Archive for April, 2011

April 30, 2011

Low(er) Sugar Cake Pops

I noticed a bump in traffic to my blog the past few weeks with a few visitors from Google looking for “Sugar Free Cake pops” and “Diabetic Friendly Cake Pops”. I had previously mentioned that you could use sugar free cake mixes and icing to reduce the sugar, so I thought I would give it a try and see how well they turn out. My only hesitation is that the icing uses Splenda instead of sugar. While I believe Splenda is better for you than some of the other options, any large quantity of artificial sweetener is probably not good. I thought I’d take the opportunity to try a low sugar frosting recipie.

I started with this absolutely sugar free recipe, and substituted whipping cream for heavy whipping cream. The down side is pudding mix contains aspartame. I figure (and I admit I have no real knowledge) that this recipe probably has a smaller amount of artificial sweetener from the sugar free frosting made with Splenda because pudding doesn’t tend to be as sweet as icing. Therefore, one could get away with less. At least in theory.

To make this frosting, mix the pudding mix into the following liquids, and whip for about 5 minutes minutes until creamy.

  • 1.5 ozs sugar-free instant pudding mix
  • 3/4 cup skim milk
  • 2 1/4 cups whipping cream

The heavy whipping cream has a lot of fat, especially saturated fat. Given that candy melts are also very high in saturated fat, I decided to go with the regular whipping cream (heavy whipping cream has no sugar, regular has a very small amount). The trade off is the consistency’s not great for icing a cake – but we’re making cake pops so it doesn’t need to be! I probably used a little over half of the icing I made.

The pops were yummy as always. The sugar in the pops are mainly good sugars (from milk) which have a low glycemic index.

Calorie Count (Approximately): 61.7
2.8 Calories from the Pudding
43 Calories from the Cake Mix
0.6 Calories from the Skim Milk
15.3 Calories from the Whipping Cream

Sugar Count (Approximately): 0.4 Grams
0 grams from the Pudding
0 grams from the Cake Mix
0.1 grams from the Skim Milk
0.3 grams from the Whipping Cream

Fat Count (Approximately): 2.4 Grams (1.3 Saturated)
0 grams from the Pudding
0.8 grams from the Cake Mix (0.3 Gran Saturated Fat)
0 grams from the Skim Milk
1.6 grams fat from the Whipping Cream (1 Gram Saturated Fat)

The calories/fat/sugar count of a “regular” cake pop vary by the type of cake and icing you use. I pulled a random box of cake mix at the grocery store to get an estimate of about 83 Calories, 7.2 grams of sugar and 3.8 grams of fat. My goal for low sugar also cut my fat count by a third. The big problem is the candy melts (which I didn’t include in the totals). Wow are they bad for you. They double the fat and calorie count, and add another 6 grams of sugar. Worse still, the fat is almost all saturated fat! I’m also not a huge fan of the taste, so I have plenty of motivation to find an alternative.

April 26, 2011

Greatful

With so many people out there, chances are there is someone who worked a little harder than you, and a little worse off. Whether we want to admit it or not, luck is a factor for all of us. Even when things aren’t going exactly right, there’s always something to be grateful for. As the saying goes, “When life hands you a lemon…”

So here goes my list of a few of the things I’m grateful for.

Being Fugal almost to the point of being cheap. I’ve managed to have a positive savings rate every year since undergrad. Some years the savings rate wasn’t great: the year I moved out to California, the year I started grad school, etc. And sure some years I would watch my friends and peers buy expensive toys and go on lavish vacations that I would love to go on. But in the end, being frugal is a great skill set for weathering a rough economy.

Being Spatially Oriented. One thing I talked about in my previous incarnation of my blog, that I’ve yet to mention this time is that I am dyslexic. My reading rate is in the bottom 4th percentile of college freshman. While that aspect of dyslexia bites, the benefit of is is that I’m very spatially oriented. I can (usually) figure out which lane I want to be in, or how to get started direction wise without a map because of it. It also comes in very handy when using the Map-Reduce framework for handling big data, which has turned out to be a valuable skill. I’ve often found I can get results faster than the average intern because of it.

