Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Easing into it

So things have been quiet around here. So quiet that silent is probably a more accurate description. So quiet that this morning I finally opened up my Google reader and let out a screech when I found that I have 1000+ unread items. And that makes me sad because I know that I have missed 1000+ amazing posts from you guys.

I don't usually get too personal on here, but I figure you deserve a little explanation. Two weeks ago my amazing stepfather, who commutes to and from work (over 30 miles a day!) on his road bike, was hit by a van going 40 miles an hour. He is a big banged up mess, but now stable, thankfully. My mom and I have been living at the hospital. Literally - we made them put a cot in his room, which I'm not sure they were too thrilled about. Our lives have been on hold for the last couple weeks and we are just starting to venture out into the world again.

I am grateful that we still have him, that the person who hit him had the courage to call the ambulance and stick around, and that it looks like he will recover as time goes on.

I'll be back with more frivolous, fun posts soon. I still have things to share, etsy items I'm craving and recipes lined up for testing! I even have posts I wrote before the accident, waiting to get put up. And of course I'm dying to get back to reading your blogs and leaving comments. But it might be a bit sporadic for a while longer. Hang in there...I'll be back in full force soon enough.

Balch 1
My mom, me, and my stepfather a couple years ago

Monday, November 10, 2008

Back soon...

Hi, everyone -

Thanks for all the sweet comments about the wedding posts last week!

There will be a little silence around here for a few days - I'm spending a bit of time at home with my family and not getting in any computer time. I'll be back, checking up on the posts I've missed and making some posts of my own, as soon as I get a chance.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sis's wedding: making a dessert buffet

Previous wedding posts: wedding overview, the cake recipe, and the invitations.

Food is a huge part of the wedding budget. Sis was having an afternoon wedding, so we decided to keep things simple and stick with a dessert buffet, and champagne, cider and coffee to drink. You save money a couple ways. Obviously, you don't have to pay for full meals. You also don't have to rent forks, and you can just get small plates and cocktail napkins. Note: You need two plates for every guest, plus forks for the cake serving, unless you want to ask people to bring back their dessert plates so you can serve them cake. Trust me, you don't. It would back the cake line up significantly, unless your wedding is really small.

Making cookies is fun. Making thousands of cookies while living in an apartment is logistically difficult. I knew there was no way I could make dozens of batches of cookies the week before the wedding, so I started researching my options.

My creation

The freezer is your best bet, unless you are an actual baker by profession and have an industrial kitchen and lots of time. I looked for cookies that could be either baked and frozen, or doughs that could be rolled into logs, frozen, and then sliced and baked the day before. The goal here is to avoid getting stuck shaping cookies (even drop cookies take time) in the midst of pre-wedding madness.

I made an Excel spreadsheet for myself, listing all the recipes I was going to use, and the number of batches of each, and then had it calculate the total pounds of flour, butter, etc. I needed to buy. I did one or two major shopping trips at Smart and Final and bought supplies in bulk. Knowing my entire list ahead of time saved time and money.

I made one or two different types of cookies per week, mixing up two double batches of each to save time, for the month and a half prior to the wedding. Of course, this meant our entire freezer (and my parents' entire freezer) was filled with cookies and cookie dough.

A few days before the wedding, I made hundreds of mini cupcakes. I cheated and used boxed mix that I picked up when it was on sale for $1 a box but I did make real frosting. The easy way to dole out cupcake batter? Get a gallon size ziploc bag, scrape the entire bowl of batter into it, seal the bag, cut a small bit of one of the corners out and then just use it to neatly dispense cupcake batter into the cups. You wouldn't believe how much time this saves, compared to spooning batter into each cup. You get approximately 75 mini cupcakes per box of cake mix, which makes these really cost effective.

The single, sadly diminished (and incredibly low res) shot

We also picked out classic cookies in black and white (oreos, vanilla sandwich cookies and mini meringues) and put them in huge hurricane vases scattered around the dessert tables. It was cute and not very expensive.

Tips for doing a massive dessert buffet:

1. Unless you are a control freak (I freely admit I have a problem), please get other people to help. I've heard that in the midwest, cookie buffets are a wedding tradition, with family members bringing cookies to share. I think this is a great idea, if you provide the plating set up.

2. Tables look better with lots of height layers. I used my own stash of vintage cake platters and borrowed stands from people, trying to make sure we ended up with a variety of heights. I also bought (from a flower supplier) inexpensive hurricane vases in various sizes, to add a little contrast.

3. Buy little bags or boxes. We had tons of leftovers at the end of the night, and we set out little brown lunch bags, so that people could pack up cookies to take home.

4. Get someone to take pictures! I am still so sad that we don't have any good pictures of the tables, because they were really pretty when they were all set up.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sis's wedding: the invitations

Previous wedding posts: wedding overview, and the cake recipe.

