just because gifts

A few of my favorite things you can mail via USPS first class, that is, they weigh 13 ounces or less.

the smile mask card

DIY flipbook


a post card you can carve your innitials into

DIY mini boomerang (I’m totally trying this)

assemble-able post cards, found via here

custom silhouettes available here

magnetic paper dolls, via here

pretty hair pins

pretty socks

your own personal hot air balloon, available here or get the DIY here (found via here)

magnets that turn your fridge into an aquarium

the hexbug, found this guy via here

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The postal workers have been seeing more of me lately. I’ve discovered that you can stick postage on just about anything and the good people of the USPS will mail it for you. I have walked in there with two pretty small packages and a round package and I have yet to stump them.

My favorite is when the package weighs 13 ounces or less. I hand them my package and wait in suspense while they flop it onto their scale. If it’s under 13 ounces I try not to act too excited, then I send it off first class and pay only a buck or two. Really, a buck or two to send something delightful anywhere in the U.S.? A buck or two so I can have a SIL open her mailbox and find a sweet little round box jumbled in with all her more serious mail? I’m curious about weight limits elsewhere? Australia? Europe?

I’m very wrapped up in this idea, and decided to add a whole new category to my gift guide. Visit here and you will find several gifts that weigh 13 ounces or less from clever bloggers and shopkeepers out there. Word of warning, the category is based on estimates from my own brain. I did not pull out an official postal scale.

And incase you don’t find enough in the gift guide, check back tomorrow. I’ll share several other favorites that I estimate weigh in under 13 ounces.

What have you mailed for 13 ounces or less?

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A little more fun for your coworkers, with *almost* everything coming in at $15 or under (I couldn’t resist the porcupine, even if he is a tad spendy, I mean look at the little guy. And oh ya, the doormat is 30. But it’s so pretty, and handpainted, it’s still a bargain, right? )

-marcvidal_longcrayons2_med

Marc Vidal colored pencils. Only the finest pencils ever made. And really, what’s happier than colored pencils? And as a bonus (as if you needed one), you have the multiplication tables printed right on the lid. So handy.

inexpensive gifts ideas for coworkers outdoors

these frisbees are good ones, great a game of ultimate at lunch
the bike repair kit
a collapsible little umbrella, with a loop at the bottom incase you’d like to throw on a charm or ribbon
snow toys available here
bike bags made from salvaged vinyl signage, available here
a set of chalk eggs, for writing nice messages on the sidewalk on the way into the office or for playing tic-tac-toe at lunch
this sweet little thermos

inexpensive gifts ideas for coworkers office copy

love these handpainted doormats, what a stylish way to mark the threshold to your cubicle
the kangaroo pocket
a rockin’ pencil sharpener
the key cleaner
a game cleverly disguised as magnets
the sweet prickly porcupine
a glitter bouncy ball, fun for hours
portable air hockey
a paint tube door stop

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Just a few spooky favorites you might want to try for Saturday.

party favor surprise balls halloween

Did you see these surprise balls? So beautifully done.

halloween party favors round up

surprise-filled pumpkins and brooms, chocolate bars in costume via here
free printable Halloween art (via here), spider hat, candy corn bag
treat-packed skulls, spooky votive jars (via here)
jack-o-lantern suckers, marshmallow art

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If you’re new here, welcome. I’m AmberLee, and since writing this post, I’ve opened up a little chocolate shop. I’d love to have you stop by, don’t forget to send me a hot chocolate flavor suggestion. Or say hello on facebook. I’d like that too.

NOTE: If you blog this recipe, I’ll be thrilled and flattered. In fact, I kept this recipe as bare bones as possible in hopes you’d play with different flavors, molds, and sticks. If you do blog, would you link back to me here? (Like this and this kind review, thank you!) I will so appreciate it. Feel free to use a picture or two, but please don’t repost all the pictures and please don’t post the recipe without my written permission. It’s taken a few years of researching and practicing with chocolate (certainly not an unpleasant thing) and some days of a very messy kitchen (but a happy family) to provide you with this recipe and with good advice about chocolate.

