Christmas in May

11 05 2009

IMG_1694It’s May. And in North Carolina, that means it’s strawberry season. And in my house, for the last decade, that means it’s time to make jar upon jar of strawberry jam.

Granted, it’s a lot of work — the picking, washing, cutting, crushing, cooking, sterilizing and cleaning up. But when those Ball jars are filled and I hear that satisfying “ping” as the jars seal shut, I can’t help but feel just a tad smug.

All of that labor in the month of May translates to more leisure in the month December when I attach homemade gift tags to these crimson-filled jars and give them as Christmas gifts. And who doesn’t need a break in December?

IMG_1734So this past week, with temperatures in the 80s and my AC cranking to combat the heat emanating from the stove top, I was humming Christmas carols as I stirred juicy crushed berries picked from a farm less than five miles from my house.

Not only do I have my neighbor and teacher gifts taken care of seven months early, but I’m giving them something I made.  I’m giving them something affordable and I’m giving them something that is consumable in a container that is reusable.

In my quest to save some green, be green and lead a simpler life, I’ve got all my bases covered. I’m no Martha Stewart, but I would have to say my jam is a very good thing. 

The recipients of my jam are typically friends, family members, neighbors, my daughter’s teachers. I have a feeling that if I broke with tradition and delivered something different to my neighbors, there might be rioting on my tidy suburban street. OK, that’s a bit of an overstatement. But they would be sorely disappointed.

Throughout the year, my neighbors will make not-so-subtle references to my strawberry jam in casual conversation. Often, I will find empty jars left at my front door. A silent plea for more.

For a frugal girl, such as myself, making jam for gifts is an affordable way to let folks know how much I care about them. Here’s a breakdown on costs:

*at the strawberry farm nearest my home, pick-your-own berries are $1.50 per pound. It takes three pounds to make eight jars of jam. 

*at Harris Teeter, my grocery of choice, sugar is $2.27 for a five-pound bag; Sure Jell fruit pectin is $3.15 a box;  and a 12-pack of Ball jars is $7.99. Twelve replacement seals are $1.79. That’s roughly $14 to make eight jars of jam.

Of course, I’m always on the hunt to save even more money. This year, thanks to some nicely timed bargain shopping throughout the year, my jam is costing me only about $4 to make eight jars. That’s just 50 cents per gift. OMG. That’s the first time I’ve ever done the math. I can’t think of a nicer gift at such an affordable price.

If you’re interested in giving jam-making a try, here are a few tips:

*shop year-round for bargains on sugar, pectin and jars and seals. I have had great luck finding these on clearance. Last fall, for instance, I found boxes of pectin on clearance at Walmart for 75 cents a box. That was a great price, but I ended up paying just 25 cents a box after using the 50-cent coupon inside each box. Since the boxes were all dated 2010 and 2011, I bought enough boxes to last the next three years. This year’s sugar supply was free, thanks to a great coupon that tripled at Harris Teeter. The seals were also purchased on clearance for less than half the regular price.

*check yard sales for canning jars. Two or three years ago, I hit the jackpot, buying six boxes of canning jars that were still sealed in the boxes for $2 each. Someone’s jam-making plans that went bust turned into my bargain.

*encourage your jam recipients to return the jars and rims, which can be used over and over again. Only the seals must be replaced.

*ask your farmer if he has bruised fruit for sale at a lower price. In the height of the season, farmers at the farmer’s market are often willing to sell their culls at a lower price.

*finally, don’t be intimidated. Jam is not that difficult to make. I simply use the recipe chart included in every box of fruit pectin.

Later in the summer, I will make blueberry, peach and fig jam, depending on the availability of local fruit and the price. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to be given fresh figs from a friend’s tree, which I turned into jam. 

There’s something almost magical about giving homemade jam as a gift, particularly at Christmastime. It’s reminiscent of simpler times. And reminiscent of spring.

As I often write on my homemade tags: “Bringing you warm thoughts of springtime on a cold winter morning.”


My Mother’s Day brunch menu

7 05 2009
Mother's Day Brunch '05 with homemade goodies served on Grandma's china, and flowers picked from the garden

Mother's Day Brunch '05 with homemade goodies served on Grandma's china, and flowers picked from the garden

I am among those fortunate “almost-50” daughters who still have their moms around to hug this Mother’s Day. As an added bonus, my Mom happens to live nearby. So this Sunday, I’ll be in the kitchen cooking up a delicious brunch in her honor.

Lucky for me, I have a few go-to recipes for brunch, thanks to the cookbook Desperation Entertaining by Alicia Ross and Beverly Mills, an old friend of mine from my days at The Miami Herald. Coincidentally, Beverly and Alicia just this week launched a new website, Kitchen Scoop, where you can find a lot of their fast-and-easy, without-sacrificing-taste recipes.

So without much heavy mixing, I’ll be able to treat my Mom (and myself) to a great brunch. And considering that most restaurant Mother’s Day brunches start at $15 and skyrocket from there, my homemade brunch is the frugal choice as well.

To make it extra special, I will pull out the china and sterling silver flatware. Rimmed in silver and with a delicate pink flower in the center, the china was my grandmother’s. My antique silver was a gift from my Mom. I plan to add flowers from my garden and homemade place cards, the handiwork of my little girl. So four generations of women will be represented on my Mother’s Day table, making the occasion extra special. And have I mentioned frugal?

