Thursday, December 31, 2009

Merry Christmas 2009

This Christmas was our first as a family of three, and while a huge Christmas Day snowstorm changed our plans, we had a great Christmas this year.

Wednesday night (Dec 23) we had a bunch of our friends over for some pot luck dinner and treats. We've dubbed our little get-together as the "Christmas Soiree" and we'll have to do it again next year. Including us, we had 8 adults and 2 kids (Nathan at 6 weeks old and Mikey at 11 months) for dinner. Beth and I heated up some souffer's lasagna, and served up some of our homemade lefse and my apple wine. Our friends brought garlic bread, meatballs, salad, deserts, and other treats to enjoy. We had fun catching up with everyone and introducing them to Nathan.

Thursday was Christmas Eve, and the snow had started to fall. We had planned on going to Ben's Gramma's during the day, but the storm made that too difficult, so we got to stay home, get some extra sleep, and clear snow in the driveway. By lunchtime the roads weren't great, but were good enough to go visit the Hauglands. We spent the afternoon hanging out, eating some good junk food (cheese curds!), and watching movies. We had a good dinner and opened gifts, watched another movie, and went down the road to church for a Christmas Eve candlelight service which was very nice. Nathan slept through the entire service.

Nathan's cousins Payton & Alex crawling around on Christmas Eve:

Friday was Christmas Day and brought still more snow. We had planned on going to Ben's parents' that morning, but this was also cancelled due to all the snow. This however let us spend the entire day at home which was really relaxing. We slept late, and made waffles for breakfast. The rest of the day was pretty low-key while we lounged around the house, took care of Nathan, and cleared more snow from the driveway & sidewalks.

Our get-together with Ben's extended family at his grandma's house was re-scheduled for mid-day Saturday, and Nathan got to meet more of is extended family. We all got to exchange gifts and have some good food. It was to see everyone again.

Nathan with his Great-Grandma Helen, and everyone else:

From there it was off to his cousin Sammy's 2nd birthday party. Sammy celebrated his birthday in style, with a robot and space-themed party. While Nathan wasn't big enough to appreciate the party and the pinata, he got a goodie bag of stuff to bring home like the other kids. Nathan enjoyed being held by his grandpa Phil and watching the action:

Overall we had a great, busy, snow-filled Christmas. Once Nathan is old enough he'll really enjoy all his new stuff!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ben's Nuts: A How-To Guide

For those of you who are not familiar, about 5 years ago I made a batch of sugar-coated roasted nuts to share at Christmas. I thought it would be fun to have a unique food gift to share with friends & family. I found a recipe that seemed simple and good, and tried it out. They were so popular I wasn't allowed to stop making them! As time went on I added a few more varieties of nuts to the mix, using two basic recipes which are simpler than you might think. I make the effort each year because it's fun to give them out, including the jokes about "Ben's Nuts" that come out every year, and never stop being funny!

With several years of nut-making experience, I figured it was a good time to document the recipe, the process, and some tips and tricks since I can't make nuts for everybody who may want them. Here's my how-to guide to Ben's Nuts:

Ben's Roasted Almonds/Pecans/Walnuts:
Yield: Approx 6 cups

4 cups Almonds, Pecans, or Walnuts (approx 1 lb)
1 egg white
1 tsp cold water
1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 250°F. Lightly grease a roaster or cookie sheet with non-stick spray. I use large foil roaster pans. They're big and cheap, and they cool down faster than a heavy pan. I always line them with aluminum foil. The 18-inch wide heavy duty foil is worth it; it lines the entire roaster and doesn't rip when you're trying to stir the nuts, plus cleanup is easy.

2. Beat the egg white, water & vanilla, and beat until frothy but not stiff. I've tried a few egg separators, and I've found the "wire spiral" style egg separator from Pampered Chef to be the best for me.

3. Add the nuts and stir until well coated.

4. Mix the sugar, brown sugar, salt, and cinnamon in a separate dish, and then add this dry mixture to the coated nuts.

5. Toss to coat, and spread evenly in the prepared roaster or cookie sheet.

6. Bake at 250°F for 1 hour in the preheated oven, stirring every 15 minutes. The stirring prevents extra "clumping" of nuts & sugar and helps everything to cook evenly.

7. Allow nuts to cool, then store in airtight containers. Here's a photo of a finished batch of Pecans (usually the most popular nut):

Ben's Roasted Peanuts
Yield: Approx 7 cups

3 cups Unsalted Peanuts (approx 1 lb jar)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup brown sugar

1. Preheat oven to 300° F. Lightly grease a roaster or cookie sheet with non-stick spray.

2. Mix peanuts, sugar, and water in a skillet or pan. I usually start heating the water until it starts to bubble, then add the peanuts, and then add the sugar and stir. The hot water and the extra agitation of stirring peanuts helps the sugar dissolve.

3. Cook on Med/High heat until liquid is gone and mixture thickens. This is where you have to be careful. Stir occasionally and keep a close watch as it thickens. Once it starts putting off less steam, and the mixture doesn't "slosh around" as much when you stir, you can take it off the heat. If left too long, the sugar starts to burn and turns a darker color. If you take it off too early, some extra time in the oven can help cook off any extra water.

4. Remove from heat and stir the brown sugar into the mixture. This will mix with the thick sugar mixture and make a nice coating on the peanuts.

5. Spread evenly in the prepared roaster or cookie sheet.

6. Bake at 300°F for 30 minutes in the preheated oven, stirring at 15 minutes and again at the end. This will break up the thick sugar mixture before it hardens, keeping everything from sticking together too much.