Being Creative. It means fun projects that I get to decorate. It also comes in handy for problem solving, and I think one of the reasons I tend to have a happy outlook on life. Issues become challenges to solve, rather than problems to face.

And of course, there’s always baking. Who can stay frustrated when there’s chocolate cake in the oven?

We’ve all been there. We’re out with our camera, enjoying the day, and it starts to drizzle. What to do? You don’t want to ruin your camera, but you’re also not done yet, and it’s only a drizzle. You could invest in an expensive waterproof casing for your camera, but that adds one more bulky item you need to carry around. Enter the shower cap.

It’s a great camera protector in a pinch. Just wrap it around the top of the camera, and use a rubber band to hold it on the lens. Most hotel rooms offer them complementary, in nice wrapped packages that fit nicely into camera bags. I take two with me when I go out, one for my camera bag to protect the equipment inside and one for my camera.

Don’t rely on the shower cap in a downpour. After-all, it’s not providing 360 degrees of protection, or creating a water tight seal. Rain can still get in from underneath in heavy winds, or if you’re not pinching the sides tightly. But if it’s a light rain, or just a drizzle, the shower cap should do the trick.

I used it when we were in Hawaii. We were out whale watching when it started to drizzle. The other tourists sought shelter, but I stayed out and captured this.

(I can’t take credit for this idea. Someone told it to me, who learned it from a professional photographer.)

April 13, 2011

On Being Frugal

I consider myself frugal. To me, that means I spend as little as possible for the things I want. At this stage in my life, I try not to sacrifice quality too much. When I was just starting out I would buy the super cheap cleaners that don’t really clean, or use an old threadbare towel instead of a real bath mat. These days, if I want something, I will buy it, but I’m going to spend as little as possible for it. I do this usually in several ways.

I try not to be as flexible in brand as possible. That way I’m free to do comparison shopping, and availability of coupons can factor into my decision. If I’m interested in something specific, then I’m at the mercy of the manufacturer to get a good deal. I don’t buy designer anything, and I usually stay away from brand names. Of course, this doesn’t always work. A while back I suspected Lily was trying to clone herself by shedding, so I really wanted a dyson animal.

I hold off on large purchases for Black Friday. Each year my husband and I make a list of things we would like to get/replace. We then check out the online websites that make deal shopping easier. Of course, that doesn’t always work. We’ve had a TV on our list for a few years. We did manage to get the Dyson at a substantial savings a few years ago. Lists can also help you avoid extraneous purchases on Black Friday. It doesn’t matter that a printer is 90% off, if you already have one that works just as well. Sales are great, but if you’re going to spend the same amount just on more stuff, you didn’t really save. Along similar lines, I tend to purchase everything in the off season. I buy summer clothes in fall, and winter clothes in spring. I saved 50% off my leather coat by waiting for the end of season sale.

If I don’t care about brand, I set a price in my head of what seems reasonable, and go looking. I tend to set my price low, and anything under that price that still has the amount of quality I’m looking for is good. For bath mats, I’m going to look for something super soft that’s in the right color range to not clash (I want to be cheap, I don’t want to look cheap). Solid colors for linens (and clothes) are easiest, since everyone carries them. Matching colors and coordinating looks always makes everything look more expensive.

I tend to avoid stores that price items outside what I consider reasonable. If you go, and you find something you like, you might feel compelled to open your purse strings a little more. If you never see that designer bath mat at Nordstrom’s, you’ll never miss it. I have a few staple stores, target, jcpenney, bed bath and beyond, etc, that fit the bill both in terms of quality and price. If the price is low enough that there’s no room for much savings, then it’s not worth the time and gas looking for the best possible price.

