Pumpkin Carving Tips and Tricks

Pumpkin Carving Tips and Tricks

My family takes pumpkin carving pretty seriously – we’re not exactly creating masterpieces, but we do like to outdo each other! Over the years we have made some pretty awesome pumpkins. We’ve learned a lot and honed our skills, and I’d like to share some tips with you.

These pumpkin carving tips are for regular people who just want to make a neat pumpkin!

  • Inspect your pumpkin. You want a flat base, a strong stem, and no soft spots or gouges. Shake the pumpkin to make sure it doesn’t sound sloshy on the inside (trust me; you do not want to cut into that!). Make sure it has at least one nice surface for carving.
  • Practice on paper. Even with a fairly simple design, do a dry run on paper – draw it out (or print it) and cut out all the pieces that you would on the pumpkin. This creates a pumpkin carving stencil and ensures that you won’t end up with a surprise piece that has nothing to connect to.
  • Transfer your image. Tape your stencil onto the nicest surface. I use a toothpick to lightly score my stencil onto the pumpkin. With the stencil still taped on, go through and put an “X” in each area that will be cut out completely, and some lines in the areas that will just be scraped down.
  • Clean out your pumpkin. Cut the top off by cutting in at a 45-degree angle so that the stem will sit back in nicely and not fall into your pumpkin. Scrape out the guts with a large metal spoon. On the carving side, scrape out excess flesh – you’ll want less than one inch, but not so thin that the pumpkin will shrivel quickly or collapse.
  • Plump your pumpkin. Soak your cleaned out pumpkin in a bucket of cold water with a bit of bleach in it for about an hour. It will absorb the water and become more plump and firm, making pumpkin carving easier; and the bleach will help prevent molding.
  • Carve your design. Drill a hole in each area that will be removed. I like the tiny little saw that comes with the grocery store pumpkin carving kits, but the rest of the kit is pretty useless. I use a sturdy serrated knife in combination with garnishing tools, an exacto knife, and whatever else I can find in my kitchen and toolbox. Check out craft stores for pottery and linoleum tools for unique designs. Side note – dental tools work great for pumpkin carving if you have access to them, and there is something just very *Halloween* about torturing your pumpkin with these instruments!
  • Add details. I add depth by scraping some areas away rather than cutting all the way out, giving a nice mild glow through the flesh of the pumpkin. Make sure you leave plenty of connecting areas so it doesn’t collapse on itself.
  • Prep your pumpkin for use.  Coat the exposed edges with a thin layer of petroleum jelly or vegetable oil to prevent moisture from escaping the flesh (this is what causes shriveling). I jab a few whole cloves into the underside of the lid – it turns your jack-o-lantern into an air freshener when used with a real candle!
  • Keep your pumpkin fresh. Here in Phoenix, it stays pretty warm through October, and leaving a carved pumpkin out in the heat will lead to disappointment. I bring my pumpkins in during the day and put a plastic grocery bag around them to keep moisture in. If you have room in your fridge, keep wrapped pumpkins there when not in use. If your pumpkin starts to shrivel, soak it again in a mixture of bleach and very cold water until it plumps back up, then recoat with oil.
  • Light your pumpkin up. I like battery powered candles because they don’t burn out, but there’s just something about the smell of a jack-o-lantern with a real flame inside! If you use a real candle, be careful that you are not creating a fire hazard. Drill a couple holes in the back of your pumpkin near the top to allow oxygen flow. pumpkin-carving-phoenix

Happy Pumpkin Carving!

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What Exactly Is Butcher Block?

What Exactly Is Butcher Block?

Butcher Block is a specialized wood cutting surface, thick and rugged in design, built to sustain heavy blows from meat cleavers.  The name  “butcher’s block” was originally derived from its use by commercial meat cutters in butcher shops and meat processing plants over 125 years ago.  The first butcher blocks were made from Sycamore rounds, which were large sections of Sycamore tree trunks mounted on legs.  However, inherent in this round cut of wood was the problem of the wood splitting, creating unsanitary conditions.  This lead to the invention of the traditional end-grain butcher block, an assembled wood product made from strips of wood which are glued together to create a solid wedge.

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Today, traditional butcher blocks can be found in millions of supermarkets, delis, restaurants and home kitchens around the world.

End-Grain-Butcher-Block

These end-grain boards are made by bonding together short pieces of wood standing side-by-side, creating the traditional “checkerboard” appearance. Their cut ends make an excellent surface for cutting and chopping.  The wood fibers that make up the cutting surface are less susceptible to nicks and gouges, and will absorb the impact of knives.

