Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fun and yummy at the same time

I've gotten hooked on dealnews.com, a site reports on great deals from all the web.  There are a lot of other similar sites but since Mike introduced me to dealnews, that's where I go for the deals.  A couple of weeks ago, there was a 50% off sale on Williams-Sonoma Star Wars vehicles cookie cutters.  The cookie cutters not only cut the shape, but then you can stamp the imprint on the cookie, making it easier to decorate.  While I was on the site, I noticed they also have Star Wars Heroes and Villains cutters so I had to buy that set also.

Once I got the cutters, I decided to start with Heroes and Villains since they seemed easier to decorate.  I made the sugar cookie recipe suggested on the box (less rising during baking means better imprints) and made about 5 cups of royal icing.

The cookies came out great even without any icing.  The imprints stay strong so you don't actually need to use icing.  Note: since Yoda has less mass and more pointy corners, he does cook a lot faster in the oven than the other ones so keep an eye out for browning.

Once the cookies were cooled, it was time to make the mess.  A fair bit of the cookies require flooding (cover the entire cookie) so you do have to wait until the first layer dries before making any further decorations.  Plus anytime you change colors, you have to wait for the layers to dry so they don't bleed into each other.  The good news is since there were about 4 dozen cookies total, by the time I finished the first layer of colors, cleaned up all the piping tips and made new colors, the first set of cookies were dried and I could work on them.  As long as I continued to rotate the cookies in the right order, it worked out ok.  It did take me about 1.5 days total to finish everything (baking and decorating).  The cleanup wasn't as bad as I imagined but that's because I would clean up between each color change.  It definitely made the mess a lot easier to handle.

Last of the mess to clean up.

I love the way they turned out.  I also figure it was a good practice session for me for the upcoming Christmas baking season.  There is obviously room for improvement but still really pleased with the results.  I did take notes so next time they will look even better!  Mike did suggest that I flavor the cookies next time (chocolate for Darth, mint for Yoda).

Next up is to try the Star Wars vehicles.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Yet another new skill

A few weeks ago, we attended a friend's BBQ/Housewarming party at his new home.  They had custom-built the home and it had a lot of really great features, including huge picture windows, wire cabling for stair rails, a very open first floor plan, and a single basin kitchen sink.

The sink really caught my attention and I thought it was the coolest thing.  We have a double basin sink which probably comes in handy for those who like to have a soapy area and clean water area but we usually soap and rinse at the same time.  If anything, the double basin is more annoying than helpful since the divider makes it difficult to fill large pots, clean baking sheets, and often causes me to spill water everywhere if I'm washing large items.

Our old kitchen sink
Mike and I talked about it and decided since we needed to replace the kitchen faucet (it had been leaking for a while and replacing the washer and o-ring didn't seem to help), we decided to indulge in a new kitchen sink too.  I found a great looking single basin sink at Lowes that got some very good reviews.  It's made of composite granite and many reviewers stated it didn't chip, stain, or scratch.

After removing the sink
We bought the sink and faucet and decided to install it ourselves that upcoming weekend.  The internet (the Google is great) stated it's much easier to install the faucet before placing the sink into the counter so on friday morning I decided to at least attach the new faucet before saturday.  That only took about ten minutes.  Once finished, I got really antsy and decided to just finish the install completely.
New sink sitting on top of the drain loop
I unhooked all the plumbing, removed the old sink (hardest part of the job since it was cast-iron), and placed the new sink into the countertop.  Then I ran into a snag.  The new sink is about an inch deeper than the old sink.  That meant the drain loop was too high and the sink wouldn't sit flush.  I had to make another trip to Lowes and pick up some pvc and cement.  Hack-sawed the old pipe, fitted the correct new length and cemented it all together.  The rest of the work was cake.  I had to buy new piping since we were going from two drains to one and the location of the new drain was different but that was relatively simple.  Putting the garbage disposal back and reattaching the dishwasher drain was also quite simple.  Caulked everything and crossed my fingers.

