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9.26.2014

Friday Faves: Key Ingredient Digital Recipe Reader

Today I am reviewing a product that I have used and loved for so long, that I was surprised to see that I hadn't featured it on my Friday Faves yet.  It's my digital recipe reader from Key Ingredient.

 
In short, this revolutionized my kitchen.  I no longer have that overflowing folder with print and cut-outs on my counter, collecting splashes of sauce and kitchen grime.  I also have an easy way to organize all the recipes I get via emails and shared links.  I have one efficient place to store ALL my recipes, which I can access on the device itself, on my phone's mobile Key Ingredient app, and on the Key Ingredient app.
 
What makes this different than a multi-use tablet is that it is specifically designed for the kitchen, and can stay in the kitchen.  It is completely kitchen safe (water and heat won't damage it), and includes some features that are specific to cooking (I will explain more on that below).  It can lay flat at a slight angle, or be propped up to see it from afar.  The font-size is even adjustable.
 
One of the things I love is that I can organize my "cookbooks" in whatever categories I like, and can even save short-lists of recipes that I might need to quickly access together (for example, each item on my Thanksgiving menu). 
 
How does it all work?  You store your recipes digitally in an account you have to create on Key Ingredient (there are both free and Prime options), then those recipes and cookbooks wirelessly sync to your device (the device connects to your home Wi-Fi network). 
 
Adding recipes to your Key Ingredient account is incredibly easy, which is one of the things that makes this product worthwhile.  When you first get it, or need to add a lot of new recipes, it wouldn't be very convenient to hand-type in all of your recipes (although you can manually add recipes - which comes in handy for old family recipes).  Much like the Pinterest "Pin It" button, Key Ingredient allows you to download a "Cookmark" button for your favorites bar.  *Note* I find that the Key Ingredient site and "Cookmark" button work better in Chrome than they do in Internet Explorer.
 


When you are on any webpage that contains a recipe and click the "Cookmark" favorite bar button, there is a pop-up from Key Ingredient that automatically formats the recipe for your Key Ingredient site.  You can then upload a photo of the recipe and save it directly into your Key Ingredient cookbooks (again, just like the "Pin It" button).  Couldn't be quicker or easier!  Even when adding your old recipes, you can find almost any of them online somewhere, so adding them to Key Ingredient is a snap thanks to this "Cookmark" feature.

Again, I love that you can also access your Key Ingredient account and recipes through their website and mobile app, allowing you to plan your menus or shopping lists wherever you are.

 
As I mentioned earlier, the device has several really cool cooking features. First, it is searchable by recipe title and ingredient (when you have as many recipes on here as I do, you can't always remember the exact name of a recipe, but you may remember that it includes the word "ranch" or that it contains avocado).


 

One cool tool is the conversion calculator.  Need to know how many tablespoons there are in a quarter cup?  How about how many drops constitute a dash?  Of course, this tool is probably the most helpful when you are trying to modify the quantity of an entire recipe.

 
A helpful tool for multi-part meals (think parties or on a holiday like Thanksgiving) is the timer feature.  It includes three separate timers, which is good if you can only do one or two on your oven or microwave.


 
 
Another really cool is the substitution menu.  This one is super helpful when you are elbow deep in a cooking project and realize that you don't have something like almond extract.  This will tell you some alternatives for that ingredient so that you can substitute for something you do have on hand.  This tool can also help you find healthier alternatives for certain ingredients.
 
Long story short, this is a product that I use daily, and appreciate so much.  It keeps my kitchen organized, keeps everything in one place, and allows me to efficiently and easily collect new recipes that I get through daily emails from AllRecipes.com, etc. from wherever I am, and then send them directly to where it counts (my kitchen).

9.16.2014

Travel Tuesday: Beijing Layover Tour to Great Wall of China

 
When booking our recent trip to Thailand, I found that Air China was the best deal for flights at the time.  Most Air China flights from the states involved a layover in China.  As we had never been to China, I thought this could present us an opportunity to see at least a small part of this very large country. 
 
I coordinated our travel so that we had a 9.5 hour layover in Beijing.  I figured at least we would have some time to eat some local food, and maybe see Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City or something.  Little did I realize at time of booking that we'd actually have the opportunity to visit the Great Wall for a few hours... something I have wanted to see my entire life, and a major check off the ol' travel bucket list!
 