With six people at my table, we are easily saving more than $100, with a minimum of work for me. Oh, did I forget to mention…. my husband and two boys back from college will be on dishwashing duty.

In case you’re in need of inspiration, or scrambling for a last-minute recipe to fill out your Mother’s Day brunch menu, here’s my menu and a few recipes:

Ham and Cheese Breakfast Casserole        ****        Baked Hash Browns        ****        Coffee cake        ****        Fruit salad     ****     Chocolate-dipped Strawberries   ****      Cranberry-Orange Cake   ****

Mother’s Brunch Casserole

8 slices white loaf bread

1 pound thinly sliced deli ham

6 large eggs                                        

2 cups milk

1/2 tsp. onion salt

1/2 tsp. dry mustard

cooking oil spray

3 cups (12 ounces) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

4 Tbsp. butter

3 cups cornflakes

The day before, cut the bread and ham into bite-size pieces. Break eggs into a medium-size mixing bowl and whisk well. Whisk in milk, onion salt and mustard. Spray 13×9 baking dish with cooking spray. Scatter bread pieces evenly in dish, then scatter ham and cheese over bread. Pour egg mixture over contents of baking dish and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.

On Mother’s Day, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place butter in a large glass measuring cup, cover and microwave about 45 seconds. Place cornflakes in large freezer-weight zip-top bag and crush with your hands or a rolling pin. Add melted butter and shake vigorously. Sprinkle cornflakes over casserole. Bake uncovered about 45 minutes, until lightly browned and eggs are set. Let cool 5 to 10 minutes.

This recipe is from Desperation Entertaining and I kid you not, I have made it at least 25 times, if not more. It is delicious. Of course, being the frugal person I am, I am known to make-do in the kitchen, tinkering with the recipe as need be. (My apologies to Beverly and Alicia!) I have used Egg Beaters in place of eggs; a little squeeze of mustard out of the bottle instead of dry mustard. I’ve also used any type of bread and cheese I’ve had on hand. Each time, the casserole has turned out fabulously.

Fastest Fruit Salad

1 15 1/4-ounce can pineapple tidbits

1 15-ounce can mandarin oranges

2 medium Granny Smith apples, chopped

2 medium Red Delicious apples, chopped

2 kiwi fruit

Put pineapple tidbits and juice in large serving bowl. Drain mandarin oranges and add them to pineapple. Rinse, core and cut apples into bite-size pieces. Leave skin on for color. Stir apples into orange-pineapple mixture to prevent discoloring. Peel and slice kiwi and mix in.

This fruit salad looks festive on the table and is delicious — and it can be made any time of year. In a pinch, I’ve made this without the kiwi but it’s much better with it. I’ve also used different types of apples, but I’ve always had some red and some green for presentation. The recipe also comes from Desperation Entertaining.

Cinnamon-Swirl Sour Cream Coffee Cake

4 large eggs

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup sugar

8 ounces sour cream

1 yellow cake mix

2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 Tbsp. cinnamon

cooking oil spray

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

3 Tbsp. cold butter

Beat eggs in large mixing bowl for 1 minute. Add oil, sugar, sour cream and cake mix. Beat on medium speed for 2 minutes.

Stir together 1/3 cup of the brown sugar with 2 tsp. of the cinnamon in a small mixing bowl. Spray 13 x 9 pan with cooking spray.

Pour about half of cake batter into baking dish and spread evenly. Sprinkle cinnamon-sugar mixture over batter. Pour remaining batter over the cinnamon-sugar and spread it out evenly.

Make a topping with the remaining brown sugar and cinnamon, and the flour. Stir to blend. Cut in the butter using a pastry blender or two knives. Sprinkle evenly over bake batter.

Bake 45 to 55 minutes at 325 degrees in a glass baking pan or 350 degrees in a metal pan.

This coffee cake, also from Desperation Entertaining, can be assembled and refrigerated a day in advance of baking. It is so easy to make and tastes homemade. No one ever needs to know it started with a cake mix — unless, of course, you’re like me and want to brag that you got the cake mix for free with a coupon.

To lighten it up a bit, I have used Egg Beaters, applesauce and light sour cream. And once again, it has always turned out delicious.

I would love to hear what’s on your menu for Mother’s Day. Leave a comment and please include your favorite brunch recipe.






Help wanted: Frugal Mother’s Day ideas

20 04 2009

I read this interesting little factoid yesterday on Taking Stock, a retail shopping blog written by Raleigh News & Observer reporter Sue Stock:

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend $123.89 per person for Mother’s Day, compared to last year’s $138.63.


If you are among those who spent $138 last year and are “cutting back” to $123 this year in light of hard times, I have one question for you: Does your Mother know?

Because if she did, I’m pretty certain she would not approve.

As a mother, I can’t fathom my three kids spending that much on me for Mom’s Day…….not even combined, not even with some financial aid from good ole Dad.

And as a daughter, I can’t imagine it either. If you’re reading, Mom, I love you. But $138 seems, shall we say, excessive.

It doesn’t take money to say I love you.

So, in honor of our moms, or as hints to our kids, I was hoping you could help me out here with some frugal ideas on how to celebrate Mother’s Day. Get creative and give us the nitty-gritty frugal details.

Your mom will thank you and so will your wallet.