Oh how I love when the weather turns cold enough for hot chocolate. Something about a good cup of hot chocolate makes the world feel like a gentler place.
gourmet hot chocolate on a stick gift
This idea is something I’ve been wanting to try for a couple winters now. Chocolate, and hot chocolate especially, have always been a big deal to me. I spent the first years of my life in my dad’s hometown of Merida, Venezuela—right up the hill from Lake Maracaibo, where some of the world’s most crazy amazing cacao is grown. Our family was made up of German and Austrian immigrants who were crazy about fine chocolate. So I always felt chocolate was in my blood. Finally, my parents and family landed in Idaho, which is where I discovered that a cup of hot chocolate was the difference between a bleak winter and a cozy one.



me in Venezuela, I’m the pudgy one in booties

Enough of my life story, and on to a recipe for real, amazing hot chocolate.

I’m glad I finally took the time to puzzle this through and do a little taste testing, because the recipe turned out to be so simple, and the results so delightful. Stir one of these sticks into a cup of steaming milk or cream and in two minutes  you will have transformed it into a cup of rich hot chocolate, the blessed stuff. I can’t help feel that the act of stirring adds to the experience, soothing you over while building up the anticipation for that first sip.
hot chocolate on a stick gift

First things first: what chocolate to buy (see a whole post dedicated to this here)
The trick to making the best hot chocolate on a stick is using good, serious chocolate that melts easily. A chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa butter will do that. More cocoa butter means quicker melting. A bag of every-day chocolate chips won’t melt as fast. In fact, chocolate chips are formulated not to melt as fast, so they hold shape in your yummy cookies. You can also find fake chocolate (like a bag of Wilton’s candy melts, aka summer coating), which uses vegetable fats instead of cocoa butter. It will melt well, but the resulting cup of hot chocolate won’t be transcendent. And we’re going for transcendent. The candy melts are great for coating the outside if you like, because they stay pretty and shiny even if you don’t melt them just right.

If you’re on a tight budget, try using a bag of real-chocolate wafers made for a chocolate fountain or for fondue. You can also go with a good baking chocolate bar (you’ll probably want one that is sweetened, not unsweetened). If you really want to make an incredible gift, invest in some good chocolate. You’ll have to sample to pick a favorite. For most chocolate, if you enjoy eating it, you will enjoy drinking it, though some chocolates definitely stand out as drinking chocolate (Scharffen Berger, great if you like a natural chocolate), and some seem to fall short (Lindt for me did this). Following are some good other brands to consider: Ghiradelli (great if you want a dutch processed, more cocoa-flavored chocolate), Barry Callebaut, Dagoba, Michel Cluizel, El Rey, Valrhona, Guittard, TCHO, and I’ve really been wanting to try Amano from Utah.

And if you want your chocolate to come out pretty, you’ll need to temper it. I’ve written my full tempering instructions here. But if you are new to chocolate and tempering scares you, just dip your creations in melted, chocolate-looking, summer coating.

chocolate wafers meltable

Word of warning: no water!
There is one thing you need to know before working with chocolate if you don’t already: never let water or alcohol touch it. Not a drop. You can be stirring a potful of smooth, decadent melted chocolate, then get one drop of water in it and the whole thing will get grainy and seize up. It’s a sad experience. (If this happens to you, use the chocolate for a recipe like brownies or ganache that uses chocolate and liquids).

So then, if you’re planning to introduce vanilla, use a vanilla bean or vanilla paste, not vanilla extract. If you want to add food coloring, use a gel or powdered form, not liquid.
chocolate homemade candy

Hot Chocolate on a Stick
Yield: 10 cubes of hot chocolate (ice-cube-tray size)
(use 1 oz. hot chocolate on a stick per every 1 cup milk or cream)

Equipment:
Ziplock bags or piping bags
A double boiler or pan with a glass bowl that can sit over the simmering water
Some kind of chocolate mold, ice trays work great
Stir sticks or a bag of wooden craft sticks like I used (like these, available at any craft store)

Ingredients:
8 oz. chocolate (see note above), bittersweet, semisweet, milk, and white chocolate all work
3 Tbsp cocoa, sifted (dutch processed cocoais more mellow, natural cocoais stronger, pick your favorite)
6-8 Tbsp confectioner’s sugar, sifted, depending on how much sweeter you’d like your hot chocolate
pinch of salt

Feel free to play with other fun ingredients to throw in, ground spices, crushed candy. Just remember, no water and no alcohol or your chocolate will sieze.

6 cups milk and 2 cups heavy cream if you plan to enjoy these right away

Method
(read a whole post about melting chocolate, including how to melt in the microwave, here)

  1. If your chocolate is in a block, chop it into even-sized meltable pieces. Simmer a couple inches of water in a pan, then turn down the heat so the water is below a simmer. I like to remove the pan from the heat, but if you keep it on, keep that water below a simmer. Place glass or stainless steel bowl over the top to make a double boiler. If the bowl touches the water it’s alright, as long as your water is mildly warm, not hot. Dump chocolate into the clean, dry bowl and stir as the chocolate melts. (If you are patient and let those chunks melt slowly, keeping them from getting over 90 degrees F or 88 degrees F for milk and white chocolate, the chocolate will stay “in temper” and will still be nice and pretty when it cools.)
  2. Once the chocolate is 2/3 melted, with just some pieces of the chocolate unmelted, remove the bowl from the pan, dry the bottom with a towel and continue stirring until chocolate is fully melted. This is just one more step to keep the chocolate from getting too hot.
  3. Add cocoa, sugar, and salt and continue to stir until combined. The chocolate will be thicker, as thick as frosting if you’ve put in all the sugar, but stir on. You can pop it back over your double boiler for a minute to make it a bit more liquid, or pop it back in the microwave for 5 or 10 seconds on half power. If the chocolate looks and feels grainy it’s possible you’ve accidentally gotten a drop of water in the mixture. If it has gotten water in it and has seized up, it will still taste alright, it just won’t be as pretty or smooth or melt quite as fast.
  4. Scoop chocolate into a ziplock bag and clip off the corner.
  5. Pipe the chocolate into your chocolate mold, tapping the mold on the counter to make sure all the chocolate settles into the mold. Add a stir stick and you’re done. The stir stick should stay upright without any trouble. If the chocolate bursts through the bag in places you don’t want it to, just put the whole thing in another bag. If the chocolate starts to get too thick to squeeze, just put the whole thing in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 30 seconds or so at half power.
  6. Let the chocolate cool either at room temperature or in the fridge if you’re in a hurry. I find the chocolate pops out of the mold nicely if it’s been in the fridge. It’s okay to cool chocolate in the fridge, just don’t store it there, because chocolate soaks up the odors of other foods pretty quickly.
  7. If you don’t like the look of the chocolate once it is removed from the mold, you can dip the cubes into a new batch of plain melted chocolate for a shinier finish (again, try to keep chocolate from heating over 90 degrees, or use candy melts, which don’t need to be in temper, they will stay shiny and pretty even if you go above 90 degrees). This also lets you add sprinkles or crushed candy or just lets you dip in fun patterns. I like dipping at an angle into a different color of chocolate.
  8. In order to enjoy these, heat up any combo of milk, water, half and half, or cream. I like 6 cups milk with 2 cups heavy cream. One ounce of chocolate on a stick should be melted into one cup milk or cream. So a standard ice cube-tray block, which is 3/4 an ounce, should be melted into a mug with 3/4 cup milk or cream in it.

Troubleshooting: A few of you have had trouble with your chocolate seizing. Tiffany provided this great note  to help out (thanks, Tiffany!), “if the chocolate begins to seize (since for some reason, both of my batches seized, I’m thinking it’s the humidity in the air where I am) you do not have to throw it out. Just put the bowl back over the hot water and add a little bit of vegetable oil (I used somewhere between a tsp and a tbsp) after stirring over a little heat, the chocolate will get smooth again. Also good to note, chocolate can seize if you add any cold ingredients.”

How to store it: Dark chocolate will keep in an airtight container for up to a year, milk and white chocolate for several months. Remember, don’t keep it in the fridge because it is really good at absorbing odors.
hot chocolate on a stick3

cinnamon hot chocolate

Variations: Try adding a pinch of your favorite spice. We tried adding a little extra punch by lining the outside with red hots. Very fun. You can also leave out the cocoa and sugar all together and replace it with 8 servings of your favorite packaged hot cocoa. And if you have any strokes of genius for flavors, we’re collecting flavor ideas at my hot chocolate shop, The Ticket Kitchen.
mold

As you can see, we played around with a few different molds, like this water bottle ice cube mold from IKEA. The classic ice cube mold was my favorite though. It works best for submersing the entire block of meltable chocolate in a standard mug.
UPDATE: Love Prince Pi’s suggestion of molding these in shot glasses. Also love how the Kitchn (yea!! they tried my recipe!!) made do with a single pan. TinaMarie also made the great suggestion of using small Dixie cups. And finally, check out this beautiful version Sprinkebakes made using a chocolate transfer sheet and birch spoons. You will love it.
hot chocolate on a stick 2

This was fun, but a mess to open (chocolate in egg shells).