When it came time to start planning our layover activities, I came across a lot of options for "layover tours" in Beijing for people just like me... those who had a long layover in Beijing and wanted to see some sights.  It was on one of these sites that I discovered that Beijing airport is accessible to two parts of the Great Wall: Juyongguan and Mutianyu. Given that Mutianyu happens to be regarded as one of the most scenic parts of the Wall, as well as being less busy/touristy, the decision was a no-brainer.
 
As the wall was a good 1-1.5 hour drive, we wouldn't have time on the layover to do the Wall and any other spots in Beijing, so we opted to just do the Wall.  With many tour guide choices, I ended up settling on Beijing TourS Guide. Not only was their price competitive, but they also had great reviews (I always check the traveler reviews for places and activities I am trying to book internationally).  What really sold me however was their customer service and responsiveness.  I had a ton of questions, and all were answered promptly and with great information via email.  I was also able to pre-pay in full with PayPal (I could have put just a deposit), which was convenient to me to avoid international transfer fees and exchanging cash on site.
 
Their customer service rep, Daniel, presented me with this itinerary based on our layover schedule, which made planning very easy:
 
Mutianyu Great Wall Layover Tour~Pick you up from Beijing airport exit by our private tour guide & driver around 7:30 (Flight number: TBA; 06:30) 
~Drive to Mutianyu Great Wall (07:30-08:30)
~Visit Mutianyu Great Wall (08:30-11:30)
~Transfer back to airport (11:30-12:30)
~End of our service

The reasonable price included admission fees for all of the sightseeing spots listed in the itinerary, private English-speaking tour guide and private vehicle for transfers & sightseeing, service charge & government taxes, bottled mineral water, and China life tourist accident/casualty insurance.  Meals and gratuities for our tour guide and driver would be extra (but this is understandable).
 
One important thing to consider when leaving the airport during layover in China is that you need to apply for visa-free transit (which you can do for up to 72 hours in Beijing and other cities).  This can be done at the airport, but you do need to understand the process.  I found this article on TripAdvisor to be very helpful for planning purposes.
 
Our tour guide Herbie picked us up from the airport on time, and was waiting for us with our driver.  He was so great to be around on the drive and during our time at the wall.  He knew so much about Chinese history and the Great Wall that we learned a lot.  He was also a genuinely nice guy, and spoke English very well.  He really added to the experience, and for that we are really happy with our choice of Beijing TourS Guide as our tour company.
 
We were fortunate enough to visit Beijing on a day with no smog and a cloudless sky with perfect visibility.  We were in for a great day!  For your own info, here is a website with more info on Mutianyu, including prices and history. Here is a map for the Mutianyu section of the wall to help you with some context.

 
 
When we arrived at Mutianyu we had to make some choices on how we wanted to go up and down the Wall.  You can hike or chair-lift up, and hike, chair-lift, or toboggan down (more on that later). On top of the entrance fee to the Wall, you do have to pay extra for the transportation options up and down.  We didn't have time to hike (not that we would have - we knew we were in for lots of walking and stairs once on the Wall), and so we chose the adventurous options of chair-lift up, and toboggan down.

 
The Wall, in a word, was majestic.  Much like our visit to Machu Picchu, it was surreal to be there and see these sights with our own eyes.  It was just very amazing and significant.  In the image above you can see the steepest part of the Great Wall at the Mutianyu section, which we did ascend and descend.  It was no joke.  I recommend shoes with good grip, as the steps are unevenly spaced, and there is a lot of them.  The view at the top was worth it, however!

 
Here you can see a gorgeous view looking the opposite direction.  In the distance you can see the wall along the top of the entire mountain range, snaking along the landscape.
 
Here are some more images from our visit:





 
Now, the toboggan!  I was a little nervous seeing the sign pictured above... but honestly, I am a girl who sky dives and has run with the bulls, so for me, this was the only choice for descending the mountain.
 
It was really fun, and it was definitely worth it.  You do have to be careful, as you control your own speed and if you go too quickly, you slam into the person in front of you (you can see my husband in front of me in the photo below), and if you go to slowly, someone behind you will slam into you.  If you are unsure, you can actually watch people's YouTube videos of the ride so you can see how long it is, and what it is like.  I never felt like I was about to fly out, but I was definitely on my guard.

 
I definitely recommend a visit to the Great Wall of China if you have a long layover in Beijing, and I definitely recommend Beijing TourS Guide and our guide Herbie.  I am so grateful for this experience, and for this new travel adventure.  We will definitely be back to China someday to spend time exploring it more... there is a lot to see and do, and we didn't even scratch the surface.


9.12.2014

How to Make a Photo Book out of Children's Art

 
I don't know about you, but with two kids in preschool, we amass a LOT of art in our house.  I adore every little piece of creative expression that our boys come home with, or make at home, and I love to look at them.  However, there is only so much surface area on our fridge, and a big pile of painted construction paper on our counter is not very convenient.  I inserted a hanging file inside our coat closet to store the artwork, but not only does it fill quickly, it doesn't keep their art very accessible. 
 
We first discovered the power of the photo book when we got married. It was a great way to display pictures from our engagement photo session at our wedding reception, and had a double purpose as our wedding guestbook.  I have made photo books since to compile and display pics from our kids' newborn photo sessions, and have also made some of the kids' photos for family members as holiday gifts.
 
I thought, "why couldn't this be a solution for our boys' artwork too?"  Surely we'd be able to more easily enjoy the future Picasso's art if it were compiled together in a tidy book, as opposed to this:

 
 
The first step was to organize the art by year (I couldn't always remember the exact order of the art, but I could roughly organize them by year) for each child.  Some years had so much art that I organized them in six month increments.
 
The second step was to photograph each picture.  I used a DSLR so I could have good resolution, and took the photos in an area with good lighting, and was careful not to have a shadow from the camera or myself on the art I was photographing.
 
After photographing, I uploaded all the pictures to my laptop computer, then went through and cropped and/or rotated them slightly so that there was no funky border or background of my floor showing.
 
Next, you need to decide where you'd like to order your photo book.  I am a fan of Snapfish and MyPublisher.  Snapfish is always offering good sales, especially around the holidays, so I tend to stock up on photo book projects that time of year.  Both feature a very user-friendly interface, and I recommend using their "auto complete" option for ease of getting started.  It helps suggest layouts for you, and you can always go in and re-arrange some of the images as needed.
 
 
I like having the cover of the book printed with one of the pieces of art and some text (see above), but there are lots of cover options, including a solid fabric cover, a cover with an open window, and even a cover sleeve printed with the art.
 
 
As you pay per page, and if you have as much art as I do, I recommend having some pages include more than one piece of art.  There are many, many layout options to use as few as one, or as many as 13 images to a page if that's what you want to do. I tried to keep it between one, two, and three images to a page at most for this project so I could see the art better.

 
This ended up being a great keepsake, as well as a coffee table book.  I was able to then file and store the majority of the original artwork away to save while still having access to see them in the book whenever I want.  Another benefit is that these photo books are acid-free, and will likely last a lot longer than the construction paper that will fade or decay over time. 
 
We still keep our favorite art pieces of the moment on our fridge in original form, but I love having this option for organizing, and enjoying the rest of them.

 
These would also be great gifts for grandparents, so you can always order multiple copies when you order one for your archives, or even re-order them later (they will be saved in your online account).
 
Let us know what you think of this solution for storing and organizing your children's artwork! 

9.09.2014

Laundry Room Decor Update: Devine Color Wallpaper

 
After a few years, it felt like it was time to do a little update to our laundry room décor (see our original laundry room makeover here).  After I tried the Devine Color wallpaper for the kid's costume closet, I felt confident enough to try the self-adhesive wallpaper out on a bigger space.  Plus, they had so many cute patterns that I was looking forward to trying another. 
 
I happened to find the perfect pattern and color (matched our existing laundry room wall paint perfectly) at Target, and using jut one roll ($30), was able to update the wallpaper accent space above our washer and dryer.

 
 

This was super easy to do, and I whipped it out on a Saturday morning.  One of the great things about this product is that it is repositionable, so you can try a few times to get it right without damaging the product or your walls.  I recommend measuring and cutting the pieces to size, then removing just a little of the backing paper so that it is not sticking to itself while you line it up. You then can slowly pull the rest of the backing paper off while slowly spreading the paper down onto the wall.

 
The most time-consuming part was lining up the pattern perfectly between sections.  However, once you get it right, you can't see the seam at all. 


 
As you can see here, I did the accent wallpaper behind/above the washer and dryer, and between the shelves.  Not a bad room update for a quick Saturday morning project!
 
If you want to see the rest of the details for this room, see this post here. 


9.05.2014

DIY Cupcake Toppers

 
I have two big parties to plan in the remainder of the year: my son's 5th birthday party (Lego-themed), and my father's 70th birthday party - both in December.  Very fun, but very busy, especially during the holiday time.  Hence, I have been planning both for a bit so that I don't have it all as a mad rush at the end of the year.
 
