Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Vanilla Bean Scones with Whipped Caramel Butter

On the weekend I baked vanilla bean scones with whipped caramel butter as a treat for Perfect Boyfriend and one of his brothers. They were making the most of the new xbox by having a games afternoon, but I braved the testosterone-laden atmosphere and insisted that they sit down to have high tea with me.

Both recipes come from the Afternoon Tea cookbook by Australian Woman's Weekly, and the vanilla bean scones recipe is available online here.

I can't find the recipe for the whipped caramel butter online, but I'm sure one tiny recipe won't get me into copyright trouble:
150g soft butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (or you can use vanilla bean paste, as I did).
Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl and beat until creamy.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Off the Frugal Rails

I've been off the rails lately: the frugal rails.

I guess I've been pretty stressed, and it's showing up in my spending habits.

How? A lot of lunches bought during the work day instead of bringing lunch from home, giant flat whites bought at the coffee shop almost every day, purchases that I haven't thought through properly (I bought black jeans instead of blue! At least they're still fit for purpose as it were), a t-shirt I didn't even really want for a concert that I'd already spent far too much on a ticket for, and countless convenience meals after work with Perfect Boyfriend.

Thing is, my life is only going to be more stressful for at least the next few months. I started in a new role today, though not a new job as such, and it looks like I'll be far busier than I was in the old role. Given that I was already a tad busier than I can handle, this means I'll be working long hours and I'll be short on "life organisation" time. That's what I call the time you spend cleaning your house, making your own lunches and organising free or cheap dates with your special one. These things take time! Added to my actual work workload will be my uni workload, and my obligations to loved ones, including hosting two baby showers in the next little while.

So what am I going to do to get back on the horse?
  • Remind myself of my budget, which allows plenty of room for discretionary or fun spending. I don't need to spend more than that on fun or convenience.
  • Keep tracking every dollar I spend. I've been doing this for a few years now, and sure everyone tells me that I'm a dag for doing it, but it keeps me on the straight and narrow most of the time.
  • Make up big batches of food on the weekends (when I have time) to help get me through the working week. I recently made a lasagne so large it divided easily into 14 portions, and they'll reheat beautifully from the freezer on cold nights when I'm exhausted after work. I have vegetable quiche in the oven right now, which will provide me with at least eight work lunches.
  • Make sure that if I'm going to spend money on a meal I haven't cooked myself, I make it count. Delicious iku sushi with Emily before our lecture on Tuesday nights? Awesome. Coffee with my lovely friend on Wednesday afternoon? Done. But a slighty disgusting, unsatisfying lunch from the cafe downstairs from my office, eaten at my desk while I reply to emails? So not worth it.
  • Kick the coffee habit (again). I don't need it and I don't think it actually adds value to my life. It just wastes money and adds to the waistline.
  • Make sure that I spend lots of time with Perfect Boyfriend that involves spending little or no money. Cooking for each other and watching DVDs is a great date in my book - possibly because we both love to cook - but just as special are all the little ways we can spend time together. I walked him home from work tonight! And it was great. Other plans? Picnics, long walks around the river and afternoon teas with our families.
  • Avoid the shops. Full stop.
Does anyone have good tips for me on how to break the spending cycle?

Monday, 21 May 2012

Wearing a Jumper Instead of Turning on the Heater: Condescending or Common Sense?

I was reading the news online at work today (yep, I'm naughty) and I was horrified to come across this article.
People should wear jumpers, use blankets, play board games and walk more to save on energy bills this winter, a Federal Government website says.  
But the suggestions are "very condescending" and overlook the cost of living struggles of many Victorian families, organisations that help the vulnerable say.

The article goes on to quote a charity as stating that most families on low incomes are already doing everything they can to lower their energy bills, which I would agree with. Once you start chatting to people who honestly don't have a single dollar to spare, you find out how frugal some folks really are.

What I have a problem with is the concept that advising others to wear a jumper and turn off the TV is condescending. To me, it seems like this is common sense. I may choose to continue to watch TV or use the computer despite the energy usage, but I know that if I was serious about receiving the lowest electricity bill possible I would turn the idiot box off. Heck, if I was so poor that I didn't think I could pay the power bill when it arrived, I'd probably go to bed at 7pm to avoid using the lights or indeed any electricity at all.