One of my favorite imaginary occupations is being a stationery designer. With an old fashioned letterpress. Sadly that takes room, and money, and skills, none of which I possess.

On a tight budget, letterpress simply wasn't an option, so Sis decided to go super simple instead. I designed the invitations to maximize efficient use of paper and shopped around online for envelopes.

I designed the invitations in Illustrator and printed them on nicely textured white paper, four to a page. An ink jet printer works just fine, especially if you set the print quality to "best." A thick black paper with lightly embossed columns provided the backing, and I added a couple tiny rhinestones to the fly aways because I am a sucker for sparkles.

The RSVP cards were very similar, but I backed them on thick black cardstock, so that they would hold up to the mailing process. D designed a super simple map for the details card.


Tips if you are thinking about making your own invitations:

1. Try to maximize everything - I started with common paper sizes and then figured out what size to make the final invitations.

2. Research postal rules. We originally thought square invitations sounded fun, but oddly sized envelopes mean extra postage, which adds up quickly. We made the postcard RSVPs, which saves money on postage, but they have minimum and maximum sizes.

3. Invest in a paper cutter and some spare blades - trust me, you cannot do this with scissors.

4. Spray adhesive is a million times less messy than actual glue. We would lay several invitations out face down on a large piece of cardboard, spray them all (outside!) and then quickly lay them down on the backing.

5. Buy a test sheet of paper and print the invite on it before you commit to a bulk quantity. I made the mistake of not doing this and ended up with two unusable reams of paper, because the texture was just too smooth and I couldn't live with it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Sis's wedding: making a wedding cake

First things first, people - if you haven't already voted, go do it! Now. Seriously. I don't usually talk politics on here, but there are issues at stake that are very near and dear to my heart. If you are in California, please vote no on 8. It's all about legal equality, and religious freedom is not at stake (keeping gay marriage legal does not force churches to conduct gay marriages, if they are opposed, nor is there any risk of churches losing their tax exempt status). After watching all the joyful marriages of people who had been denied that basic right for so long, I simply can't believe that we might go back and invalidate those unions. It's heartbreaking.

I also urge you to
vote no on 4. I am sure most of us are incredibly blessed, and didn't grow up in abusive or disinterested households, but please keep in mind that many girls do and prop 4 puts those girls in a untenable position.

I know that many of my readers (and friends) will respectfully disagree with me on these issues, but I'm asking you to search your heart, and review your facts, before heading to the polls.

And now back to the wedding cake. If you haven't already, see the wedding overview here.

I know that making a wedding cake sounds intimidating, but here's the thing - it's all about your recipe. And your decorating taste. If my sister had wanted a fancy fondant tower with sugar crafted birds hovering over it, I would have immediately declined, because I am not a cake decorator and I am not insane. But how can you resist this?

Photo from Martha Stewart Weddings, found here.

We had a copy of the actual magazine (since lost, much to my dismay - if anyone has it, I would love a scan of those pages!), and it provided amazingly detailed, easy instructions on how to assemble the cake. Luckily, they still have the basic recipes up on the site. Meyer lemon pound cake, coconut swiss meringue buttercream and meyer lemon curd filling recipes can be found here, here and here.

The mini anniversary cake

We saved the top of the cake for their one year anniversary, but I was nervous about how it might taste, so I made another little cake to give to them. Making one batch of cake is much more fun than making ten, by the way. If you want to make a smaller cake, just make one batch of the cake and a half batch of the frosting - it will be plenty. I made three little cakes from one batch, each six inches in diameter and three inches in height.


Things to think about, if you want to make a giant wedding cake:

1. Pick a recipe you are comfortable with - I highly recommend pound cake if you aren't experienced with making large cakes, because airier cakes are more likely to crack and cause major frustration.

2. Go to a cake store well in advance, because you are going to need large pans (some cake stores will rent pans to you for a fraction of the cost of buying them) and specialty ingredients.

3. Don't rely on your decorating skills too much, unless you are actually a cake decorator. This cake was a dream because I just slathered the frosting on for an amazing, stucco-esque finish and then added some candied lemon peels and flowers for decoration.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Happy anniversary, little sis!

One year ago today I was elbow deep in frosting, while simultaneously freaking out because we had somehow managed to lose the blow dryer and I was supposed to be at the church in 15 minutes and I had wet hair. Ah, weddings.

I had never been much of a wedding person before my little sister announced she was engaged and asked me to help out with the planning. I hope she doesn't mind that I dove in and took over - she was sweet and relaxed and not terribly interested in the minutiae, so we put together a very simple, family and friend oriented afternoon ceremony, followed by a dessert and champagne reception in his parent's backyard.

