Monday, February 27, 2017

Photo Phrases- Fun, Creative and Cheap Date Night Idea!


Planning a fun and creative activity for a date that's also inexpensive can be a challenge. Each year, Mrs. Awesome and I alternate who plans our anniversary, with the other responsible for planning Valentine's Day. This year it was my turn for Valentine's Day and we decided beforehand that we were going to keep the budget to a minimum. Discussing it beforehand helps keep either of us from going overboard and making the other feel like they didn't do enough. And we each enjoy the challenge of coming up with a fun day to share. 

We love inspirational saying and phrases; I find that in a hectic world they ground and focus me. So this year, I thought it would be fun to create photo phrases or sayings together by using our smart phones to take a picture of each word then creating a collage! You can pick a favorite phrase, Pinterest is full of them, or Mrs. Awesome decided that she wanted to collect words and make her own inspirational saying.

It's a bit of a scavenger hunt - searching for words, and we had a lot of fun together as we walked a local street, popping into shops, looking at signage and trying to gather up the words we needed or that appealed. 

Once we'd collected all of the words we wanted/needed, we shared them on our smart phones and and then I backed them up to my laptop. From there, using Microsoft Publisher, I inserted each photo and used the crop tool to isolate the individual word. Using the "crop to shape" option I made the oval shaped words. 
From there, I highlighted all of the separate images and grouped them together, then right clicked and selected "Save as picture." A window will open allowing you to save your photo phrase as a .png, or you can choose a .tiff, .jpeg or .gif. I found a background I liked, and dropped the .png image into it, cropped and saved. It was just that easy!

If you'd rather do it on your phone exclusively, there are collage apps you could use to create your photo phrases. This won't give you a layered effect like pictured, but it could be cool too, depending on what you like. Also, there are collage maker and design websites that you could use. We're really partial to this one, though I don't know if it has a print feature. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sunset Mindfulness Practice

Sunset Mindfulness Practice

How often have you had the experience where you carved some time out of your busy life to take a vacation or go camping or visit a retreat and while you were gone you had some amazing experiences, for example a glorious sunrise (if you're a morning person) or sunset (if you're like me and think mornings are the bane of human existence)? Vacations and big breaks are great, but I propose taking a five minute vacation any day with a Sunset Mindfulness Practice.  You can have a moment of peace, appreciation, mindfulness, and gratitude in your every day life. 

On our last vacation, Mr. Awesome and I made a sunset dinner reservation at a restaurant on an island. As the sun cascaded it's golden rays over the ocean we marveled at its beauty. 

We were so happy to be sharing an extraordinary meal watching an extraordinary sunset, but we didn't want the moment to end. Then we realized, there is beauty in every day if you take the time to see it. We vowed to find that beauty and commit to watching a sunset together at least once a week. This commitment has been amazing. 

You've probably seen at least one article that talks about the importance of mindfulness, meditation, and gratitude. These practices increase happiness and help create a loved, lived life. 

If you're ready for more joy in your every day life, take five minutes (or longer if you have the time) for this Sunset Mindfulness Practice to increase your happiness: 
1) If you need to, set a reminder on your phone near sunset to break you out of your routine to go appreciate the sunset. (Many of the weather apps will tell you what time sunset is that day.) Mr. Awesome and I are often making dinner around sunset time, especially in the winter, and will step onto our porch for this mini vacation. 
2) Once you've made it to where you can see the sunset, be still and come into the present moment. What does come into the present moment mean? Take in all that is around you at this moment: What you see; What you hear; What you feel (i.e. the feel of the air or your clothing against your skin or maybe your partners hand in yours); Breathe. Pick the point where you best feel your breath, maybe your nostrils, your stomach rising and falling, or your chest expanding and contracting, and focus on the sensation there.
3) Quiet your mind. If thoughts crop up, don't chide yourself, but accept them and return to the present moment by focusing on your breath and the panorama before you.  
4) Don't talk or otherwise distract yourself, focus on this natural phenomenon unfolding before you. Be here now.
5) After the sunset has faded, or your mindfulness timer has chimed, or you feel you've been there long enough, return to your regularly scheduled programming refreshed and grounded. 