7. Allow nuts to cool, then store in airtight containers.

Mass Production:
Granted, not everyone will be making as many, but when you make so many like I do you pick up a few things. The heavy duty foil comes in handy for cooling. I only have a few large foil roasters, so when a batch comes out of the oven, I can lift out the foil liner full of nuts and set it out to cool, leaving my roaster free for the next batch. Since they bake for a long time, I can start prepping the next batch about 20 minutes before the oven is done.

Once everything is done and cooled, mixing the nuts is the next challenge. In past years I would put them in a bag and attempt to toss them. However, as the amount grew the bag became very heavy, and the abrasive nature of the nuts led to rips in the plastic bag. This year I had used 6lbs of peanuts, 4lbs walnuts, 3lbs pecans, and 2lbs of almonds; 15lbs altogether. The finished batch weighed 25lbs (yes, that's 10lbs of sugar) and filled a volume of around 6 to 7 gallons. So this year I tracked down some new supplies from a restaurant supply store in the area: an 8-gallon heavy duty food-safe bucket for mixing, and an aluminum scoop for scooping and putting into containers. I was able to pour in portions of nuts into the bucket, cover it, and roll it back and forth and the mixture turned out great... much easier than years past.

The aluminum scoop made a big difference as well. I've tried scooping with bowls (which is awkward), and plastic cups/bowls (which really scratches the plastic). Having the right tools makes a big difference. We packed up the nuts in containers (bought on clearance after Christmas last year), put tags on, and now we get to enjoy giving them away! This year's batch yielded enough for 22 containers and some left over to serve to guests. Now I just have to pack away the bucket and scoop until next year.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reddit Secret Santa 2009

When I sit down on the computer and catch up on things online, I have my usual stops... Yahoo email, blog subscriptions through my Google Reader, and usually after that I check The socially-driven site has helped me waste a lot of time and have some fun reading funny, interesting, and just random stuff online. Users submit links to other web pages they find worthy of sharing, and the Reddit community votes them up or down. Links with more votes get pushed to the front page of the website, while the less popular get voted down into obscurity. For those not familiar, this is not a new concept online. Reddit just happens to be one of those sites that I enjoy. The users there seem to be my kind of demographic, and the submissions and discussions are fun, even if I don't always agree with everything there.

Back in November, some of the users on Reddit suggested the idea of putting together a big Secret Santa with other members. When the suggestion was put out there the community responded with a big "yes!" and the project began. A website was put together ( along with a basic set of rules. This was going to be fun.

I finally signed up on the last day of signups. In all, 4,391 people from 54 countries signed up for what appears to be the biggest Secret Santa ever. The gift-giving statistics are staggering. Users who signed up had the opportunity to share a little about themselves and what they may want (or not want) from their secret santa. The Santas also knew their Santee's username on Reddit, and could browse their comments and postings to learn more about their recipient. Some people engaged in a little more research online to learn more about their assigned giftee to figure out the perfect gift. Since the gifts started shipping, the project has been getting attention from all around, including ABC News and the Washington Post. The folks at Reddit even offered to host on their servers because the site was getting so much traffic.

This has been a really fun project to be a part of. It's been interesting to see what people have gotten from their Secret Santas, as the website has a gallery where people can upload photos of their gifts and other members can discuss them. There have been some bad gifts, some extravagant ones, but overall people have come up with some unique and creative gifts within the suggested $15 limit. We've all enjoyed watching so much Christmas giving as new gifts appear on the site daily.

I was assigned a guy from Arkansas, and had an interesting (but not uncommon) challenge. He didn't tell me anything about himself, and he had not posted anything on reddit that I could go back and read. In addition, I couldn't dig up anything online. So I decided to give something creative, and something useful. For the creative gift, I broke out my painting supplies and painted a small 4" x 4" canvas painting of the Reddit alien logo, and a couple other Reddit things: the new message envelope and the voting arrows. For the useful gift, I gave a 22-piece precision ratcheting screwdriver set. After wrapping my items, I packed up the box and sent it on it's way. Thus far, I know it's been delivered based on package tracking, but he hasn't posted anything on the site to let me know if he opened it or liked it. We'll see.

I had been so engaged in putting together a gift of my own, I almost forgot I might be getting a gift myself. My Secret Santa turned out to be a girl from Washington. I told her about myself, and she made a "secret santa" account on Facebook to become my friend for a few days and learn more about me. As a result, she decided to give a little Christmas cheer to my whole family. A small package arrived one day, decorated with the Reddit alien and some other artwork. An early Christmas present, yay! Upon opening it, I found a letter and three packages with nametags made out to me, my wife & son.

The whole thing was wrapped nicely with the signature Reddit orange-red envelopes as tags, and came with a nice letter wishing us a merry Christmas and it included a short message (Hello World) to my son written in PHP code.

For me, "The Baby Owner's Manual: Operating Instructions, Trouble-Shooting Tips, and Advice on First-Year Maintenance." It's full of good info, but better yet it's written with a fun technical sense of humor and lots of "schematic" type drawings of all things baby. Fitting since I work in tech support and have an innate desire to diagnose & fix things. I was seriously laughing out loud flipping through this book.

For my son was a DVD of some old Christmas cartoons.

For my wife was a Buddha Board. It's meant to encourage mental relaxation/zen. You get the paintbrush wet, and the surface turns almost black with a little water from the brush, and it evaporates and disappears quickly. Very unique, and could be fun for our son and nieces & nephews as a simple, clean way to play with "painting". It was adorned with some Reddit Secret Santa alien labels.

This was fun, thank you Santa! And thank you to the dedicated people who helped put this all together. Nathan likes his new book: