right size, but it still has to load a huge photo onto the person’s computer to show it to them. This is death for dial-uppers, and even impacts the performance of your blog for the rest of your readers.

  • If you don’t have any photo-editing software, see my additional resources at the end of this post for alternatives.
  • You can analyze the loading speed of your site for free at the Web Page Analyzer
  • If you want to provide large photos so your readers can enjoy your amazing photography, consider linking to the large version of your photo (stored on flickr, maybe?)
  • Photo size varies according to your blog, but you usually don’t want your photo to be larger than 600 pixels wide or tall. I usually go 400.
  • Pixel size is the absolute measurement… don’t worry about dpi (300dpi or 72dpi, etc). Just look at the pixel size.

2. Lead with your best photo

In case you haven’t noticed, there are a LOT of good blogs out there. You only have a short amount of time to capture your readers’ attention, so lead with a strong image. Before you even type a word, post the best photo associated with your project.


3. Crop in on your object

Part of a strong photo is cropping. You don’t necessarily have to show the whole item, but you definitely need to get the reader intrigued. Eliminate the background as much as possible and get close to your subject. But not too close!

4. If you do get close, use your macro setting

The macro setting on your camera is used for taking very close-up photos. If you aren’t familiar with the macro setting, t’s usually denoted on cameras by a little flower symbol. It can be useful for getting very close detail shots, but be sure your item is in focus in the viewfinder when using the macro setting.

5. Choose the good photos, and leave the rest behind

Some blogs are known for using ten-hundred photos of the same item from a slightly different angle, over and over and over (by the way, I totally don’t have anyone in mind. I have just visited these blogs periodically!). It might fool people into thinking you are a better photographer if you have sixteen photos of your brooch from above, but probably not. You’re better off choosing the best photo (or two) of the item and eliminating the rest. Of course,

6. Tutorial process photos are good

If your post is a tutorial, a few photos that help illuminate the process are helpful. If the photo just confuses things, though, don’t use it. I often stage a process photo to help show what’s going on (for instance, inserting an open pair of scissors near the place where I’m cutting to help the photo say “cut here, like this.”) Again, don’t use an excessive number of process photos if they aren’t necessary.

7. Even a bad photo is better than no photo

Even if you don’t get any great photos of the project, or the process, anything is (almost always) better than nothing. Photos help people see what you’re talking about. If you don’t include a photo, the reader will be stuck interpreting what you mean by “blue elephant pillow” and that can be nearly anything. Blogging is about making a connection, and a photo helps connect the reader to you and your project.

8. If you don’t have a photo, find another photo

Use your phone to take a picture (in good light), or look somewhere else for a good photo. I’ll give you my tips for using other people’s photos next time!

Additional Resources:

FREE PHOTO EDITING: Can’t afford Photoshop?

  • I use XnView for viewing, sorting, and basic cropping and editing of my photos. It’s free and you can download it here. It’s good enough for most jobs!
  • SumoPaint is an online photo editor with similarities to Photoshop (but you can just use it on the internet w/out downloading anything). It takes a minute to load.
  • Hornil StylePix is a free downloadable photo editor similar to an older version of Photoshop.
  • A lot of people swear by GIMP, which is also similar to Photoshop, but I have never been able to connect with it on a personal level!

Other:

Mar 13

We are halfway into our March Lightbox-along, and I wanted to provide you with some photography tips, just for fun.

I know you don’t come here for my amazing photography skills (and I am often more interested in sharing good ideas than great photos), but I do know a couple helpful things about blog photography. You don’t have to have an expensive camera, especially if you pay attention to some of the details.

Here are the photography rules I live by:

  • Avoid the flash. The hard shadows that a flash creates are usually never flattering.
  • Instead, use natural light. Indirect sunlight from a window is usually great for craft photos. (But once you get a lightbox, you won’t have to worry about good light!)
  • Add light if necessary. If you’re shooting a quick photo at night, increase your chances of a decent photo by adding light. Bring your object to a lamp, or bring the lamp to the object. You can also add light (which will help your camera take a clearer photo) by adding light-colored surfaces like placing your object on a white sheet or near a white wall.
  • Make sure you focus the camera on your subject. It seems like a given, but a lot of blogs feature blurry photos. (I know sometimes it’s hard to get a clear photo if you don’t have natural light, or if you are just shooting quick process photos while you craft, or if you use an inferior camera like the one on your phone, but you can always take time to focus the camera.)
  • Use an unobstructed background. Avoid background clutter. A lot of times, I put things on a clean table or floor and shoot them from above.
  • Get close. You usually don’t need to show the background, so step closer and fill your camera window with your object.
  • Staging helps a photo. If you can show your object in use (preferably with attractive props), it can make for a more compelling photo.
  • Shoot a few different angles. Take at least three different photos from three different places, including “odd” angles. You never know what might make your object look its best.
  • Take more than one photo. In this age of mostly-digital images, there isn’t a reason to skimp on exposures. Take a safety photo or twelve just in case. Your camera’s viewfinder usually doesn’t tell the whole story. What might look crisp on a one-inch screen can easily look blurry at a regular blog size.