It may not even be the sunset itself you appreciate, but the impact
on the environs. 

You don't have to be anywhere special to practice the sunset mindfulness practice.
This shot was taken before practice standing in a parking lot. 
If you watch the sunset from the same place regularly, you can appreciate
the changing seasons as well. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ogden Canyon Cinnamon Rolls

Looking for a delicious cinnamon roll for a great weekend breakfast? Well look no further! Unlike the cinnamon rolls we generally find which are slathered in icing, these are inspired by a great restaurant in Ogden Canyon called The Gray Cliff Lodge. The rolls there are a sweet dinner roll, rolled in cinnamon sugar and baked to perfection. We absolutely love them and decided to try our hand at recreating them at home. The secret to making these rolls, if you don't want to get up incredibly early to make the dough, is to make the dough the night before and allow them to slow rise in the refrigerator overnight. Then, when you're ready to make them, you only need about an hour from fridge to table! Hot out of the oven and slathered with butter- these cinnamon rolls are to die for. Give them a try and trust me, after you see how convenient it is to slow rise in the refrigerator, you may be making breads far more often than you ever thought possible!

Ogden Canyon Cinnamon Rolls

For the Dough: 
3 1/2 cups All-Purpose Flour
1 pkg. Active Dry Yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
2 Tbsp. Sugar
1 tsp. Salt
1 cup Milk
2 Tbsp. Butter
1/4 cup Water
1 Egg

For the Cinnamon Sugar Topping:
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp Cinnamon
6 Tbsp Butter, melted

Make the dough the night before! Otherwise, plan on adding an hour and a half or so to the process.

In a large mixing bowl combine all of the dry ingredients, measuring the flour using the scoop and sift method described in the "Easiest Home Baked Bread" post and set aside. Warm the milk and water in the microwave until it's between 100-110° F and when it's ready add the butter to it, allowing it to melt. Once it has, whisk the egg into the liquid ingredients to incorporate. 

No need to dissolve yeast!

Using the dough hook on the stand mixer, or a sturdy spoon, add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix until the dough forms a ball which leaves the sides of the bowl. If it is too wet, add flour a little at a time until it does. Knead for 7-10 minutes then form into a tight ball. Spray the bowl with oil and return the dough ball to it, then give the top of the dough ball a light spray. Cover with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator to rise overnight.

The next morning the dough should have doubled or more in size. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Remove the dough from the bowl and begin to portion the dough into individual rolls. I weighed them out at 3 oz. each and ended up with 15, but you can divide the dough in half and each part in half again and again until you get the rolls to a size you like. If I was serving these as a side at breakfast, or with dinner, I'd likely make them 1.5 to 2 oz. apiece. Leave them sit on the counter while you prepare the cinnamon sugar mix.

Melt the butter in the microwave or a small saucepan, then grease the muffin tins. Alternatively, you could use a spray oil for this. 

Mix the sugar and cinnamon in a container which you'll be able to toss the rolls in. I don't generally measure the sugar and cinnamon- I just mix together whatever seems to look right to me, so if you want more cinnamon, go for it!

Once you've got the tins greased, roll each roll into a rope about 6-7" long. Coat it in the butter (this is where using a larger vessel comes in handy; I just toss them in the melted butter and use the brush to remove any excess) then coat in the cinnamon sugar. You may have to stretch them back out a bit to get the ropes back to the 6-7", just a little tug will do. Then take the coated roll and twist it into swirl, tucking the ends underneath. Let the rolls rise for about 20 minutes. Once they have risen again, slide them into the center rack of the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 180 degrees. Remove from the oven and let them rest for about 5 minutes before serving. Those few extras I had were tied into knots and placed on a small parchment lined sheet pan. They baked perfectly alongside the muffin tinned ones. 

