Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Dried Vanilla Beans photo by B.navez (via Wikimedia Commons)
Who says facebook is a waste of time?  It's true, you're on it when you should be doing something else.  But. Reading a fb friend's status sparked the idea for today's post.  After discovering how ridiculously easy it is to make real vanilla extract, I decided to stop buying the tiny-teeny-weeny commercial bottles.  So from now on I'm making my own.  With two simple ingredients, I will be rich in vanilla extract ... and it will cost less.  Here is the recipe: 

Homemade Vanilla Extract

1 cup vodka
6 vanilla beans (also known as pods)*
plus time

1. Using a sharp knife, cut the vanilla beans in half, lengthwise.  For a snazzy appearance, leave the very ends attached (so the pods look like a fork in the road).
2. Next place the cut vanilla beans in a canning [Mason, Ball, Kerr's] jar.
3. For every 3-6 vanilla beans, cover completely with one cup of vodka.
4. Secure the lid on tight, and store the jar(s) in a cool, dark room for 8 weeks or longer before using.  Shake the jar once in a while.  The vanilla pods will infuse the vodka, turning the liquid from clear to a lovely dark brown.  You can use the extract after 2 months, but it's even better after 4-6 months.

Homemade vanilla extract never goes bad.  As your jar empties, you can top it off with more alcohol, and the vanilla beans will continue to infuse the liquid.  With the passage of time, you might throw in another split vanilla bean.

Extra Tips:
1) Expect to pay about ten dollars for vodka.  Expensive vodka isn't necessary.
2) You can also use bourbon, brandy or rum as the alcohol for a subtle difference in flavor.  The vodka is more neutral.
3) Use fresh vanilla beans that are soft and feel oily to the touch.  Avoid dry, brittle beans. (They will work, but not as well.)
4) You can use any variety of vanilla beans sold.  There are subtle differences in tastes.  Below are a few of the most popular.

Types of vanilla beans:
Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla - tastes creamy, haylike and sweet.
Mexican vanilla - has mellow and spicy flavors.
Tahitian vanilla - is often described as fruity and floral.

Another way to use vanilla beans is to make vanilla sugar.  Just split a couple of pods and throw into a jar of white sugar.   My mom uses vanilla sugar to make cookies and cakes.

A jar of homemade vanilla sugar, or extract (poured into a decorative bottle) makes a fantastic hostess gift.  As with all goodies, a bit of research yields the best prices.  Here are a few sources: (a) for vanilla beans [about 50 cents a pod!] click here, or try Ebay; (b) for gift bottles [at 74 cents per bottle] click here; (c) for canning jars, go to a local hardware store; (d) and for alcohol, you are on your own, folks.  But I know you are a resourceful bunch.  Finally ... remember the sky's the limit for all the pretty jars, or bottles you could use as gifts.  Always pour your batch into containers with air-tight lids.

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*Note: The US and Canadian standard is 13.75% vanilla, the equivalent of 6 vanilla beans per cup of vodka to be sold as vanilla extract.  Anything less is considered vanilla vodka. But 3 beans for every cup of vodka when aged for 6 months or more will be very potent.

Please see "Labels" section for the credits to the photos used in the body of this blog post, and visit the corresponding websites - give them some traffic too.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone

One of the things I'm grateful for is you.  From my stats, I know you live all over the world. Thanks for your emails, ideas and simply for stopping by from wherever you are logging on.  I love hearing from you!

State fair photo by my childhood friend, Pam H.  I'm grateful for my  friends.
Hey little buddy.  You can be thankful that on this day, you're safe.  Looks like he read the preceding post on the importance of sleep, right?
Click to enlarge
I am touched by this 1936 photo of a child praying before school lunch.  Take a look.  She has a bottle of milk, a small sandwich, hot soup and an apple.  Her mother sent her to school with a clean, starched dress and a big bow for her hair.  It reminds me of the hopes and dreams every parent has for a child, and I wonder how this child's life unfolded.

Are you counting your blessings today?  Sometimes it's the everyday things that really matter. Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Sleep Is Crucial To Good Health

Sleep is a building block of good health.  During sleep the body repairs [damaged cells] and rejuvenates itself.

It is also "important in forming memories," says Robert Stickgold, PhD of the Harvard Medical School.  When you sleep, your brain organizes the experiences and "skills you learn during the day, refining and making sense of them."

There is a significant link between how well someone sleeps and his/her overall health and function, according to the Harvard studies.  A chronic lack of sleep leads to illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension and stroke, as well as, depression, weight gain, diabetes and obesity.

It turns out that too little or too much sleep is a bad thing.  Studies show that adults who sleep less than 7 hours, or more than 9 hours don't live as long as those who average 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night.  And laboratory animals die faster from a lack of sleep than a lack of food or water.

So if you want to stay healthy, function at full capacity and live a long life free of disease, make sure you get the right amount of zzzs.  And don't fret if your teenager sleeps more than 8 hours. Ten hours, or more is not unusual for preteens and teens when bodies and brains are developing.

A good night's sleep is sleep that is undisturbed by noises or lights, so you will drift into and benefit from REM sleep, which happens at intervals during the night and is characterized by rapid eye moment, dreaming and bodily movement, as well as, faster pulse and breathing.  REM sleep is crucial to restful sleep.  When you don't get it, you wake up exhausted.

To fall-and-stay-asleep easily, doctors recommend:

1. Establish a bedtime routine where you wind down and disengage yourself from stimuli.  This means shutdown your computer and stop checking your email two hours or so before bed.

2. Sleep in a dark room -- free of all light.  Cover up the light from clocks and electronics if necessary.  The brightness interfers with sleep even when you are not aware of it.

3. Sleep in a cool room about 65 F to 72 F with soft, cozy covers.

4. Don't sleep with a television, or radio playing nor you cell phone near your pillow.  Turn all devices off.  They interfere with the quality of your sleep, depriving you of much needed REM sleep.  You need 8 hours of silence.

5. If you wake up, focus on relaxing and resting in bed.  You can also try reading until you are drowsy.  It is better to stay in bed rather than to get up, eat, or turn on your computer.  You don't want to stimulate yourself, but to reinforce the habit that nighttime is for resting and sleeping.  If you start getting up, the bad habit of waking up will soon replace the good habits of resting and sleeping.

6. Watch what you eat and drink.  You may have to stop drinking caffeinated drinks after 4 or 5 PM; and alcohol interferes with REM sleep.  Wine may lure you to sleep, but you will wake up a few hours later ... tired.

7. Don't set a snooze button.  Go to bed on time so you can get the proper amount of sleep, set the alarm for the correct time, then get up when it rings.

8. See a sleep specialist if you have a hard time getting a good night's sleep.

You don't want to live a life deprived of sleep.  If you have to pry yourself out of bed every morning, you aren't getting the hours you need.  With a good night's sleep you should always feel rested and refreshed when you open your eyes in the morning.  Try the steps above for several weeks.  Good sleep habits will lead to sweet dreams.

You may also enjoy:
Good Housekeeping's Food Safety Tips
Doctor's Orders: Is It Time For A Checkup?
The Health Benefits Of Tea
Health Care Reform, A Doctor Weighs In

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Consider A Convertible Dress

Go sleeve or sleeveless

A reader of THE SAVVY SHOPPER called my attention to this convertible dress. What a creative and smart wardrobe staple.  Thank you, Loretta!

You buy one dress – a piece of easy-to-work fabric -- and transform it into a dozen different looks.  Learning to style the dress definitely calls for a bit of practice, but with the help of YouTube tutorials, you can master a style, one possibility at a time.

The dresses are classic and comfortable and come in an assortment of solid colors.  I think the dark colors are dressy.  A single convertible dress can take you through the holidays with a myriad of styles.  It is perfect to pack for out-of-town trips when the less is more principle rules.  Take one dress along to wear to many parities and events.  Look cute and chic and unlike the day-before without packing more than a carry-on bag.  

Below are two manufacturers of convertible dresses.  The Twist Wrap dress is sold as a bridesmaid's dress, but it's just a versatile party dress.  Two convertible dresses; same innovative idea.  One may be right for you: 
Hipknoties, $85 – Click and scroll to the bottom video.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Another Election Done

Empire State Building Photo by CNN
Despite a hurricane, fights over voting rights and annoyances over voting procedures, the people have spoken.

I don't mind living in a country with at least two political parties.  It's called a democracy.  And I don't mind living in a pluralistic society.  That's called the 21st century.  With the election over, let's get back to compromise and respecting differences.  As President Obama said, we are not red states and blue states, we are the United States.