I have a lot of other tips for using photography in your blog that I’ll post next week.

Additional resources:

  • Photography tips and more photography tips by great craft blogger and photographer Sonja at Craft-Werk
  • A few photo tips by Disney at Ruffles and Stuff, who takes excellent craft and fashion photos for her amazing craft tutorials
  • How to Photograph Your Baby, a book by Nick Kelsh. Don’t let the “baby” part of the title scare you. This book has a lot of great basic info for beginning photographers, and will drastically increase the quality of your photos. Also, it’s a nice spiral-bound book with lots of big pictures and easy to read text. Definitely more friendly than scarily technical. (Sidenote: there’s also a book called How to Photograph Your Life which might have more info on object photography, but I haven’t read it, so I’m not sure. I do like Kelsh’s books, though, and it has five stars on Amazon.)
  • 133 Photos Lit By a Single Candle on Gizmodo. Just for fun, see the amazing results some photographers were able to get by lighting with one single candle.
  • Photojojo has a lot of fun photo tips and activities
  • Inspirational photo craft blog: Leethal
  • Inspirational photo crafter: Jek-a-go-go
  • Inspirational crafty photo mom: Katherine Marie Photography (she also has a great article on 10 tips for photographing newborns)

Other posts in this series (coming soon):


*all these photos are by me :)
Feb 25

toddlertoothbrush2

If your kids are like mine, you know that toothbrush time is a popular moment for power struggles with a toddler. For me, brushing teeth can be a dreaded chore because I’ve already been dealing with power struggles with my kids for 12 hours. I just want to get it done and skip the struggling.

I came up with a few strategies to get my kids to open up and say “aaahhh” that I shared over at Ohdeedoh today. A few additional strategies I failed to mention:

  • Brush my toddler’s nose to lighten things up and get him to laugh (and thus open his mouth)
  • Pretend like he’s in a dentist’s chair and lay him down and brush his teeth
  • When all else fails: I learned this from my oldest son (he did it to me): put your thumb on his chin and he’ll have a hard time not opening his mouth

A few strategies from the readers at the Ohdeedoh post:

  • Provide two toothbrushes so the debate is which toothbrush to use, not whether to brush or not
  • Sing “This is the way we brush our teeth, brush our teeth…”
  • Praise the child when he complies so he’ll know that he did what you wanted/you’re happy with him
  • Try an electric toothbrush (readers mentioned the Elmo toothbrush and Dora The Explorer toothbrush) or other special toothbrush (Firefly toothbrush lights up)
  • If the toothbrush has a character on it, say “We have to feed Elmo!”
  • Use special toothpaste (reader mentioned strawberry-flavored no-fluoride toothpaste)
  • Give rewards (reader mentioned giving stickers)
  • Allow child to brush her teeth at the same time as mom or dad
  • Ask child to make animal noises to get her to open up
  • Another animal idea: animal fun – say “Open up like a big hippo” to do the molars, and “Now you’re a tiger” for a big smile/growl to do the front teeth
  • Let child brush her own teeth, then finish up for them
  • Say “can I look for choo-choo trains in your teeth?” or insert your child’s favorite thing
  • Tell your child you want to tickle her teeth
  • Show your child a video of a crocodile bird at work, and then tell her the toothbrush is the crocodile bird
  • Say “Wait, are you sure there’s no dinner left in your teeth? What about the PEAS?” and then act like an earnest detective scrubbing the brush around her mouth and ask if she can think of anything else you might have missed.
  • Occasionally miss his mouth to make him laugh

To check the original post, go here.

What do you to to get your kid to open up?

Dec 11

I recently tried making a reverse applique for the first time.

I used a cool little trick for the reverse applique that I haven’t seen anywhere else online…

I used an old dryer sheet to draw my applique on. I placed it over the
sweater bit to choose which part of the sweater would look good as a
spider!

Then I placed the sweater piece underneath the sweatshirt, and pinned the
dryer sheet to the front of the sweatshirt to use as a template as I
sewed.

When I was finished sewing, the dryer sheet tore off pretty easily.

I cut off just the top layer (the sweatshirt) inside the area I sewed, and got a cute reverse applique with minimal effort.

Jun 18

I don’t have that many, but there are two kitchen tricks I use a lot that always fill me with glee every time I use them because they are just so darn useful!

pastry blenderUse a pastry blender to make guacamole. Alton Brown doesn’t allow one-use tools in his kitchen and neither should you! My husband doesn’t like chunky guacamole (although I do), and I could never pulverize the avocado to his liking with just a fork. Enter the pastry blender! It easily mashes avocado and makes guacamole-making sooo easy!

whisk“Sift” flower with a wire whisk. I admit, I have a flour sifter (NOT the type recommended by Alton Brown – ha ha!), but I never use it (and it takes up a lot of space!). Instead, I put all my dry ingredients in a bowl and then stir them with a wire whisk. So awesome. It breaks up all lumps and incorporates all the dry ingredients beautifully.

I will never be the author of an amazing cookblog, but I do have these two tips to share with you!