 

Edge-Grain-Butcher-Block These days, the term butcher block is commonly used to refer to edge-grain constructed blocks as well.  Edge-grain blocks are made from laminating wood rails side-by-side, with the edges of wood strips making up the surface of the butcher block.  Many butcher blocks for home use are edge-grain construction because they are perfectly suitable for home use and are more affordable.

 

Edge-grain butcher blocks typically are thinner, lighter and more portable, making them ideal for versatile tableshard-working carts, gorgeous countertops, and  functional cutting boards.

What is your favorite butcher block product?

Our Annual Theme Party!

Our Annual Theme Party!

July 4th, 2003 is when it all began.  The family reunion that year was loosely themed a Hawaiian party. You know, wear your Hawaiian shirt and call it good.  All of our kids were playing outside enjoying the warm, balmy July day, when they came running in the house to show us their “costumes.”  They had raided the neighbors garden, pulling out every green leafy flower in their flower beds, and had pieced together hula skirts for all of the kids…The Annual July 4th Family Reunion Theme Party was born!

This year will be our 10th anniversary, having enjoyed a different theme party each year, without fail. It has brought our extended family closer, with  brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, cousins and neighbors all looking forward to the annual theme party. (Needless to say, the neighbors are forever honorary guests having sacrificed their flower garden year one).  Each year it seems the party gets more extravagant, as we have become pretty efficient at planning, organizing and partying.  What all the theme parties have in common is:

  1. They are held during the July 4th holiday weekend
  2. Awards are given for best costumes in a variety of categories
  3. The house is decorated in theme, inside and out
  4. And best of all, the food must match the theme party!

My brother reveals the “theme” for the party two months in advance, giving the competitive members of the family (namely me) enough time to research, craft or purchase their unique costumes.  Menu planning starts a few weeks in advance as we collaborate, via email, on the various dishes and accompanying delights that fit our theme party.  Decorations are purchased a week in advance. Finally, on the day of the event, we pull it all together including decorating and cooking for up to 45 people!

One of my favorite theme parties was our Bug Party.

If you think about it, you can just imagine how creative the food choices could be.

My sister-n-law created a Caterpillar Cake from two chocolate bunt cakes sliced in half, then pieced together to make an s-shape.  She used frosting to glue it together, alternating chocolate and vanilla frosting for each segment of the caterpillar.  Then we had a blast decorating with dots, candy corn legs, and Oreo eyes (see feature photo above). The buffet table was draped with a table cloth made from red and white picnic pattern with ants on it.  Our centerpiece for the dinner table was a bowl of gummy worm apples.  And finally the hot dog and hamburger buns where garnished with some plastic beetles, spiders and flies.

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The most visually interesting dish, and the yummiest of all, was the Dirt Cake, complete with gummy worms!

Here is our tried and true Dirt Cake Recipe:

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1 package Oreo cookies

1/3  cup butter or margarine

1- 8 oz container softened Cream Cheese

1 cup powdered sugar

3.5  cups milk

2 – 3.5 oz packages French Vanilla Pudding

1- 12 oz container Cool Whip

 

 

Smash Oreo cookies until very fine.  We use a zip-top bag and a rolling pin to smash.
Mix butter, cream cheese, and sugar in a medium bowl.
In a large bowl combine milk, pudding and Cool Whip and mix together.
Combine pudding mixture and cream cheese mixture.
Layer in glass baking dish starting with cookies, then cream mixture. Repeat layers.
Garnish with gummy worms.
Chill until ready to serve.

I am heading off to our 10th Annual Family Reunion Theme Party now.  The theme this year is “Heroes and Villains.” Stay tuned for more stories.  And enjoy your fourth of July!

Printer Friendly: Dirt Cake

Need some more inspiration for your get-together? Check out these fabulous recipes: Grilled Scallops, Amaretto Spice Cupcakes, Smoked Brisket

A Mother’s Day Surprise

A Mother’s Day Surprise

Sharing a wonderful Mother’s Day story from a very special  friend, Kathy Shook.

The mother of two wonderful daughters, I have enjoyed 22 delightful Mother’s Days, but one in particular will always stand out in my memory – May 10, 1992.

After years of trying to get pregnant, in 1991 my husband Mark and I turned our attention to adoption. We learned everything we could about how to improve the odds of being chosen by a pregnant young woman as adoptive parents for her baby.

Back then, a good number of private adoptions were arranged by  “adoption attorneys.” Expecting young women sought them out to assist in finding a suitable couple. Adoption attorneys kept on file letters and photos supplied by would-be parents, and expectant girls/women would peruse them in search of top-notch candidates. So my first task was to put together a Dear Birthmom letter that was sure to stand out – well written with a nice photo.

My next challenge was to compile a list of adoption attorneys from across the country. Combing through phone books from major U.S. cities on hand in the public library, I compiled a mailing list. Off went our letters to over a hundred adoption attorneys.

Over the next few months we found ourselves entangled in a number of wild goose chases. The emotional highs and lows took their toll.

Then we cleared the hurdle with Stephanie and her parents, but having been disappointed so many times, we didn’t get our hopes up. We received a call from Stephanie’s attorney on a Thursday advising us that she was in labor. We heard nothing more until we were awoken by a phone call Saturday morning and told to catch the first plane to this far-off city. The next day our beautiful daughter Kristine, two days old, was delivered into my hands in an attorney’s office. It happened to be Mother’s Day.

Mothers-Day-Surprise

Kathy and Kristine Mother’s Day – May 10, 1992

Most moms have time to prepare for Mother’s Day. Not me! Imagine my surprise and delight when I became a mother on the spur of the moment on the very day we honor mothers.

Moms, may your Mother’s Day be as joyous as my first!

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

We are so thrilled to introduce you to Chef J Whiting! Chef J has played an integral role in many Arizona restaurants, and travels extensively within the Southwest. Today he enlightens us on the common misconceptions of the Cinco de Mayo holiday, and shares his fantastic recipe for Hibiscus Margaritas.

We all love Cinco de Mayo – happily enjoying our margaritas, fajitas and a day off- but most of us have probably never thought much about it. Maybe like me, you had heard that it is Mexico’s independence day; something akin to the 4th of July here in the U.S. With just a bit of digging, though, I discovered the true meaning of this holiday and now have a real reason to drink margaritas this weekend.

Cinco de Mayo is, in fact, not a Mexican holiday at all. The day is a celebration of the battle of Puebla in 1862 in which the outnumbered Mexican army defeated the French, throwing a wrench into Napoleon’s plans to prop up the Confederate South. Many scholars believe that the Civil War would have had a drastically  different outcome if the French had not been stopped at Puebla.

Hearing the news of the battle, Mexican immigrants in America began to celebrate and used that battle as a symbol to rally around. Cinco de Mayo is a holiday to celebrate Mexican heritage and culture and how it has impacted the destiny of the United States.

So while you are enjoying your tequila and maybe something a little spicy, remember that without a small group of people standing their ground against the greatest military in the world at the time, the U.S. could be an entirely different place.

And like any celebration, it is best with food! Cultures move a meal at a time and the American culture has been deliciously inspired by Mexico. I am lucky enough to live in the Southwest where cuisine has blurred the border. We have amazing food to explore here, and Mexican ingredients can be found all over. Do yourself a favor and make friends with a chile!

 Hibiscus Margaritas – Courtesy of J Whiting Cinco De Mayo Hibiscus Margarita

  • 1 handful of dried hibiscus flowers
  • Juice of 6 limes
  • 6 oz of honey
  • 4 oz of triple sec
  • 12 oz tequila
  • 32 oz water
  • Salt or sugar from rimming glass

Bring 1 cup of water to a simmer and add the hibiscus flowers. Let that steep for about 5 minutes or so. Add honey to hibiscus broth and stir to dissolve. Let cool. Combine honey mixture with remaining ingredients. Test for desired taste. Add more lime juice if too sweet or a bit more honey if too sour. Serve over ice in a salted or sugared glass. Repeat if necessary!

Nourish Your Soul in the Heart of Your Home

Nourish Your Soul in the Heart of Your Home

Important things happen in the kitchen, the heart of your home. Sure, it’s where families gather to seek physical nourishment, and that’s not unimportant. But it’s also a good place to nourish our souls by simply sharing the human experience. And the way we humans do this best is by sharing the stories of our days and the dreams of our nights; our failures as well as our successes; and our fears as well as our aspirations.

But it’s not enough merely to listen, or merely to be heard. That’s simply communicating. What’s important is that we understand, and that we be understood.

Once my mother sent me to the grocery store with instructions that were simple, or so I thought: “Please bring home one gallon of milk, and if they have any lemons, get 3.” It turns out they indeed had lemons, so I returned home with 3 gallons of milk, just as instructed. I’m a stickler for details, you see, but too often I get the details right, but I miss the big picture. It was easier for me to execute her literal request than to think through what Mom was really saying, or better, what she meant to say.