This is when naughty words came out of my mouth

Once the caulk dried, I ran the sink and there didn't appear to be any leaks.  It's now been two weeks, the dishwasher and disposal has run successfully, the drain doesn't leak, and I am absolutely thrilled with the new sink and faucet.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Neato XV-11 Review

Dog hair is the bane of my existence.  In a house of 3 labs and a revolving door of fosters, the house is constantly full of dog hair and dirt trekked in by paws.  To keep up with the dirt and hair, I have to vacuum every other day.  We could get away with not vacuuming as often but the hair and dirt drives us both a bit bonkers.

A few years ago, we heard of the Roomba but just didn't think it was right for us due to the openness of our house and because of the amount of dog hair it would have to pick up.  Recently we started talking about the Roomba again and a friend of ours lent us their Roomba to try out.  Unfortunately the battery didn't hold a charge longer than 10 minutes but it gave us a really good idea of how the Roomba worked.  It has a spin brush similar to a vacuum but it has no actual suction.  So it wanders around the room and sometimes the brush will just move the hair around and sometimes the hair goes into the Roomba.  Unfortunately since there isn't suction, most of the dog hair just stayed around the bristles and didn't make it into the dirt tray.  However we were both intrigued by how it worked and researched reviews of Roomba's competitor, the Neato XV-11.

Since costco.com sold the Neato, we decided to give it a try.  Costco has free shipping and a really generous return policy so that would allow us to try the Neato and return it to the warehouse if we didn't like it.  We liked it...a lot.

Instead of rotating bristles, the Neato has rotating rubber squeegees and suction.  Some reviews state that this makes the Roomba far better for carpets; however we have a small rug in our kitchen table and the Neato does a good job grabbing dog hair and dirt on both the carpet and hardwood.  Since the Neato also has suction, it is MUCH louder than the Roomba but all the dirt/hair make it into the dirt bin instead of getting swirled around the floor.

The Neato uses lidar to map each section of the room.  Once mapped, it will follow the edges of that section then methodically move back and forth in rows until that section is complete.  Then the Neato will move to the next section of the room and do the same thing.  It has magnetic strips you lay down across the floors to act as boundaries which works great. 

We have the Neato programmed to vacuum at 8pm every night and it takes 50 minutes to complete our entire kitchen.  Originally we left our chairs in place around the tables and counters.  While the Neato was mostly able to maneuver around and through the chairs, it just couldn't clean as well in those areas because of the tight spaces.  So every night we put up all the chairs, dog toys, and dog towels.

Prepping the kitchen for a Neato run

I clean out the bin and put in a clean filter after every cycle (It only takes me 2-3 minutes to rinse/wash the filter every night).  I only need to rotate out two filters since one is washed and drying, the other is placed into the robot.  I am surprised at how much dirt/dust/hair ends up in the bin every time.

I haven't had to vacuum the kitchen since we've gotten the Neato.  It does a really good job getting into the edges and handling our oddly shaped kitchen overall.  I've also noticed when mopping that there is a lot less dirt on the cloth than in the past.

The Neato is loud and can be distracting so running it when you're not in the same area is preferable.  It's very convenient and keeps our high-trafficked hardwood floors cleaner.  Unfortunately it is a bit pricey so you'd have to decide whether the trade-off of less manual labor is worth the cost.  It took us less than a week to decide that it was worth it.

The interface is intuitive and needs little directions to get it working; cleaning out the dirt bin is simple; it gets into tight spaces easily; and it requires little maintenance.  Definitely a fun little household toy and helper for us.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Costa Rica Day 8

Our plane wasn't due to take-off until about 3pm but since the airport was in San Jose and we were on the west coast, we planned to spend our last day driving from Playa Flamingto to San Jose.  From the research Kathie did, the drive would be anywhere between 4.5-6 hrs depending on the traffic and conditions of the road.

To be safe, we decided to leave by 7am to give us enough time in case we ran into any delays.  We munched on our supermarket food while making sure we packed everything up (we've forgotten our phone chargers in the past).