Wedding details (feel free to skip over if you are not at all into this sort of thing) - tomorrow I will be back with the cake recipe, which you will love, even if you are not into weddings at all:

Clothes: My sister wore a gorgeously simple cream colored lace sheath dress that Em and I helped her pick out at Macy*s for less than $200 - no alterations, but my mom added a little band of black velvet ribbon under the bustline. I was her only attendant and I wore one of my favorite J. Crew dresses and my mom made a cummerbund in the same silvery grey as the flower girls' skirts (also made by mom). Sis wore barely any jewelery - just a delicate cameo necklace (we have matching ones from when our parents traveled through Italy after they first got married!).


Food: I'll post food details later this week. We used favorite family recipes to make tons and tons (seriously, tons) of cookies, adhering to the basic color scheme of black and white. I also made hundreds of mini cupcakes. We had copious amounts of champagne and sparkling cider. I wish I had another picture of the dessert tables, because this one is low res and it was taken after people had already started stuffing their faces. Tip: We didn't have a professional photographer at the reception and we got gorgeous photos from family and friends, but they don't usually think to take any detail pictures. If you want detail pictures, make sure to ask (kindly) someone specific to take them.


Location: The ceremony was held in a little chapel up the street from the groom's parents' home (the one my sister always wanted to get married in). We all grew up in the same neighborhood, so it was a mere mile from my parents' house, making logistics much easier. The reception was held in the groom's parents' (thankfully large) backyard.

We rented tables and plain white tablecloths from a local rental company. My darling, far too generous friend Kristin helped me pick out flowers (vast amounts of white hydrangeas, with dusty miller and other accents plucked from my mom's yard) and make simple clusters of them in low vases for the tables. (Kris and my other high school girls are awesome, because they showed up the night before the wedding and cheerfully helped arrange and pack flowers for the low, low price of a couple of pizzas - I love you guys!). Between the vases, we spread trails of glossy black river rocks.

Halfway through setting up, the morning of the wedding

The cake: This was a whole category in itself. My sister picked a recipe from Martha Stewart and my mom and I made it the day before the wedding (and iced it the day of). Luckily, this cake was super forgiving and easy to work with, besides being delicious. Recipe coming tomorrow!

My mom and stepdad kindly transported the cake to the reception while we finished up taking pictures at the chapel. Can I just say I am so glad that I wasn't there to witness this moment? I think I would have had a heart attack watching the cake get moved. That sucker was heavy.


Here I am cutting the cake, after the top tier had been whisked away for storage. I have no idea why I look so concerned. I think I was trying to figure out how big to make the slices.


Approximately 125 people attended. I'm always curious about how these things break down, so here's what we spent.

Rentals: $917 (included tables, linens, chairs, coffee cups + saucers, champagne glasses, plates, forks, delivery charge and tax)
Food: $400 (includes ingredients for thousands of home made cookies, plus all the stuff for making the cake, including cake pans)
Drink: $450 (we ordered 70 bottles of decent champagne ($7.50 per bottle) at BevMo. They have great prices and they allow you to return unopened bottles, which was great because we ended up only using 60 bottles)
Flowers, etc: $250 (for bulk hydrangeas, plus buying the vases, the ribbon for the bouquets and the river rocks)
Invitations: $300 (including invitation, inserts, envelopes and postage for 150 invites. We designed our own invitations, shopped around for nice paper, and printed them on our printer - this would have been even cheaper if I had more experience, because I messed up a few times and bought stuff we didn't need)
Dress: $200, plus another $50 for the material for the flower girl skirts, my cummerbund, and the boys' ties, all made by mom. Oh, and $50 for an adorable pair of black Mary Janes that went perfectly with the sweet little wedding dress.

This is one of my favorite photos of them that day, taken candidly right before they walked into the reception. She just looks so quiet and contemplative (and lovely).

There were other random incidentals that came up, so I don't know the real total, just that it clocked in under $5000, including the exorbitant cost of the private chapel ($1200 for just 2 hours of use time, but it was my sis's dream location) and the vintage rings they found for each other at an antique dealer in our hometown.

Of course, we did all the work ourselves, so I don't really know how to come up with a cost for that. I loved planning this wedding, but it convinced me that wedding planners more than earn their money. This took major planning, thinking ahead, researching, dozens of my nerdy organizational spreadsheets, plus a scale drawing of the backyard layout in AutoCad. We had three families (ours, the grooms, and D's) and innumerable friends helping out, which was amazing, and fun, and more than a little crazy. Everything was simple and a true labor of love. No one seemed to mind not having plated service or a wedding band. We forgot to toss the bouquet. No one cared. After we saw off the happy couple (they camped out on the beach for their honeymoon), lots of people stayed to help clean up a bit and someone ran out and ordered massive amounts of In'n'Out burgers and fries and we all sprawled around and finished off more champagne. Then D drove me home and I slept for the next 24 hours straight.


P.S. I did not have to walk down the aisle with wet hair. My brother, terrified by my incipient temper tantrum, ran next door and borrowed a blow dryer from the neighbors.