One way I have found to save money on party décor without much effort is to make my cupcake toppers.  Pretty fondant toppers can cost a lot, but I love being able to incorporate the party theme without spending that kind of cash. When planning parties, I try to find a balance of what I can DIY to save money with what is actually worth the effort to DIY (time and stress-wise). These simple cupcake toppers have become a go-to for me because they are quick and easy, cheap, and can be interchanged with almost any party theme and color-scheme. 
 
Here is how I do it!

 
What you need:
A print-up of the image(s) you'd like as your topper (sized small enough to fit into your small circle punch)
Scrapbook and construction paper
Circle punches (two sizes)
Double-sided tape
Glue gun
Toothpicks

 
Instructions:
Punch out the topper images with the smaller sized circle punch.  Here I am using Disney/Pixar Cars character clipart found online. You can also interchange images with numbers in a pretty font to denote the age of the birthday boy or girl (like I did with the Thomas-themed toppers and the number 4 in the picture above).

 
Using the larger sized circle punch, cut twice as many circles in the construction paper as you have images. This is because each topper has a front and back made out of the construction paper.

 
Using double-sided tape, adhere the image circles to a circle of construction paper.

 
With your glue gun, swirl a fair amount of glue on the back of the circle with the image taped to the front. Making sure I have the toothpick positioned straight down from the image, press the toothpick into the hot glue (I twist the toothpick so that the part I am adhering is covered in glue).

 
Quickly (while the glue is still hot and wet), attach another construction paper circle over the toothpick (one that does not include the image taped onto it), lining it up as even as you can with the front circle.

 
Press this back circle down into the glue and onto the toothpick.

 
Et voila, that's it! Customized DIY cupcake toppers.


9.02.2014

Victorian Mod Home Decor Updates from the Thrift Store

CB2 has a great "Victorian Novel" trend right now (click here to see). I totally dig the pieces in this collection, as I love blending classic with contemporary.  Since so much of the inspiration for this collection is classic, I figured, why can't someone DIY this look with some thrift store shopping and some spray paint? 

Here are my tips on how you can update your home décor with these Victorian Mod accents with some items you can find at your local thrift store, garage sale, or estate sale.

Victorian Mod Piece: Teapots

From CB2:


Image source: CB2.com

From Thrift Store:

 

If you can't find the color you fancy, never underestimate the power of spray paint to transform anything!

Victorian Mod Piece: Wine Glasses

From CB2:


Image source: CB2.com

From Thrift Store:

 
There is no shortage of unique glassware at your local thrift store.  I liked the ones above!
 
Victorian Mod Piece: Serving Platters

From CB2:


Image source: CB2.com

From Thrift Store:

 
 
Check out these two lovely serving platters found at my local Goodwill!
 
Victorian Mod Piece: Candle Holders

From CB2:


Image source: CB2.com

From Thrift Store:

 
 
Again, there is no shortage of candle holder options at the thrift store; and again, if you don't love the, as-is, don't be afraid of a little spray paint!

Victorian Mod Piece: Arm Chair

From CB2:


Image source: CB2.com

From Thrift Store:

I don't have a photo example of this one, and it would likely be a more involved DIY.  Just imagine finding a sturdy old chair that maybe has some bad paint or upholstery.  Re-upholstering is not as difficult as it sounds, and re-painting to a mod color? Well, that's easy.

Victorian Mod Piece: Ornate Mirror

From CB2:


Image source: CB2.com

Reasonably-Priced Alternative:


Image source: Ikea.com

Ung Drill Mirror from Ikea. Only $40!

Victorian Mod Piece: Ornate Picture Frame

From Thrift Store:

 
This frame isn't as ornate as some, but it is a great example of a solid frame with matting in good condition.  One great thrift store trick is to go through the art, and ignore the ugly, unwanted art that someone donated.  Instead, look for the quality of the frame and matting.  Remove the art and replace with your own for a fraction of the cost of custom framing.  Again, you can also spray paint the frame if the color is not quite right.
 
Bonus Thrift Store Find: Lamp
 


While I am on the subject of spray painting, here's a reminder to always check the lighting section while thrift shopping.  Old brass lamps and chandeliers can receive new life with a coat of (you guessed it) spray paint!  For hundreds less than a new chandelier, you can reclaim a thrift store find and make it your own.