Slather in butter or eat them as is and enjoy heaven in your mouth. Leave me a comment and let me know how they turned out!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Easy Parmesan Garlic Knots


A bit ago, Mr. Awesome shared our bread dough recipe. We make a big batch and keep it in the fridge so it's ready to go whenever we want it. Today, we whipped up delicious, Easy Parmesan Garlic Knots. Here's the recipe: 

First, we pulled out a proper amount of dough from the fridge and formed it into a loaf to warm to room temperature. To figure out how much dough to pull out do some quick math using your kitchen scale i.e. 2 oz for each knot x 10 knots = 20 oz from the fridge. (You could also do this recipe with store bought pizza dough.)

Once it was a bit warmed, Mr. Awesome weighed out 2 oz balls using the pastry cutter and kitchen scale. Cover the scale in plastic wrap for easy clean up. 

Once the 2 oz balls are weighed out, roll them out into 5 inch ropes. 

Loop the two ends over each other and then stick one end through the center hole. 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and let them rise for 30 minutes or until they've doubled in size. Brush them with butter or oil for proper browning. Bake for 25-minutes or until the center reads 180 when you insert an instant read thermometer. 

When you're about ten minutes out, make the garlic butter sauce. 

In a heavy saucepan combine:
3 T butter
2 T olive oil
3 cloves garlic minced (the finer the mince the greater the flavor)
1 T minced fresh parsley

1. Melt the butter in the olive oil over medium-high heat.
2. Saute the garlic and parsley for a few minutes until cooked. 

When the rolls come out of the oven toss them in the garlic sauce in the saute pan. 

Add 2 T. grated parmesan (yep, I'm talking the store bought stuff from Kraft or such) and 1/2 t. kosher salt. (Use less salt or no salt at all if parmesan is salty enough for you.) Toss to coat. Consume with rapture. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

A Pub for People Who Don't Know Pubs

bar at harp and houndAlong the Wasatch Front it's been thrilling to see more and more diverse dining options cropping up. Mr. Awesome and I were very enthusiastic when one of the newest offerings was a gastropub in Ogden called the Harp and Hound. We lived in England for five years and are huge foodies, so this was exciting stuff! 

Sadly, the excitement was short lived. The Harp and Hound is a bar, plain and simple. It's a beautiful bar with great decor, as you can see, but it's still a bar. Pubs are cozy affairs with a mellow atmosphere where you can go hang out with some mates. Gastropubs are that with great food. 

We got there on a Friday night and the place was a mad house (good for them, happy to see others are excited about a new establishment). The music was already loud and ten minutes in, they turned the music up. We could only hear the person directly next to us and this was if we were shouting at each other. 

Not a pub. 

irish nachosThey have some decent signature drinks (if only Utah didn't have their pesky liquor laws that rendered the mixed drinks light on the liquor) and the food offerings were ok. Not gastropub territory, but it's cool that they have a vegan menu. Sadly, when the food came out it was hit or miss. The nacho options were fabulous. Both the Irish Nachos and the Tater Tot Nachos, amazing. However, the fish in the fish and chips was measly. The fries were completely overcooked and our friend refused to eat them. The bangers and mash were generous in size, but still a bit pink in the center (a no go for me when you're dealing with pork) and were lacking in gravy. And another friend's burger was practically mooing, which some people like, but he was no one of them. 

tater tot nachos
The service was terrible and slow and when I ordered a Hefeweizen I was brought an IPA. Not good. 

When we scraped the Irish Nachos into a to go box we discovered that they'd been served on a plate that had vinyl stenciling that was peeling off. We brought this to the waitresses attention and she told us that it wouldn't hurt us. Somehow, I think others would disagree. 

Have a little vinyl with your nachos.

Oh well, you win some and you lose some, but I remain hopeful that some day someone will open a proper pub in these parts. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

23 Ideas for Your Best Cheap Romantic Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is coming, to the dread of many. More romance is something that most of us would love in our lives and society forces the issue in February. But, who has the time or the money for romance when there are bills to pay, work to do, kids to raise? Here are some inexpensive romantic ideas and strategies (can strategies be romantic?) that Mr. Awesome and I have shared in the past:

1) First of all, take turns! Valentine's never falls to just one of us. We take turns. One year one of us plans our anniversary and the other plans Valentine's Day and the next year it switches. This reduces the pressure on one partner. 

2) Communicate! This isn't just important in planning a big romance day like Valentine's, this is important for the strength of your relationship. Don't believe me, check out this article. I'm not saying let the cat out of the bag for your big plans, but if you're thinking the budget for the big day is $500 and she's thinking $50 you might end up in a big fight on the day you're supposed to be celebrating your love. (Trust me, I've been there.)

3) Get creative! Here are some Cheap and Fun Romantic Valentine's Ideas (A list within a list, things that fill me with joy!)

  1. Have a floor picnic in front of the fireplace in the living room.
  2. Make gifts together. Pick up some nontraditional flowers (i.e. not red roses that have a 2,000,000% mark up around V-Day) from the grocery store and watch YouTube tutorials together on flower arranging to make your own inexpensive bouquets. Or grab a roll of sugar cookie dough and some icing from the baking section and decorate sugar cookies together. Maybe pick up some strawberries and some Hershey's chocolate and make your own chocolate dipped strawberries. Get creative. 
  3. Write a story together...maybe even a naughty story.
  4. Act out your naughty story.
  5. Don't celebrate on the big day, pick another day. Mr. Awesome and I seldom celebrate on actual V-Day. Partially this is so we can spend the actual day sharing the love with family and partially this is because it's hard to be romantic when crammed into an overflowing restaurant that's maxed with desperate people trying to make love happen and getting grumpy at the slow service and food that wasn't given proper love by an over-harried cook in a busy kitchen.
  6. Run a bath and put a message in a bottle for your significant other.
  7. Two words: Massage Oil
  8. Choose Your Own Adventure cards. I once put together envelopes for each aspect of our day long celebration (breakfast, day time activity, lunch, afternoon activity, dinner, post dinner) and each envelope held three options so Mr. Awesome could choose his own adventure.  
  9. Be a tourist in your town. What does TripAdvisor have to offer in your community? Is there an art gallery you've never been to or a bowling alley down the street? What's your scene? For one Valentine's, I rented a boat at a nearby lake and packed a picnic. For 40 bucks we shared a memorable Valentine's Day. Sharing new experiences together is proven to strengthen relationships. 
  10. Play the thrift store game. Pick five categories (clothing item, accessory, home decor item, book, and free category, for example) and the you each get 30 minutes to pick an item for the other person in each of those categories that you think they would like best and least (10 items total). The person who curates the best collections gets $10 to spend at the thrift store on whatever they want. Playing this game, I discovered Mr. Awesome would actually do a pretty good job dressing me. Maybe he missed his calling in fashion. 
  11. Reminisce. Take a walk down the memory lane of your relationship. It's wonderful way to increase your positive feelings sharing memories of your various anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, trips, adventures, early dates, how you met, etc. 
  12. Take reminiscing one step further and recreate your first date
  13. Play silly games, especially snuggling together, like "If I were a beverage what would I be and why?" or "If I were a dog breed what breed would I be and why?" or "Would you rather? I.e. Would you rather live for six-months under the sea or visit the space station?"  This is a fun and cheap way to connect and learn about each other. We're forever learning about each other. 
  14. Plan your next trip. Boot up the computer or head to the library and wander through the travel section, grabbing books (or Pinterest pins) for any destination that catches your fancy. Pour a glass of wine and travel the world together. This also gives you something to look forward to too. 
  15. Be grateful. Take turns telling each other all the things the other person does that you appreciate. If you're a planner, you could write down one thing your partner did that you appreciated each day for the last month and then wrap it up and give it to them on V-Day. 
  16. Check out those discount websites: Groupon, LivingSocial,, or local news outlet deals, here in Utah KSL deals is a good option. We've used these resources to tour distilleries, get massages, ride in a hot air balloon, get meal deals, swim in a geothermal crater, and even bagged a vacation package for our anniversary trip to New Zealand. Just be sure to read all the fine print before you purchase.
  17. Take a class together. Common interests keep you connected and offer something to talk about over dinner other than bills and the behavior problems of co-workers, kids, or the world at large. One year, Mr. Awesome surprised me with an Italian cooking class for V-Day, which introduced us to the electric pressure cooker, now one of our most beloved cooking implements. 
  18. Get outdoors. Hike, snowshoe, cross country ski, downward ski, do whatever you like to do outdoors together. Being outdoors increases positive feelings. 
  19. Put together a tasting. Grab four or five dark chocolate bars or kinds of beef jerky and put together your own taste test. 
  20. Read poetry to each other. I imagine some of you want to gag at this suggestion, but there's no denying the romance of poetry. 

Wishing you the Happiest Valentine's Day. We would love to know your thoughts or creative ideas. Please share in the comments. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Quick and Easy Beef Stroganoff Meatballs over Egg Noodles

Life keeps us all busy, so when it comes to weeknight dinners, Mrs. Awesome and I are always looking for simple recipes to make a delicious meal in 30 minutes or less. We created this beef stroganoff recipe for those cold winter nights when you want a rich and filling meal, but don't have the time to slow cook tougher cuts of beef which would typically be used. Using hamburger instead of flank steak or another cut gives you fantastic results in a fraction of the time. The mushrooms lends an earthy meatiness as well and as everything cooks in a single pot, the cleanup is quick and easy too. The egg noodles are cooking alongside the stroganoff, so everything is ready at about the same time. Toss in a vegetable side or a quick tossed salad and you're sorted!

I love ground beef. Seriously. It is such an underappreciated, versatile ingredient often relegated to tacos, chili, meatloaf and, of course, hamburgers. We support a fabulous local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm near our home, which provides us with some of the best beef I've ever eaten. Each week, we receive a pound of ground beef as part of our membership.   The inspiration for Beef Stroganoff Meatballs came from Mrs. Awesome as we drove to our local public library. 

Originally intended for Tamale Pie, we began to talk about other ways to prep are the beef as neither of use were in the mood for Mexican.

"Your Grandmother's meatball recipe?" I offered.

"We don't have the ingredients, but with the snow and cold, something good with those egg noodles we have like Swedish meatballs or Beef Stroganoff would be good."

"But that's usually made with flank steak?"

"We could just make Beef Stroganoff Meatballs," Mrs. Awesome replied.

"We have onions at home, I could slice and saute those to go with the meatballs."

"I think mushrooms would be better," Mrs. Awesome answered, her mind already putting this delicious and easy dish together.

Pure genius. 

Because are smitten with our electric pressure cooker, I decided to make the entire dish in a single pot using it. Let me say, it worked magnificently in the stainless steel insert we picked up a few weeks ago. Of course, a pressure cooker isn't needed for this recipe, I just love the brown feature as well as the slow cooker feature it has. 

Beef Stroganoff Meatballs (Serves 4)

For the Meatballs: 
1 lb. Ground Beef
1/2 cups Breadcrumbs
1 Tbsp Mustard
1 Tbsp Ketchup
1 tsp Beef Base, or 1 crushed bouillon cube
1-1/2 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 tsp Salt
1/4 tsp Black Pepper
1/2 tsp Garlic Powder (Not Garlic Salt)
1/2 tsp Dried Thyme
2 Tbsp Oil (canola, olive, coconut- your preference), for frying

For the Sauce: 
8 oz. Sliced Mushrooms
2-1/2 cups Beef Broth
1/2 tsp Dried Thyme
2 Tbsp Cornstarch
3 Tbsp. Sour Cream
Salt, Pepper, Garlic Powder to taste

1 pound Egg Noodles, cooked al dente

Fresh Parsley, minced

Start the water for the pasta and when it comes to a boil, cook noodles per their instructions.