The roads ended up being pretty good.  Most of the roads weren't too crowded and when we did get stuck behind trucks, we simply followed the customs of Ticans and passed in the other lane when it was safe.  We were on Rt 27, one of the new paved double-laned roads near San Jose, making fantastic time when it ended up completely closed.  We think it was due to the earthquake from the night before but we had to detour and that road took us on VERY twisty one-lane roads up mountains.  We couldn't pass simply due to too much traffic in front of us so we just relaxed and followed the rest of the cars.  We finally made it to San Jose with more than enough time for our flight.

Costa Rica requires everyone to pay an exit fee, so we took care of that, got our boarding pass and got on our plane home.  It was nice to finally get home although the temperature difference was a bit of a disappointment.

Costa Rica was definitely a fantastic place to visit.  The people are super-friendly, the country is beautiful, and most speak English so we didn't feel too out of our depth.  This would definitely be a country worth visiting again in the future.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Costa Rica Day 7

We didn't have any real plans for today since we would be leaving Costa Rica tomorrow morning.  Yesterday our surfing instructor pointed out a kayak rental area near our hotel and we liked the idea of doing some kayaking on our own so we walked over to the rental place and they brought a kayak right to the beach behind our hotel.  It was a bit dicey getting the kayak past the breaking waters and we did flip the kayak over once but finally managed to get through the water.  We kayaked out towards the ocean but realized that it might not be smart to get too far out into the ocean.  Kathie's slightly paranoid mind kept running through scenarios of falling into the water and getting eaten by sharks.  Mike was more pragmatic and realized that it would take a lot of energy to paddle through the waves and come back into shore afterwards since the water was a bit choppy that far out.  So we turned further towards the land and followed the shoreline for a while.  After about 45 minutes we turned back around and really had to fight through the currents to make any headway.  We finally made it back to our beach and rode the waves back to shore.

View of the beach from the restaurant terrace

Since it was still such a beautiful day outside and we hadn't taken advantage of the pool, we dumped our things into the room, grabbed some towels and headed into the warm, empty pool.  The pool has two swim-up bars and two really shallow areas with chaise loungers in the water.  We did a fair bit of wallowing, floating, sunning, and resting in the pool until Mike was beginning to feel a bit baked (and both of us were getting hungry).

We headed out and stopped at Outback Jack's for lunch.  It's very much pub/bar type food and it felt very Americanized with all the junk hung on the walls and ceilings; however it was open and had more than one other customer there.

After lunch, we made a quick stop at a nearby supermarket.  Since we were leaving the hotel early in the morning, we needed sustenance for the trip back to the airport.  We grabbed some rolls, yogurt, and soda then came back to the hotel and packed up.

We grabbed dinner at the hotel and spent the rest of the night just hanging out and reading.  Sometime in the early evening, we both noticed the bed shaking.  We both shrugged it off as a big truck passing by but found out the next day that Costa Rica was hit with a 5.9-magnitude earthquake.  Fortunately it hit pretty deep in the earth so there wasn't a lot of damage.  We were about 60 miles away from the quake and still felt the tremors. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Costa Rica Day 6

We signed up with a small surfing company recommended by a few on trip advisor.  Basically it's one to two instructors and no more than 8 students.  Since it's off-season, we were the only two signed up for the day.  Matt picked us up from the hotel and drove us to Playa Grande, a good area for surfers, especially beginner surfers.  Playa Grande is one of those nice small beaches that are mostly used by locals so it isn't crowded at all, apparently even during the busy season.

Matt brought two 9 foot surfboards and one 11 foot board; obviously the bigger the board, the more stable and easier it is to learn to surf.  We did some practice on the beach for a little while then headed into the surf.  It's funny how small the waves look from the beach, but they sure seem to get a lot bigger when we're actually in the water.

