Preserving Vacation Memories

Unfortunately, vacations only last so long.  A week or two – more if you’re lucky – but at some point we all have to go back to reality.  I suppose that’s a good thing.  After all, if vacations lasted forever, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate them fully, now would we?  (Don’t answer that.)

When we get home, and get back into the swing of ordinary life, there is so much to do that thoughts of vacation often fly right out of our minds.  We have to take steps to keep those memories intact.  If you’re like me – camera-happy – and you’ve taken hundreds or even thousands of pictures over the course of your trip, organizing those photos and turning them into a keepsake can be a fabulous way to relive the vacation – and bonus, you’ll have them to look back on after every rainy day or crushing work deadline.

My favorite way to preserve my vacation pictures is in a hardbound photo book.  I make mine on Shutterfly, simply because I’ve been storing my pictures there for years and I find it to be one of the more user-friendly sites (at least, it seems to make sense in my brain). There are many other photo processing websites to explore, though – Kodak, Snapfish, MyPublisher and others all allow users to store and display their pictures in many ways.

I made a Shutterfly book after my trip to France in 2010 and was thrilled with the result.  The process was simple (and I imagine it’s much the same on other photo-processing sites).  First I uploaded the photos I wanted to use from my computer onto Shutterfly.  I then chose which pictures I wanted to go on each page of the book, as well as the front and back covers.  The site allowed me to play with the layout of each page until the pictures were set out exactly as I wanted them.  I was able to choose from several color themes for the book, each of which came with a number of background page options.


When the pages were laid out, I typed in my own custom captions for each page, describing the pictures and my experiences in detail.

I loved my France book so much that I made another one for my 2011 trip to England:

The books arrive a few weeks after you create them, and – I can’t speak for every photo site, but at least the Shutterfly versions – they’re gorgeous.  The covers are excellent quality and the pages are glossy and professionally printed.  I love to sit on my couch and flip through these books for hours, tasting the flaky croissants and cafe au lait from France or the scones and tea I had in England all over again.

Making books is my favorite way of preserving vacation memories, but there are others:

  • Blog about your trip!  Take your readers on the journey with you.
  • Make a video slideshow, and set it to music.  (My parents and brother do this.  It’s on my agenda to figure out how to do it with my own computer software.)
  • Keep a trip journal while you’re away, writing down your impressions as you go, and turn it into a scrapbook with ephemera you pick up at each stop.
  • Print your photos and hang them on your walls or display them around your house.
  • Make a traditional photo album with 4×6 prints.
  • Collect small souvenirs along the way and turn them into a shadowbox when you get home.  (I’d love to try this sometime!)

(Please note, this post has not been paid for or perked by Shutterfly.  Use whatever photo site you durn well please, or don’t use any of them.  I no curr.  That’s just who I use, and I like them.)

How do you preserve vacation memories when you get home?


Packed Lunch for Two in Ten Minutes Flat

I try to pack lunches for hubby and myself as much as possible.  Anything that comes out of my kitchen is guaranteed to be cheaper, and most likely healthier, than what we could buy from a restaurant or cafe near work.  Not that we won’t treat ourselves occasionally – but that’s what it would be, a treat.  On a regular day, I’ll throw together our lunches in the morning before we leave for work.  And since we’re out the door by 6:30 a.m. most days, I’ve got to make the lunch preparation snappy.  Here’s how I put together a balanced lunch for two in ten minutes flat:

Step 1: Decide – the night before, if possible, what will be on the menu.  At 6:00 in the morning, I’m not a short-order cook, so most of the time hubby and I have relatively the same thing.  If we’re having sandwiches, we’re having sandwiches – although he’ll get whatever kind of sandwich he wants (from ingredients we have, obviously).  So he may ask for PB&J while I’m having cheese or hummus – and that I can do.  Last night hubby expressed a preference for salad today, so salads it was.

Ingredients and containers laid out and ready to go.

Start the clock running!  10 minutes remaining

Step 2: Start assembling the salads.  Add lettuce to each container (hubby gets the big one; I’m also having one leftover enchilada so I’m just taking a side salad).  Chop salad veggies (we’re having bell pepper, cucumber and tomato, and I’m also having a chopped pear) and add them to the salads.  Hubby gets most of the veggies because the salad is his main course; I just get a few since for me it’s a side.

Look at those tasty fresh salads!

Step 3: Finish off the salads with any final touches.  Today it’s cheddar-jack cheese and dressing (Annie’s Naturals Goddess) for hubby; pasteurized goat cheese for me.

5 minutes down, 5 minutes to go!

Step 4: Clean up the work area – take dishes to the sink and throw out veggie scraps or other garbage.

Lunches laid out and ready to be packed.

Two minute warning!

Step 5: Pack it all up!  Hubby is also getting an apple and I’m getting a pear.  And I have snacks because the baby gets cranky by late afternoon – so I’ve got a YoBaby yogurt (don’t hate) and some cherries to nosh on so I don’t get queasy on the drive home.