Whilst the water is heating, begin making the meatballs. Combine the first ten ingredients in a bowl and mix until thoroughly mixed. Roll into desired size and set aside.

In a medium, heavy bottomed pot, over medium high heat, heat the oil. When it is hot, add the half the meatballs and brown them nicely all around. They may stick at first, but be patient, they will release as they cook. Once browned, transfer to a clean plate and brown the remainder of the meatballs. Don't worry if bits stick to the bottom of the pan, we'll deal with those flavor bombs in due course!

In the same pan, add the mushrooms and saute for 4-5 minutes, until softened. Transfer those to the plate that has the browned meatballs on it. Now for those delicious flavor bombs I was talking about. The culinary term for those caramelized bits is "frond". Pour about 1/2 cup of the beef broth into the pan and deglaze the pan by scraping up the frond and incorporating them- they'll dissolve into the stock. They're packed with flavor, and we want that! Once you've scraped the pan clean, add the meatballs, mushrooms and whatever juices have collected on the plate back into the pan, and use a silicone spatula to scrape the drippings into the pan as well. Add the dried thyme, crushing it in the palms of your hands, and the remainder of the beef stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let cook for 10 minutes or so to cook the meatballs all the way through. Put the cornstarch in a small bowl and whisk in a ladle or so of the hot beef broth to make a slurry. Once it's incorporated, add it to the pot, mixing it in and bringing the sauce back to a boil. It will thicken, and should coat the back of a spoon. Reduce heat to low and put the sour cream in the bowl you used for the cornstarch. Temper the sour cream by adding a little of the thickened sauce to it and whisking it in. If you add too much hot liquid to the sour cream it will curdle, so take your time. Add a little, maybe a half ladle at a time, whisk and add some more. Once you've added 2 or so ladles of sauce to the sour cream, you can stir it into the main pot without fear of it breaking. Check and adjust seasoning.

Serve over egg noodles and garnish with minced parsley.

Bon Apetit!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Easiest Home Baked Bread Recipe EVER!

There's a way to get fabulous results- and a piping hot loaf of fresh bread in about an hour or so on a weeknight. All it takes is a little planning and some space in the refrigerator and you'll be able to have steaming loaves on the table in no time. The secret to this recipe is that yeast dough benefits from a slow rise in the refrigerator, so when it's time to cut some dough to form and bake a loaf, all you have to do is preheat the oven, weigh out the dough, form a loaf and let it get it's second rise warming to room temperature before putting it in the oven to bake.

I've baked bread for decades now, and I've always loved the process. My mother was a tremendous baker and some of my fondest memories are of the loaves she baked. Wheat, rye, crusty Italian loaves as well as her cinnamon swirl which we enjoyed at the holidays. There is something cathartic for me in bread making. In a busy life the dough forces me to slow down, to move at the speed of the bread - mix, knead, rise, form and bake. It won't be rushed. 

But, there is another way which I feel will give you great results and only takes about 30 minutes to get the dough banged out. So let's get to it! 

First, some tricks of the trade. Sifting flour is a messy, cumbersome waste of time. Professional bakers weigh all their ingredients, rarely sifting them. So what can the home baker do? Use a scoop and shake the flour into the measuring cup, then using the flat edge of a spatula or kitchen spoon sweep off the excess on the measuring cup. Why, you ask? Because if we use the measuring cup to scoop out the flour, it's going to pack it into the cup and you'll end up using more flour than you need, leading to denser, dryer loaves. If you want to go a step further- figure out what a cup of flour weighs in your neck of the woods or use this handy chart (I use a kitchen scale set to grams for easier division and multiplication of recipes) then all you need do is put your bowl on the scale, zero it out and dump the flour in until you get the amount you need. 