Instead of riding the boards out to where Matt was waiting, we walked the boards in since it's a little faster and easier.  We'd then get on the board, he'd guide us into position, and when an appropriate wave came, we would paddle like mad while he gave us one big push.  While Kathie was the first to get up and ride a wave successfully, Mike had the longest runs, a couple all the way to shore.  We weren't good enough to move to the next stage where we actually ride the boards out to the right wave and surf in, so we spent the time walking the board out to the surf each time we finished. 

Surfing is exhausting!  It took a fair bit out of us to fight the waves to go back out, then try to stay on the board.  Even though it was tiring, both Mike and Kathie immensely enjoyed the lessons.  Both of us had some good runs and both had some serious wipe-outs.

After 1 hr 40 min both of us were exhausted and called it a day after we were both happy with our last runs.  We came back to the hotel, washed off and headed off to find some lunch.  While we really love avoiding crowds and going on vacation during the off-season, we've discovered that Playa Flamingo goes really off-season and a fair number of places are closed until December, including a highly rated restaurant we wanted to try.  So we went to a nearby restaurant that was opened and ate there.  The prices were a little higher than most places we ate at, and the food was much more Americanized.  We're going to try to go a little further out tomorrow to find better eatings tomorrow.

After lunch, we came back to relax some more in the room (yes, we enjoy just vegetating and reading while on vacation too), then Kathie couldn't resist getting a facial through the resort.  Spa services were 20% off which made it a really nice deal.  The facial was really well done and Kathie looked a bit dazed after her facial. While Kat was being pampered, Mike got back in touch with civilization via the ipad and the free Wi-Fi in the hotel's open-air lobby next to the pool.

It was a great day.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Costa Rica Day 5

We decided on a lazy morning since we were just going to do a lot of driving to the west side of Costa Rica today.  Of course with Costa Rica right near the equator (therefore the sun gets up really early), a lazy morning means getting up at 6am instead of 5am.

We had our last breakfast at the Volcano Lodge restaurant and packed up our things.  Both Mike and Kathie liked the Volcano Lodge since the rooms were very quiet, the area was filled with beautiful plants and the lodges are not crowded together.  The wifi never did end up working in our room but we would just sit in the main office and do our surfing on their computers there.

We decided to stop into town to get gas before the long drive; however on the way into town we got stuck in the middle of a bicycle race of some kind — the were lots of police cars and motorcycles escorting cyclists, and closing off parts of the road. The local Ticas turned out in droves to watch and take photos. Once we got into town, getting to the only gas station turned out to be a challenge since the main road was completely closed. We had to wait for the bulk of the cyclists (probably 40-50) to go by before we could pass some police barriers and fill up. After that, we headed west towards Playa Flamingo.

View of Arenal volcano from our drive

Once we got a little ways out of Arenal, the road conditions deteriorated a bit, but were still quite manageable. The weather was great, and it was pretty much the first time we'd seen more than a glimpse of sun during our trip. The drive around Lake Arenal was very winding and hilly, and at one point there was a river flowing across the road. Once we got out of the mountains, the road leveled and straightened quite a bit, letting us pick up some speed (80kph instead of the 40-60 typical of most of our trip). The drivers in Costa Rica are a bit aggressive, and the double-yellow line is essentially meaningless—we ended up following suit and passing frequently where it's not allowed.  As soon as Kathie mentioned how nice the weather had been, we ran into a torrential downpour—fortunately it only lasted a few minutes, and then it was sunny again!

The west coast of Costa Rica is well known for it's beautiful beaches.  The most popular is Tamarindo, especially for the surfers.  We decided against the popular and went for a much smaller beach area with a reputation for pristine beaches and clear water.  We made it to Playa Flamingo in about four hours and checked in a the Flamingo Beach Resort.  This hotel was much more of a typical resort with a huge swimming pool, swim-up bars, spa area, casino, and parked right by the beach.

Flamingo Beach Resort view from the lobby
We ate a late lunch in lieu of dinner, checked out the beach for a bit, then relaxed at the hotel and set our alarms for the next morning's surfing lessons!