Being frugal means sometimes not using coupons. Today I had a $.10/per gallon coupon that I decided not to use. The nearest gas station I could use the coupon was roughly 10 miles round trip out of the way. It would have cost me about half a gallon of gas (my car gets roughly 20 mpg) at almost 4 dollars per gallon, for a total cost of just under $2. The problem is I have a fifteen gallon tank, so my savings would be $1.50. Using the coupon would have cost me more.

Being frugal means understanding sometimes a sale isn’t always a sale. I find this to be especially true from stores who have constant sales. While the goal of the shopper may be to save money, the goal of the store is to make money. If it can’t make money off an item, there’s a good chance the store will decide to stop selling it. So if a store has a perpetual sale for the item, you can bet the price is marked-up enough for the store to still profit from the sale. Of course, there are exceptions such as printers and ink. Printers are loss leaders. Stores typically loses money on the sale of printers, knowing they’ll make up for the loss in spades with the sale of ink.

Being frugal means not trusting the percentage off numbers. Today, I saved 44% on my grocery bill. Well, not really. I had a welcome-to-the-neighborhood type coupon for $10 off so I legitimately saved 17.4% (the total bill was $57.38 before the savings). The other 27% is a bit misleading. I typically go with the cheapest item, especially on baking things like flour, butter, sugar. Most often that’s the store brand, but sometimes the name brand is on sale. My receipt may say I saved $1.49 on peanut butter, but had the name brand not been on sale, I would have bought the store brand, which would have been a difference of maybe $0.70. So in actuality I saved about half of what my receipt is claiming.

Of course, I don’t always get the best possible deal. When this happens, I often find it really hard not to get caught up in the numbers. If I bought something on sale for 20% off, and find it for sale 30% off the next week, I feel frustrated with myself. To put it in sports terms, that’s like scoring a field goal only to have the opposing team run the ball back for a touchdown. Yes, I got the 3 points, but comparatively I’m still down.

April 10, 2011

Total Lemon

My apartment is a lemon. I’m currently living in short term furnished apartment. I’ve been here 9 days (5 work days) and a maintenance man has been here 4 of them.

When I arrived a week ago Saturday, the cable wasn’t working in the bedroom. The technician was in the middle of fixing it when I entered my apartment, which cause total confusion. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would be startled by a random stranger standing in her apartment when she was just given the keys for the first time! He left, saying it would be fixed Monday. No big deal, I thought, since there was a TV with working cable in the living room. Ha! How little I knew.

The TV in the living room died Sunday night. I could hear the cable, but had lost picture. I tried changing input to the DVD player, but nothing would displayed. A quick search on the internet revealed the problem was likely a short inside the TV box (apparently this particular model is prone to it), and that the TV needed to be replaced.

Remember the heater died something last Saturday night? I reported it via email on Sunday afternoon. By the time monday morning rolled around it was cold. So cold in fact that I had a headache and couldn’t wait to be out of the morning. I called in a maintenance “emergency” in the morning. The apartment was truly unlivable. I was told it may be 48 hours until the problem was fixed. I asked for a space heater if indeed the heater could not be fixed by the time I returned from work Monday. Fortunately, the heater was fixed, however, it was left off. I cranked it up as high as I can, hoping to have a livable apartment soon. The cable in the bedroom was still not fixed, nor the TV in the living room.

I decided to bake some chicken for dinner. I was figuring out the controls on the stove when suddenly the oven door Would.Not.Open. The stove had a “lock” feature – I kid you not – which had gotten stuck. Another internet search to find the manual for the particular stove. Apparently that particular stove would occasionally get stuck in “lock” mode if you accidentally hit the clean button, and then the cancel button before it had a chance to finish it’s clean cycle. The manual had the “reset” sequence which unlocked the stove. At least I didn’t have to ask maintenance for help.