Happy melting! And if you have a moment to peruse my shop or become a fan on facebook, I’d love to have you!


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This recipe requires a total of 10 minutes rising time. Don’t ask me how it’s done, just trust the magic. I picked up this recipe from my mother’s friend, and have found it great for making cinnamon rolls by the masses. It comes in very handy if, say, you need to bribe a big group of house guests to wake up early so you can get out of the house before noon or a group of men to come help move a friend. If you need just one dozen for a quiet morning, check out option 1.

quickest cinnamon roll recipe

Same-Morning Cinnamon Rolls
Yield 24 rolls (in two 9×13 pans)

Total prep time: 1 hr 15 min.
Active prep time: 45 min.

Rolls
3 1/2 cups warm water
6 Tbsp. yeast (yes, that’s tablespoons!)
1 cup oil
3/4 cup white sugar (6 oz)
3 beaten eggs
1 Tbsp. salt
10 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (46 oz)

Filling
2 cubes butter (1 cup), removed from fridge 10 minutes prior
2 cups brown sugar (12 oz)
4 tsp. cinnamon

Frosting
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup butter, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp. milk

breakfast recipe, eggs butter

Method
In a large bowl, mix together water, yeast, oil, and 3/4 cup white sugar. Let stand 15 minutes until bubbly.

Meanwhile, prepare filling in a medium bowl. Mix the 2 cups brown sugar, cinnamon, and 2 Tbsp. flour together and cut in butter using two knives or a pastry cutter. Set aside.

flour on scaleI like to weigh my flour. Less mess, much less time.

To yeast mixture, add 3 beaten eggs, salt, and 10 1/2 cups flour. If you need to add more flour, add as little as possible so dough is manageable but still a bit sticky.

Knead well until dough is silky, about 5 to 7 minutes. Don’t let rise.

Divide dough in half. Smear oil on counter (or on a pastry cloth) and roll out dough the size of a large cookie sheet. Take care not to roll it too thin.
easy cinnamon roll recipe

Sprinkle filling evenly over dough. Rollup and pinch seam. (Take care not to roll dough to tight.) Mark into 12 rolls and cut with a serrated knife or with dental floss or fishing line from the bottom of the roll. Place rolls on ungreased 9×13 pan. Repeat with second half of dough.
quickest cinnamon rolls

Let rise 10 minutes, while oven heats to 385°. Bake 22–25 minutes. Cover rolls with foil for the last five minutes if the tops become too brown before they are done. Be sure to cook them fully, if not, the middle rolls will come out doughy. In fact, you may want to check those middle rolls before you pull the batch out of the oven.

Meanwhile prepare frosting. Combine powdered sugar, 1/3 cup butter, vanilla, and milk for frosting.

Frost and enjoy the heavenly experience commonly known as a cinnamon roll.
housewarming gift

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I make cinnamon rolls for the people in my house. I make them for my kids on slow mornings or for my grandma and grandpa when they visit. Something about a cinnamon roll begs to be eaten slowly, unrolled and pulled apart meaningfully, and to be enjoyed in good company, and in a sun-lit room if possible.

fastest cinnamon rolls 2

I had a favorite recipe I used all the time in college. I made them for Brent when we were dating (no wonder he liked me, right?) But it is involved and means you either start the night before or get up at an unearthly hour in the morning. The problem with this is that when I have company, usually I am staying up late into the night talking and reminiscing. So getting up at the crack of dawn seems too masochistic. Since than I’ve been thrilled to collect a couple recipes that can be made the morning-of.

This one I stumbled upon thanks to Apartment Therapy. It involves cottage cheese (I know, weird). I was a little suspicious, but tried it this weekend for my family, and it yielded heavenly, light but chewy rolls. If you have a food processor, this recipe is the way to go. The only drawback is that you are limited to 12 rolls per batch. And sometimes when I make cinnamon rolls, I like to make cinnamon rolls. I like to mix up a giant batch and take a dozen to a friend. But I can have that with option 2.