Fortunately, it was no big deal. We consumed all 3 gallons of milk before any went bad. But that’s not always the case when we humans prove our fallibility. Consider the case of our neighbors across the street – Mr. and Mrs. McDonald. Growing up, I was a close friend of three of their boys, and I will never forget this story. Mr. McDonald, backing out of the driveway, asked Mrs. McDonald, riding shotgun, for assistance, “Is it ok, or is someone coming?” After a quick look around, she answered both questions, “No, one’s coming,” with an ever-so-slight pause after the comma. You guessed it. Hearing that on one was coming, Mr. M proceeded to back into oncoming traffic and was none too pleased to remember that Mrs. M, like me, is a literal thinker. Who’s to blame? You decide; I know better than to get involved in disputes between neighbors, especially when they happen to be married to each other.

In this example there was a lot more to lose than a few bucks at risk should milk spoil. Fortunately, neither Mr. or Mrs. M suffered injury beyond a bruised ego. Nonetheless, this story is a good reminder that we must take the time and exert the effort necessary to ensure that our intended message is heard and understood, and if on the receiving end, that our interpretation is accurate. When in doubt, remember these simple words of clarification, “So let me get this straight.”

Here’s one more equally humorous, inconsequential story of miscommunication that could have easily turned out otherwise. J. Edgar Hoover, the long-time head of the FBI, was a stickler for well constructed inter-office memos. Among other things, he appreciated wide margins that could easily accommodate his responses to authors and notes to follow-on readers. One day, in receipt of a memo concerning national security that crammed so many words onto each page that he barely had room to pencil his comments, Hoover expressed his disdain by noting on the memo, “Watch the borders,” and returning it to its sender. Upon reading this warning from the famed and feared Director of the FBI, the memo’s author proceeded to clamp down security at all U.S. borders.

We’re all confident communicators, certain that our messages are clear and well understood. But all too often they are not. The next time you find yourself in the heart of your home telling and listening to stories of the day, make extra effort to ensure that you have conveyed or received the intended message. A small measure of clarifying or paraphrasing can help avoid simple misunderstandings that could lead to milk going rotten, dented fenders and bruised egos, and maybe even unnecessary border actions. Happy story telling.

A Remarkable Story Heard at the Kitchen Table

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Here at the Butcher Block Company we love all things kitchen. So much happens in the kitchen – the Heart of the Home – where families and friends, sometimes joined by strangers, come together not just to share food and drink, but more broadly, to share the human experience.

The range of our interactions with one another in the kitchen run the gamut. We gather together there to pray collectively before partaking of food and drink; to celebrate momentous occasions and achievements and to comfort one another in times of distress. Over the dinner table parents upbraid as well as praise their children; and in some families, vice versa. Lovers and friends alike share with each other their most intimate thoughts, including feedback ranging from adulation to criticism. We update one another on the details of our days – whether significant or mundane, meaningful or inane. And we pass along stories from person to person, from family to family and from generation to generation.

The kitchen is where humans bond; where we laugh and dream together, and unfortunately on occasion, where we fret and mourn together. In short, the kitchen is where we come together and share the full spectrum of human emotions.

So here is the first of what we hope will be endless, memorable and moving Stories from the Kitchen.

A few years back, my wife, our two daughters and I were visiting my mother’s cousin, who happens also to be my Godfather, and his wife. Seated at their kitchen table, nibbling crackers and cheese, my Godfather recounted, for the benefit of my teenage daughters, a story that I had heard many times before, but that moves me more with every retelling.

Serving in the Greek Merchant Marines in World War II, “Uncle” George’s ship was torpedoed, but he had the good fortune to be rescued by another ship nearby. But as fate would have it, only 36 hours later that ship too was torpedoed by the Germans. Clinging to a life raft, he and four shipmates managed to hang on for dear life.

There, in those frigid waters, Uncle George prayed with all his heart and soul. He made a promise to God that changed his life forever. All he wanted was to live to see his mother and father once more. In exchange, he committed to devote what time and effort he could to serving God.

As it happened, a Canadian ship was not far away, but its current course would not bring it near the stranded Greek seamen. At least that was the case until the captain of the Canadian liner awoke from his sleep and on a hunch, changed his ship’s course by a mere 15 degrees. Lo and behold, the Greek sailors were discovered and rescued a second time, all within the span of 48 hours.

George K. Chimples emigrated to the U.S. after the war, where he became a successful businessman and philanthropist. Throughout his life, he more than fulfilled the bargain he struck that fateful night. Among his many acts of devotion and charity, Uncle George served as Chairman of United Greek Charities, founded an international Greek Orthodox fund-raising organization and served his faith at the highest level of lay leadership.

Now do you believe in miracles? Uncle George sure did. So do I. And now, my daughters do too.

The next time you gather with family or friends in the Heart of Your Home, don’t pass up the opportunity to share a story. They’re an important part of the human experience that we all share.