By Tuesday morning the heater had finally had a chance to warm the place. I left again for work. When I came home, someone had left a space heater in the middle of the living room. Cable was still not working in the bedroom, the TV had no picture in the living room. I was talking with my husband when all of a sudden a load pop emanated from the TV which I thought was off. I nearly jumped off the couch. Something was definitely wrong with the TV. I sent an email to the maintenance people, reminding them of the TV/cable problems and letting them know my heater was fixed so I didn’t need the space heater. Maybe someone was confused as to which problems were resolved and which ones weren’t.

Wednesday, the cable in the bedroom is working. It’s a step in the right direction! Only it’s not cable, but some sort of Satellite and doesn’t appear to get many channels. I also found a random sweet and low packet of sugar on the bedroom floor. I know that the maintenance guy was in my apartment – he had fixed the cable – but it really weirded me out.

Nothing appears different on Thursday. I realize the reason the heater took so long to warm the whole apartment is it is only designed to work in the living room. There’s another one in the bedroom that isn’t working. Turns out there was a reason for the space heater, afterall.

Friday I get a note saying they had to replace the TV in the living room, but it is now working. Yay! Although, I still have the space heater, and the bedroom heater isn’t working. Whatever, I can deal.

Which brings us to today. Apparently the washing machine isn’t working. I can here it straining when it is on, but it has no water. I leave it on for a few minutes just to be sure. I give up. My apartment is a lemon.

April 10, 2011

First Cake Pops

Cake pops were a lot of fun, and surprisingly easy! I don’t have a recipe so much, as a set of directions.

  1. Start with your favorite cake, crumble it up into little pieces
  2. Mix in your favorite frosting until you can shape the cake and it stays together
  3. Roll the cake mixture into balls, inserting a lollipop stick. (Dipping the stick in chocolate before inserting into the lollipop can help it stick better.)
  4. Refrigerate or put them into the freezer for the cake to firm up
  5. Dip in melted candy melts to coat.

I had a slight problem with the lollipop sticks popping out of the cupcake bite, so I ended up dripping some melted candy melts around the base of the ball and the lollipop stick to glue it together. If you do this, make sure you refrigerator them again! I had a problem where the cake ball ripped by the candy melts on two of my pops.

There are lots of awesome decoration ideas. I’m sure cake pops will become a staple in my baking repertoire.

Oh, one more thing that’s awesome: If you don’t mind making cakes from a box, you can actually make this extremely low sugar. There are some sugar free cake mixes (using sugar alcohol, which is the sugar substitute used for diabetic friendly foods), and sugar free icings (using Splenda).

There was a really good article about the profitability of Etsy. Simply put, Etsy‘s profitability is dependent on the individual stores profitability. Creating a profitable Etsy store, however, is no easy feat. The biggest hurdle is determining how much to charge for a given item: too much and the shop keeper loses customers, yet too little and the shop keepers profits may not out way costs.
So how much should one charge? It’s easier to think in terms of profits and work backwards. A simplified formula for profits is

YearlyIncome = NumberOfSales * Price – Expenses

Solving for price, you get

Price = (YearlyIncome + Expenses)/NumberOfSales

You can substitute DesiredYearlyIncome to get a price target. To give a concrete example. Let’s assume that I’m striving to be one of those $30,000 a year etsy merchants as a jewelry maker, and I think I can reasonably sell 1,000 pieces a year. Then I will need to charge $30 above the materials cost for each piece I sell. This $30 is basically the cost of labor. But as Max Chafkin points out, “The vast majority of Etsy sellers are hobbyists who aren’t in it for the money and, consequently, end up charging rates for their labor that would make even a Walmart buyer blush.”.

With similar products being offered at barely above the materials costs, it’s difficult to raise the price too much without impacting sales. Why buy a necklace from me if someone is selling a comparable one for $30 less? As a result, the price I can charge is basically fixed. This means the only two variables in the equation left that can change are expenses, and number of sales.

Expenses can be difficult to change. If you’re already buying whole sale, or in bulk, you’re not going to find much wiggle room. You can also substitute cheaper supplies, but you run the risk of losing customers who want jewelry made of higher quality materials.