Maybe I'm alone in thinking this is common sense? Or maybe I spend too much time in the frugal mindset.

Anyway. It's started getting cold even here in sunny Perth, so I've started wearing warmer clothes in the evening. Some nights I even change into my flannelet jammies as soon as I get home from work - Perfect Boyfriend is a lucky man! If I start feeling too cold, I jump on the exercise bike for five or ten minutes until I'm toasty again. During Winter I like to cook in the oven anyway, and that tends to take the edge off the cold in my little home. Homemade lasagne or apple crumble goes down a treat on a chilly night!

Friday, 18 May 2012

Saving Money On Home Decorating

I decided some time ago (about when some of the old vertical blinds started to go mouldy) that buying some new window dressings for my home, the Bake Lair, was going to be a priority. But when I asked around with some of my friends who've used professional window dressing companies... Well. I had three windows that needed blinds, and there was no way I was paying $1000 or more for the three. It represented a "convenience charge" to me - those companies get away with charging so much because they measure the windows, they supply the blinds, they cut them, they install them. It's a lazy tax, and like everyone else I'll pay for the convenience in some situations... but not this one.

I decided there had to be a cheaper way.
First up, I tried to figure out an easy solution. Ready to hang blinds that you can install yourself are great - unless your windows aren't standard sizes. I spoke to a certain hardware chain about having blinds cut to size. Summary: expensive, poor quality products, and they were going to ship them all the way to the Eastern States to be cut. Nope. I tried a curtain shop: reasonably priced but poor quality product, and they weren't even in stock. But here's where the curtain shop earned a place in my heart forever: they gave me the card of a woman who professionally cuts blinds to size.

I did find timber venetians that were sturdy and had a beautiful finish, but not at a specialist curtain or renovations store. I found them at Spotlight. Better still, Spotlight has sales on regularly where the price of blinds are slashed, so instead of $159 per window they cost $99 per window. Cost so far? $297.
My Dad and I took a road trip out to the woman who cuts blinds (I really can't make that into a proper job title!) and she cut the two sets of blinds that needed to be cut to fit, reduced the length of one set, and did some tricky cutting magic to make the set for the kitchen fit properly around the tile splashback... For $65. Bargain! I gave her $70 and she threw in the right kind of drill bit and screws, and plenty of advice on installing them.
We borrowed a drill, and my Dad and Perfect Boyfriend spent a grand total of an hour and a half installing them.
Total cost: $367.

You can see how great they look in the kitchen!
So sometimes there's not an easy way to save on what you want to renovate in your home, or you don't have the specific DIY skills required - even my Dad, who can do just about anything, wasn't game to cut the blinds. You can still find a way to save.

One thing I learnt from this experience was that small operators sometimes charge a lot less for the services you need. If you shop around, buy on sale, enlist the expertise of people who can undertake some of the DIY for you, borrow the equipment, and only pay for the services you really can't source another way, you can save a bundle.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Decadent Brownies - No Egg, Of Course

Emily gave me a brownie recipe some time ago which I've converted into an egg-free recipe with the help of my old friend, plain yoghurt. I've also adapted it slightly because I'm too lazy to faff around with plain flour and baking soda if I can help it! This is an extremely chocolately recipe. It definitely qualifies as chocolate overload.

Yep, that's chocolatey!

2 cups brown sugar
2/3 cup cocoa
125g butter, melted
200g natural, plain yoghurt
1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
2 cups self raising flour
250g dark choc chips

Pre-heat oven to 160 degrees celcius. Any recipe that replaces egg with yoghurt will need to be cooked at a lower temperature than an eggy version, and for a longer time. Why? No idea, but that's the magic of baking for you.

Sift sugar and cocoa into a large bowl. Pour in melted butter and stir well. Add yoghurt and stir. Once yoghurt is mixed in, add vanilla and mix well - you may need to beat it slightly at this stage. Add flour and beat. Fold choc chips through the mixture.