We live in hard times, not just here at home, but all over the world.  People need hope, jobs and opportunities to take care of their families.  I know I'm not alone in wanting to see politicians and everyone else work together for our common good.  Why is New Jersey's Governor Christie being attacked for praising the President's quick response to Sandy?  

I was a congressional intern in Washington, D.C. at a time when U.S. Senators from opposing parties fought one another all day to get their bills passed, then socialized with one another after hours.  Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch were from opposing parties and good friends.  Compromise wasn't considered a weakness, but the way to get legislation passed.  It's how our political system is set up to work.  As we begin a new session of Congress, let's aim higher than gridlock, rise above special interests and political parties and solve difficult problems.  There is no shortage of problems to solve!  

In a world that is always changing, where people are multicultural, let's all try to rise above fear and ignorance and a single point of view.  Sometimes life is fair, sometimes not; however a little compassion goes a long way.  Staying informed and working together is the only way to get things done.  

It will be interesting to see what tactics, President Obama comes up with in the next 4 years to force Congress to get more done.  (Hmm?  Lock vexing members in a room?  Sauce inflexible ones up with White House beer?  Take away office heat until resolutions are reached?  Yeah, that's the one!)  Regardless of politcal leanings, critics describe Obama as a smart and measured problem-solver.  Out of adversity there is potential for greatness.  Obviously, for democracy to work our leadership must succeed.
NBC News created this map using the skating rink at Rockefeller Center.  Photo by Bobby Ghosh, snapped the morning after the election, November 7, 2012
You gotta love Florida.  (See map.)  Fortunately, it wasn't decisive in this race.  After a very loooong day of voting, the state has not been called.  Late last night, NBC's Chuck Todd said poll workers had gone home and planned to continue the next day.  (The heck with counting votes!)  Other reports had Floridians still voting during the President's victory speech!  (Time he took the stage: shortly after mid-night.)  Election officials promised to do better next time.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Holiday Gift Ideas ... Yes, Time To Begin!

Believe it, or not, Christmas is only 7 weeks away, and Hanukkah begins on December 8th this year.  So it's not premature to start thinking about gifts.  Anticipation and early planning will help you sail through the season on a budget.  To avoid the stress of the Christmas rush, prepare early.  Your goal is to make the people on your list happy with a carefully chosen gift that you can afford:

Here are five great gift ideas to consider:

1. Benson & Clegg cufflinks – For the gentlemen in your life, take advantage of a special offer:  Buy two, then get two free enamel cufflinks, made in England and hand finished in a range of elegant designs.  Under $45 a set.

2. Camileon Heels – For women on the go, comfortable shoes with easy-adjustable heels.  A wearer can walk to her destination in kitten heels.  Once she arrives, her 1½ inch heels transform into 3½ inch heels in seconds.  No more carrying an extra pair of flats for walking.  When first on the market, these leather pumps sold for $300.  Now they retail from an affordable $99 - $130 a pair.

3. Interchangeable Peace Sign Band Watch Set –  For family and friends who like to change their watch to suit their moods and outfits.  The watch has a black face and white, easy-to-read numbers.  Its silver rim sparkles with tiny rhinestones. The 4 switchable bands are blue, orange, green and purple.  Very cute.  Costs: $11.95 for the set.

4. Cell Phone Buddies – For anyone who needs a designated place to put his or her cell ... plus a smile.  They are sturdy metal cradles with acrylic hands and feet to resemble little people ready to help.  Three colors: red, blue and orange.  Makes an adorable stocking stuffer.  Costs $4.95 for a set of 3.

5. Nova Mini Portable Speaker by Tego Audio – For music lovers who want to play music from their ipods, smart phones and tablets.  The speaker is small enough to fit in a pocket, but produces a sound loud enough to fill a room.  Very impressive bass sound.  It has a lithium ion battery, which recharges over USB and plays up to 8 hours.  Also plugs into computers.  Costs: $39.99 each, or $99.99 for a 3-pack.

Extra tip: For access to sellers across the country use Amazon as a product reference.  At times, you can get lower prices by ordering there.

Even when we focus on the true meaning of the holidays (which indeed, we should!) there are always several gifts to buy for family and friends.  Try buying fewer, but more thoughtful gifts that the recipent will use.  And be sure to throw in the gift of real time spent together.  This year leave all cell phones in their cradles.