Increasing the number of sales is also not easy. In my example, I assumed 1,000 sales and needed to charge $30 per piece in labor costs. If I only want to charge $5 in labor costs, I would need to sell 6000 pieces. That’s roughly 16.4 sales a day. Some visitors to my store front will not purchase anything. Some visitors may be other shop owners or crafters looking for inspiration. In order to get enough potential customers to my store I will have devote time to advertising, time that won’t be spent crafting.

The way I see it, the best bet to be profitable is to reduce competition, primarily by changing the product you offer. One way to do this is by offering a product that few others can. Fill a niche. There may be many wire jewelery makers on etsy, but there are far fewer casters. There will always be crafters who will mimic cool designs they see, so you can’t just differentiate yourself by style alone. Another approach I’ve seen recently, is to take advantage of the fact that many of your shop visitors will themselves be crafters. A few etsy shops owners offer instructions for how to create their crafts for very small sums of money. There’s no materials cost, once the instructions have been created, so the $1-$2 is pure profit. It’s also a small enough sum of money that you’re unlikely to be greatly undercut.

Despite the difficulties, there are those who do manage a thriving business out of etsy. You can either look at the numbers Max Chafkin points out and either lament that only 1,000 etsy shops make 30k a year, or rejoice because 1,000 shops make 30k a year. If you’re of the latter camp, and are eager to give your business a try, there’s lots of advice about selling on etsy, including custom work to help maximize your chances of being successful.

If you’re curious, there’s also a consulting rule of thumb for determining your hourly wage that also applies to crafters doing custom work. The formula is:

(DesiredYearlyIncome + YearlyExpenses)/2000.

The 2000 comes from 40 hour work week, 50 weeks a year. Why not 52? Well you’ll need some (paid) time off, for sick days or even just to recharge. We all need a break some times.


Edited to add: I recently developed a tool called Scale-Up which can help you find out what it will take to grow your etsy business to your desired income level.

All I can say is YUM!

To make the sweet vinaigrette dressing combine (wisk)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
(Recipe from allrecipies.com)

Drizzle over freshly cut strawberries & spinach for a wonderful spring time treat. I used an egg slicer to slice my strawberries. If you do that, don’t cut out the white core of the strawberry before slicing. The remaining berry looses all structural integrity and turns into strawberry puree.

April 3, 2011

Missed it by this much

You know how I was waiting for ticket fares to increase with Southwest so I could get a free flight? Well I waited a little too long. Instead of underpaying by $30, I overpaid by twice that. Yikes! When I checked on Thursday the price of tickets had actually gone down, not up. I was thinking I was going to be $50 shy of my free flight. This, of course, that means I roughly paid $100 more than I would have had I bought the tickets two weeks ago when I first looked. Yes, I am kicking myself over that one (and probably will for some time). I hate it when I miss out on a deal.

I continue the Southwest love. I was not thinking this afternoon and made a mistake booking Domingo’s flight, booking it for the wrong time. I was worried about what it would cost me to change it. Yes, I have seen the “no change fee” commercials, but after paying more for the tickets than I wanted to, I was a tad price sensitive. I had visions of dollar signs floating away in my head. I tried calling customer service, but the wait was north of 40 minutes because of the recent Plane Issues. Luckily, their web interface was really nice. I just gave the confirmation number, selected which flight I wanted to change and picked a new time. Easy Peasy, problem solved.

I’m all settled in to my Seattle apartment, new employee orientation is tomorrow for my internship. I’m not exactly loving the apartment. The heater died sometime last night. It was definitely on Saturday afternoon, but hasn’t kicked on since despite the place getting cold. Than about an hour ago, the TV decided it too would die. Oh well, it’s not like I came to Seattle to watch TV! I’m looking forward to the heat being fixed, though. I’m wearing three sweaters! Sarah does not do well in the cold.