Ready for the commute!

Annnnnnnnd… she’s done!

Exactly ten minutes later, here we are all packed up and ready to go off on our day.  (If you’re curious about our lunch containers: hubby’s salad is packed in a glass bowl from Anchor and his lunchbox is actually a free insulated lunch bag I got as part of a packed lunch when I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton for a conference earlier this year.  My salad and enchilada were packed in Snapware – also glass and available at Target – and my lunchbox is from Built and is available at the Container Store and other stores.  My snack bag, which has my cherries and yogurt in it, is from Posh Pouches.)

Happy lunching!

Thrifty Marketing Tips

Three months and change ago, I set a goal to save money at the grocery store.  I was tired of standing at the checkout counter, cringing at the bill.  I knew that there had to be a way to whittle down grocery costs without sacrificing the taste or quality of our meals.  Last week I recapped the results of my Thrifty Challenge – overall, success! – and promised to share some tips with you based on what I learned.  Some of these tips are common sense things that most people already know, but my experience with the Thrifty Challenge reinforced that they are really TRUE.

1. Make a LIST and check it twice!  The biggest thing that you can do for your grocery bills is to plan out your purchases for the week, and then stick to it.  Each week I sit down and create a menu before I go to the grocery store.  First, I look in my crisper drawer to see what perishable produce I still have on hand, and then I incorporate it into my planned meals for the week (trying to use up the older produce earlier in the week before it goes bad).  I then make a grocery list based on what items I know I will need based on my menu, always making sure to add things like fruit and lunch items for hubby and myself.  I go to the store with my list and a pen in hand, checking off each item as I go along and not deviating from the list.

2. Use coupons.  This is an area where I still need improvement!  There were a few weeks where I was really gung-ho, checking coupon blogs and websites, my grocery store’s website, and my favorite product pages for coupons and discount codes.  I then printed them off, cut them out, and kept them clipped to my grocery list.  The weeks that I did that bit of legwork (usually the morning of my grocery trip) I noticed some actual savings in my bill.  Oh, I wasn’t about to be featured on “Extreme Couponing” anytime soon, but a few dollars shaved off my bill made me very happy.  Of course, there’s an important caveat – don’t buy an item just because you have a coupon!  If you wouldn’t normally buy chips or cookies, then a coupon isn’t an excuse – it’s just a waste of money and calories.  I make a point of only using coupons for items that I would buy anyway.  That way I’m not being lulled into actually spending more money when my goal is to save, and I’m not blowing my calorie budget on processed foods that I wouldn’t otherwise consume.

3. Don’t shop hungry.  Another obvious one, but in my experience it’s really true.  If you go to the grocery store hungry, you’ll be tempted to throw all kinds of snacks and processed food into your cart.  Not only is the food you grab while shopping hungry generally less healthy than what you would put on your list, but it’s often more expensive too.  If you need to, have a small snack before shopping so that you’re not tempted to deviate from your healthy and thrifty meal plan.

4. Don’t over-plan.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but I find that making my menu and cooking schedule too rigid is actually bad for my budget.  If I plan 7 meals in a week – which I used to do – I invariably end up jettisoning one or two of them.  Maybe I get home late from work one evening and don’t have time to put together an elaborate dinner.  Maybe I decide I’m just really, really in the mood for scrambled eggs.  (That happens on a weekly basis.)  Maybe I forget to pull something out of the freezer, or hubby wants veggie burgers on the grill.  If I’ve planned and purchased the ingredients for seven dinners, and two or three don’t get made, the fresh stuff ends up going to waste.  But if I plan 4 or 5 dinners, I will usually end up making all of the planned meals; nothing gets edged out by egg or burger nights and no ingredients are wasted.

How do you save money at the market?

How To Choose A Thanksgiving Wine

If you’re hosting Thanksgiving this year… or throwing a holiday dinner party of any kind… or having the boss-man over before your end of the year performance evaluation… odds are you’re giving some serious thought to the wine.  Even if it’s not normally your beverage, you might be wanting to impress everyone with your fabulous taste in grape juice.  And you may be wondering, where to begin?  How do I go about picking that perfect wine to go with the turkey (or Tofurkey, as the case may be)?

Fear not, friends.  Drunken messybaker has tips for you.  Oh, happy day!

First off, you need to settle an important question.  What’s the main course?  If you’re hosting Thanksgiving, you’re probably roasting up a turkey.  The conventional wisdom says that you should serve a white wine – preferably Chardonnay – with turkey.  And while Chardonnay is fine, it’s certainly not mandatory.  What you want is to find a wine that will stand up to your main course without overpowering it.  Chardonnay is often the choice when it comes to white wines to serve with poultry, especially in the colder months, because it does have the body to pair with turkey, and its aromas – often toast, butter, or vanilla if it’s oaked, or lemon, apple and pear if it’s not – tend to complement the flavors most people associate with turkey and the Thanksgiving meal.  So if you want to pour Chardonnay, by all means, go for it.  Pick a nice Sonoma wine – I love the Chardonnay wines from the Russian River Valley and Los Carneros – or be a little exotic and pour a white Burgundy.