Quick and Easy Refrigerator Rise Bread Dough (makes 4- 1 lb. loaves)

6-7 cups All-Purpose Flour 
1 Pkg (2 1/4 tsp.) Active Dry Yeast
1 Tbsp Salt (I prefer kosher, and round it since it's coarser)
3 cups warm water (90-105 degrees)

In a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer add 6 cups of flour, the yeast and salt. Stir them together until combined. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to dissolve the yeast in water, it will dissolve as the dough is formed. Attach the dough hook to the stand mixer, and with it turned to low, add the warm water. If you're going the traditional way, add the water and mix with a wooden spoon. Keep mixing until all of the flour is incorporated. Keep adding a little more at a time until the dough begins to pull away from the sides.

The dough should be wet and sticky (see the photo below) - the flour hasn't yet had the chance to hydrate. Now transfer the dough into a container large enough to allow it to double in size.

I use a large plastic container with a lid- just leave the lid loosely covering the dough as we want to give the CO2 produced by the yeast somewhere to escape! Leave the dough on the counter top for an hour then transfer to the refrigerator.
After about an hour, the dough will have doubled in size- you can either divide out a pound or two and bake some loaves straightaway, or degass-which is a fancy way of saying to gently push the dough back down and return it to the refrigerator. When you're ready to make a loaf, it's as easy as cutting the desired amount- usually about a pound, forming it into a loaf and baking. There are all sorts of tools and gadgets you can use to help deal with wet, sticky dough- one of my favorites is this little blue plastic scraper. It allows me to manipulate the dough without it sticking all to my fingers and hands. Also, dusting with flour helps to keep the dough in check.  

There are lots of different shapes your loaf can take- for this one, I went with a simple boule, or round loaf. If you want a baguette, you'll form a rectangle from the dough and roll it up on itself pinching the bottom seam. For a loaf, do basically the same as for the baguette, but fold the ends in an inch or two to get squared edges and place the loaf in a greased loaf pan. It's easy and your options are pretty unlimited. Braided loaves can easily be made by dividing the dough into thirds, rolling out ropes and braiding them together- pinching at the ends to seal them. Use your imagination!

Now for the boule, all I did was lightly dust the top of the loaf with flour to keep my hands from sticking, then begin to turn the edges under and into the center, degassing and tightening the ball. (I hate picking dough out of my rings, so I always try to remember to take them off before working with it!)

Once you've got a nice little ball, set it on your baking sheet covered with parchment paper and start preheating the oven to 400 degrees. I know that sounds hot- and it should be- this is bread, not a cake. Also, place a metal jelly roll pan or some other pan with a side that we're going to put water in to create steam during the first few minutes of the bake. Just before baking, use a sharp or serrated knife to cut a crosshatch in the top to allow for expansion.

Have about 3/4 cup hot water ready to pour carefully into the pan after you slide the loaf in. BE CAREFUL!!! Steam can burn you very badly. So here's the sequence you want to follow: 1. Have the hot water ready on the stove top in a container that you can pour from; 2. Open the oven door and place the loaf on the middle rack; 3. Pour the water through the middle rack into the pan below, watching as the steam rises; 4. Close the door and let it bake. We want to trap the steam inside, to provide humidity for the dough, so move quickly but carefully. I've found that pouring onto the pan from above is easier and quicker than trying to slide the rack in and out. Alternatively, you can use a half dozen or so ice cubes that you can toss onto the tray.

Bake about 30-35 minutes until golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. I usually use a probe thermometer to check the internal temperature of the bread and pull it when it hits 180 degrees. Some bakers pull their loaves a little cooler, but I've always been able to remember 180, so that works for me. Now comes the hardest part... waiting.

You're going to be tempted to cut straight into that beautiful loaf, slather it with butter and homemade jam... but if you do all the steam (read moisture) inside the crumb is going to escape, leaving you with a loaf which is denser when cool. So let it rest for 10 minutes or so before cutting into it. I promise it'll still be plenty hot and delicious!

   Bon Appetit!