No-rise cinnamon rolls: Get the recipe here, found via here.

no rise cinnamon rolls

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JUST THINKING

06.16.09

One of the first blogs I ever loved is this one (check out the J. Press ties posted today). The posts on her blog and the letterpress design in her shop are just right, never overburdened with details, just the simple essentials that cheer me up most.

cupcake-bakery-box-letterpressHer recent posts have got me thinking about cupcakes and flower bouquets, two never-fail ways to brighten anyone’s day. I think her letterpress cupcake boxes are the perfect cupcake delivery vessel. And I was just admiring her mailing labels, which got me thinking, does anyone else agree these two would make a great match? (flower arrangement tutorial via Martha)
pretty-address-labels2

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PIE IS SO NICE

04.02.09

I love the story DesignMom shared today about her friend who brought her a sour cherry pie (beautifully pictured below) and then spent the afternoon. Pies are so comforting and traditional. There’s nothing like them.

cherrypiePart of the reason I feel this way about pies must be because of my Grandma. Her name is Cleo. A lifetime of homemaking shows in her immaculate clothes folding, her perfectly timed dinners, and her heavenly pie crusts. This Christmas I used etching cream to make her a personalized pie dish, and the next time she viseted I made her make her crust in my kitchen while I took notes.

etched-pie-dish

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When I was a teen, I’m not sure I fully appreciated handmade gifts. I was aware they were especially thoughtful, and so always tried to weigh my appreciation accordingly, but I didn’t quite get it. But now, as an adult, they put me in rapture! So of course, since Monday, when I received a surprise package and opened it to find these, I have been undeterrably happy.

striped-crocheted-hotpadsI have an adorable aunt in Venezuela who heard I’d been hinting that I wanted hand-crocheted hotpads. So she sat down and made some for me. Aunts are the best.

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I love this time of year, when it’s still cold enough for hot chocolate but spring is promising to burst out everywhere. Every year at this time that I get a sudden craving for lemon and chocolate in one sitting. Last week the kids and I sat down to homemade lemon pound cake and hot chocolate. But the cake is gone and I’m looking for my next fix.

meyer-lemons4

copyrighted photo used courtesy of Cannelle et Vanille

I love that Aran at Cannelle et Vanille received a bag of Meyer lemons on her doorstep from thoughtful friends. If you’d like to drop off a few at a friend’s doorstep, they may be available at Costco according to Stephmodo. And if you’d like to see some of the magic a pastry chef creates from a gift of lemons, visit Cannelle et Vanille’s recent posts: Chocolate Chiboust and Meyer Lemon TartMeyer Lemon Semifreddo and Macarons, Cake with Dark Chocolate Mousse and Meyer Lemon Cream. If you’d rather buy than bake, here is a fun goodie you can give, Lemon Crunch bars from Chocoagogo.

lemon-candy-bits-in-chocolate-bar1

Most people have serious opinions about fruit and chocolate. If you don’t know the chocolate druthers of a friend or hostess, play it safe and keep things separate. Try a batch of Meyer Lemon Lace Tuiles (by Martha) and drop off a few to several different friends with a half pint of chocolate ice cream.

meyer-lemon-lace-tuiles2

Or just go for pure, unadulterated chocolate. Drinkable chocolate is made by melting tiny chocolate bits into hot milk. A friend of mine (thanks Shanti!) tipped me off about this after seeing it on Unwrapped on the Food Network. And I know a few hot chocolate affecionados who would love it.drinkable-chocolate1

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Just found this picture on Pretty Good. Well said.

happiness-is-sending-a-surprise1

And this list of thoughtfulness by Stephanie Brubaker on Design Mom:
Drop off baked treats for a friend (package template by Martha), pack a lunch for someone down on their luck, assemble a tea party in a box for someone who needs some cheer, or divvy up a big boquet among a few people you love. Visit Stephanie’s post for more detail and packaging links.

martha-pieboxes_l

flowers-in-paper-737757

I was noticing just yesterday that a good deed, a little quiet time, and a wholesome dinner at the table with the kids makes for a pretty great day.

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Machine washable fingerless gloves from FibreSantric’s shop at etsy.com

Today I stopped by a certain fast food restaurant that I won’t name, and after ordering my egg McMuffin with no cheese, I pulled up to pay. The cashier and I exchanged comments about the cold weather, and then I admired her fingerless gloves. “Some lady gave me these because she felt sorry for me.” I left smiling at the thought of the good Samaritan passing through the McDonalds (oops I said it) drive through.

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BOUQUET OF ONE

11.15.08

I went with my son to visit a friend this week. On our way out she stopped by her flower garden to clip three dahlias, one each for me and my son, and one to take home to my daughter. They’re beautiful, and really, one dahlia alone can brighten a whole room.

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