But I don’t like Chardonnay, you say?  It’s boring?  Okay, that’s fine.  (I happen to disagree, but there are plenty of people who are anti-Chard, probably because they’ve had too much mediocre stuff.  Sometime I’ll do a post about that.)  You don’t have to pour Chardonnay.  If you want to stick with white, you just need to make sure that you’re picking a wine with enough power and heft to match with turkey – so that rules out most Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.  But you might always consider a lesser-known white varietal… like Viognier.  Just as “big” as many Chards, but a bit sweeter and fruitier, Viognier is the unofficial official wine of Virginia.  Since I’ve moved here I’ve come to love it, and it’s definitely worth consideration for your Thanksgiving table.  Plus, you’ll get the bonus of looking erudite and sophisticated by choosing a wine that half your dinner guests haven’t heard of.  Swirl on, my pretentious friends, swirl on.

Ah, but wait.  What if you don’t like white wine at all?  (That’s not crazy, Mom.  Some people don’t.)  Are you stuck swirling your water glass all evening?  I say… NO!  Now this might be sacrilege to some, but I don’t see any reason why you can’t pair turkey with a red wine.  You just need to pick carefully.  In this case, you’ll be doing the opposite analysis.  Unlike white wines, which you’d be evaluating to make sure they have enough body to stand up to a rich roasted  turkey  Tofurkey, if you’re going for a red you want one on the lighter-bodied end of the spectrum.  A big Cab or meaty Merlot is going to be too much for your poor little bird (or Field Roast!) to handle.  Steer toward a light, fruity Pinot Noir – I love the choices from, again, the Russian River Valley, or from Oregon.  Or go for a fruity Rhone red.  The key is to find a red wine with relatively low tannins and a good fruity character.  (Some of the Rhones are like jam in a glass.  You can tell people that they’re the alcoholic version of cranberry sauce.)  Sure, the establishment will gasp and say that you NEVER, NEVER serve red wine with turkey, but who cares what they think?  If that’s what you like, go for it – the only rule of wine pairing that I consider unassailable is that you should drink what you like, and only what you like.  Plus, it’s fun to stick it to the establishment.  That’s what the Pilgrims did… and isn’t Thanksgiving all about the Pilgrims?


How To Make A Cheese Board

Ah, the cheese board.  Star of the after-dinner hour.  Hero of the wine-and-cheese party.  (Oh, who am I kidding?  Beer me some Pinot.)  No, but really… the cheese board has its place.  After dinner, served in place of dessert, it’s the height of sophistication.  As much as I love to bake and serve people desserts, a cheese board can be a wonderful change of pace.  When hubby and I were traveling in California this fall, we had some fantastic cheese boards that highlighted the best local cheeses, as well as some exotic choices.  I came home itching to make my own cheese board.  It’s actually very easy, if you follow a few simple guidelines…

First, you need cheese.  Obviously.  A cheese board without cheese would be… well… kind of a non-starter.  (Nothing against my vegan friends.  But it’s true.)  I like to serve at least three cheeses on a cheese board, and I generally stick with the following ratio: one hard, one soft, one blue.  If you have an extra-large cheese board, you can feel free to add on as you desire, but one hard, one soft, one blue is a good rule to follow for a fairly universally-pleasing cheese board.  Above, I’ve chosen a Cabot cloth-aged cheddar (hard), a Hudson Valley camembert (soft), and a milder French blue (blue, duh).  If  I had the space or the crowd to feed, I might have added a creamy goat cheese (sans herbs, please – it’s dessert) or a cave-aged gruyere, or perhaps a smoked gouda.  However, you need at least one hard, one soft, one blue.

With the blue cheese, I love to add honeycomb.  I always keep some honeycomb in my pantry, for just this purpose.  The sweetness of the honey counteracts the pungency of the cheese, which hubby really appreciates.  Together, the two flavors are perfection.

I always add a few extras to fill out the cheese board.  To this cheese board, I added half of a small date-and-walnut loaf, a handful of dried black mission figs, and a pile of fresh raspberries.  When you’re shopping for your cheese board, pick out your cheeses first and then think about how the flavors will interact with each other.  The dates and the figs both went equally well with the camembert and the cheddar.  You need some extras for visual interest – to break up the cheeses – and for flavor complexity.  For dessert cheese boards, I like to add dried fruits; for appetizer cheese boards, I pile up olives, a variety of crackers, and cherry tomatoes.  Last but not least, whether this is dessert or hors d’ouvres, you’ll need of bread or crackers to serve with the cheeses.

Oh, and wine.  You can’t forget the wine.