Pour mix into a ceramic baking tray (20cm by 20cm works well) lined with non-stick baking paper. Bake for at least half an hour before testing with a skewer. Once brownie is set through, remove from oven and allow to cool completely before decorating and cutting.

  • The brownies keep well for almost a week, and undecorated or iced will freeze and thaw well.
  • Nuts in place of the choc chips would be delicious - walnuts, maybe?
  • Because I live with a chocolate addict, my brownies are iced with Betty Crocker chocolate frosting and topped with tiny, colourful chocolate bits. But they would be great simply dusted with icing sugar, or dripping with a dark chocolate ganache.
  • This makes a huge batch, so it would be worth halving it if you're not making them for a party.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Mother's Day Madeleines

I bought this cookbook some time ago.

It's great. There are maybe a handful of recipes I'm unlikely to try out, but other than that, it's all gold. I'm planning to slowly work my way through and learn some traditional baking skills.

For a novice cook, this is a perfect start to baking cakes, biscuits and other treats. The instructions are easy to follow and there are detailed guides to tricky techniques. There aren't too many hard-to-find ingredients, either.

It was Mother's Day yesterday and we had lunch with Perfect Boyfriend's perfect mother. (No exaggeration, she really is wonderful). This raised the question of what I should bake and bring. When someone is cooking you a meal (or hosting you for any social occasion, for that matter) you must bring something whether it's a bottle of wine or dessert. I know that's an old-fashioned rule but good manners never go out of style.

After reading the cookbook back to front a few times I decided that madeleines were the way to go. They were so easy to make! And they turned out just right. The only issue I had was that they became a little too sticky the next day so I'd recommend baking them on the day you're serving them. Which is easy, because they only take ten minutes to mix up the batter and ten minutes in the oven. I have a silicone madeleine pan which I used for the first time, and they popped out of the pan straight from the oven.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Saving on sickness

I have the flu.

But it's not as bad as it could be. Why? My frugal habits.

I have a first aid kit which is stocked with painkillers, bandaids, bandages, throat lozenges and strapping tape for when I break a toe once or twice a year. And guess what? They all cost me a LOT less than they would if I had to go to my nearest chemist to buy them now. Buying these necessities when they're not necessary saves you money. It also saves you from having to venture out into the world when all you want to do is stay snuggled under your blanket for the next three days.

I always have a well stocked pantry. While I must admit to begging Perfect Boyfriend to get me some rainbow paddlepops while he was out last night, already having plenty of easy to prepare, tasty and nutritious food in the house helps no end. When I make large batches of meals and store some individual portions in the freezer, I'm insuring myself against just this kind of situation. You're not going to be up to cooking when you're sick. It's far better to reheat some frozen mushroom risotto (mmm) than to have to starve, eat nothing but the dry crackers you've found hidden in the cupboard when you have a sore throat, or survive on takeaway while your body is desperate for some decent nutrition.

I take care of myself. I must admit, this is a fairly new thing for me. I used to work too much, take too much on in my personal life, and generally just run myself ragged. My health has suffered a lot as a result. Now? I get eight hours of sleep most nights, I eat three nutritious meals most days (nobody's perfect) and when I get sick, I go to the doctor. This way, the severity and duration of my flu is not nearly as bad as it would have been if I caught it after a weekend of hard partying, no sleep, a twelve hour day at work and a Mars Bar for lunch. Taking care of yourself is the best. I wish I'd figured this out sooner.

I've signed up to automatically receive my medicare refunds. Medicare now allows you to sign up with your bank details and they'll send you the refund on medical bills automatically. While I still have to pay the full amount on the day I see my doctor, within the next few days I have a 50% refund sitting in my account. Confession: back when you had no other option but to line up at a medicare storefront and hand over your receipts to get your refund, I didn't always bother. For a start, those medicare offices are only open during, you guessed it, office hours. If you haven't already signed up for automatic refunds check it out here.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Fun money - why you need to give it a special place in your budget

I know that some people can manage never ever to spend money on non-necessities. They do exist, and many of them write personal finance blogs about how you don't NEED anything other than basic food, shelter, and medical care, so you therefore shouldn't really be spending on anything outside those categories.

That's not me.

In my budget, there's always room for fun stuff. I'm lucky enough that the amount that gets paid into my account (my salary) is higher than the amount that's going to come straight back out (mortgage, bills, groceries, and a generous chunk of savings). When I write up my little budget every fortnight, there's a set amount allocated to "discretionary spending". You might call yours fun money, mad money or even your allowance. Whatever you call it, it's your you money.

While I spend plenty of this money on lots of fun things every fortnight like a coffee with friends, a packet of lemon sherbets, the occasional dinner out and even "stuff" like books and DVDS, generally I don't spend it all. I let some of it accumulate in my account. Then when I want to spend a larger chunk than I would normally allocate to fun in the budget, I've already saved up my discretionary funds for whatever it is I want. Like the Star Wars Xbox I bought this week - it's awesome! And I had the *cough* $550 *cough* all ready and waiting to pay for it, out of my very own fun money. That's what it's there for.

Why do I think fun money is so important?
  • I'm not willing to completely give up my social life / leaving the house, and while there are loads of ways to have fun without spending money, sometimes you have to spend a little money to have a lot of fun. And that's okay.
  • I like buying presents. Today, for example, Perfect Boyfriend wasn't feeling well so I picked up some of his favourite English chocolate as a surprise. I like that part of my personality, and with a fun money fund, I can indulge it.
  • I think I would, quite simply, go CRAZY if I never got to spend some money spontaneously / on things I just want. You need a little freedom and spontaneity in your life occasionally.
  • I'm not perfect, and neither are you. If you're covering all your necessities and saving towards your future, why can't you buy some things you want along the way? To me, getting to spend a small proportion of my income on nice clothes, books and yarn (oh, the yarn) helps keep me on track with saving forty five per cent of my income.
Han Solo loves fun money so much, he's breaking out in a song and dance routine that both horrifies and delights me.

Happy International Star Wars Day!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Anzac Cookies

I made these Anzac cookies last week when I had a few friends coming around for dinner. I love cooking for my loved ones, but it's never anything fancy! I make Mum-food - the kind of food you can imagine a kind, slightly nutty middle-aged mother making. Instead it's a mostly kind, very nutty young nerd cooking these meals, but at least I'll be really great at baking by the time I am a middle-aged Mum. Right?

This recipe was passed on to me by one of my aunts - a very good aunt, in fact - who found it in the 1943 Willow Cookbook. Yep, 1943. Turns out in those days, the ingredients for baking must have been a lot less varied and interesting. I base this on the slightly disturbing lack of specificity in the recipe: it just says "flour" and "sugar", not which kinds! It took a little bit of trial and error but eventually I figured out how to make the recipe work.

1 cup plain flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup dessicated coconut
90g butter
1 tablespoon golden syrup
1 teaspoon bicarb soda / baking soda
2 tablespoons boiling water

Sift flour and sugar into large bowl, mix in oats and coconut. Melt butter and add to boiling water. Mix golden syrup and bicarb soda into the butter mix.

Combine wet and dry ingredients, mix well.

Use about one teaspoon of mix for each cookie, drop onto baking paper on tray and bake for about ten minutes or until golden brown.

These are definitely the chewy kind of Anzac cookies. They have a sweet, almost nutty flavour and the oats and coconut give them a more interesting texture than most cookies.

The mix makes about fifty cookies so it's great when you have a whole heap of people coming over, or if you're bringing them to a party. It's too many to just have in the house (trust me, you won't be able to stop yourself from eating them all) but they do freeze well.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Cinnamon Cookies

I really wanted to use my cookie cutters today... But not on a boring old recipe I've made over and over. I needed a new cookie recipe! A quick search on Taste turned up these Honey and Cinnamon Christmas Trees, which looked perfect.

Unfortunately my dough was too soft to be a "roll and cut" style of cookie. I wonder if there should have been more flour in my mixture? Anyway, I decided they would be very cute baked as round, plump cookies with icing drizzled on top.

They taste pretty great, too! I modified the recipe slightly by substituting golden syrup for honey (because golden syrup is wonderful), increasing the amount of cinnamon to one full teaspoon and adding in about a quarter of a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste. The icing is just icing sugar, water and a tiny bit of food colouring.