Fast Tip Friday: the Shampoo Hack

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In a perfect world, all shampoo and toiletry bottles would have wide, flat tops, like this one. And then when you are trying to get at the last drops you can simply invert the bottle and gravity does the rest of the work.

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But in the real world there are a bunch with round tops, or tops too narrow to support the weight when the bottle is turned upside down.

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So they fall over. And you can’t get to that last drop of shampoo-y goodness. And it’s very frustrating. I do have an elegant invention in my brain-meats involving silicone rings but today the solution is much more accessible for the moment.

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Grab yourself one of those mesh plastic bags you’ve saved from buying fruits or vegetables. I keep these suckers for all sorts of reasons. Cut off any bits that seal it closed so you have an open tube.

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And grab yourself some string. Or rope. Or chain. Or shoelace. You’ll need two pieces, and you’ll need one that you can tie up.

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Weave the piece you will be tying up through the holes in the mesh. If you want to avoid the rough edges, fold the mesh over before you start weaving.

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Slide your shampoo bottle into the mesh bag with the top of the bottle pushing through the hole. Tie the string so the mesh is tight against the bottle.

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Bunch the open end of the mesh bag grab your other piece of string or whatever and thread it through the mesh to hold it closed.

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Hang that from a hook in your shower, from the tap, or a suction cup you picked up from the dollar store.  It ain’t pretty, but it works. And you can fancy it up anyway you want. Now you have access to that very last drop!

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Traveling Light for Business: Smart Ladies’ Edition

Happy Canada Day!

You see a lot of stuff out there on how to travel appropriately for business trips, but I find the majority of it seems to be geared towards the business MAN as opposed to the business WOMAN. Sure, there’s some stuff out there. But I thought I’d add my two cents to the mix, and tell you the things I’ve learned as I’ve adapted from being a sloppy student to a smart businesswoman traveling the continent. Some of you smart gentlemen out there might find some of these tips useful, too.

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Before I started this job I was no stranger to traveling across borders alone, and a lone female pretty much always attracts extra attention from border security. Once, on my way from Ottawa to Providence RI, I noticed that I was being tailed through the Newark airport by a genial security official. When I turned around to ask if I could help him, he asked me to follow him and I ended up in an interrogation room. The conversation was cordial, and everything was in order, but the nice security official told me that young females traveling alone tended to raise a few flags because it’s a less than usual circumstance and historically women have been used as mules for all sorts of weird stuff simply because they tend to look less suspicious. This was shortly after 9/11 mind you, and I haven’t been followed through an airport in a while. Anyway, in the intervening time I have picked up a few tips and tricks for traveling easily and lightly that you might find useful in your own travels, be they for business or pleasure.

Checked versus Carry-on Baggage

If you’re traveling for business, chances are you’re only going wherever you’re going for four days or less, and you’re probably going to be on a schedule. Plus if you travel often, your tolerance for sticking around airports waiting for suitcases and for paying extra cash to check your bags is pretty low. So I always vote to carry on all my luggage. When it comes to carry-on bags, there are a variety of available things out there that you can use, but a little roll-able suitcase will be your most versatile option. There’s debate as to the practicality of four wheels versus two wheels, but I opted for four, as being able to shove the suitcase in front of me in crowds is definitely a benefit I didn’t have with my old two-wheeled version. A caveat of the four-wheeled cases is that the wheels stick out more, which take up more space, and they’re more likely to get damaged when you check the bag (but of course we’re not checking our bag so we’re cool).

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When buying a new carry-on bag, do your research first. Check out the baggage size limitations for all the airlines on which you travel, and select a suitcase that will fit requirements for all of them. I brought a measuring tape with me when I bought this one from Swiss Gear and made sure that even with the wheels included it conformed to the smallest standards of all airlines. I also picked a case with soft sides to ensure that it could be crammed into tight spaces with a little extra force.

I also never carry a purse on board with me when I travel. I have to bring my laptop with me for work so that’s already two items on board including my suitcase. If I had to deal with a purse as well I would get totally frazzled, and I never understand it when I see ladies getting on planes carrying purses, suitcases, laptop bags, and then a series of shopping bags. I like to get to my seat as soon as possible, jam my stuff where it fits as quickly as I can (I always take advantage of sky-check or gate-checking if it’s available), and then I’m in my seat and out of the way so others can board the plane and we can leave on schedule. So all my travel documents, wallet, Kindle, etc., get shoved in my laptop bag. That way I only have two bags to worry about when getting myself around.

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I do bring a smaller bag for going out and about when I’m at my location. Usually it’s a small clutch like this one, or it’s a larger canvas purse that rolls up easily to fit into my suitcase. Once I reach my destination I decant some of my personal items out of the laptop bag and into the clutch or purse.

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Packing light, packing right

Here is where I think business women have the advantage over business men – our clothes tend to be smaller and are more often made out of stretchy materials that don’t wrinkle. That means that I can simply roll up all my favourite work dresses (always roll all your stuff – it takes up less space and prevents a number of wrinkles) and shove them into my suitcase and they’ll be ready to go, no worse for wear, when I arrive at my destination. Men’s dress shirts and suits tend to need to be carried in a separate garment bag and then ironed once the travel is done and that is way more work than I am willing to put into my clothing while on the road.

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I always wear sneakers when I’m doing the actual travel – I’ve done my fair share of racing through airports to make connections or adjust to gate changes and I know that doing it in heels is a recipe for disaster (I also have the slightly pessimistic view that if I survive a plane crash I’m better able to negotiate the crash site and surrounding wilderness in comfy shoes). This also means that I can pack a pair or two of flats in my suitcase and they take up barely any space at all.

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One thing I do recommend if you’re staying anywhere for more than one night is to unpack your clothes and hang them up or put them in the drawers made available in your hotel room. For one thing, it helps to air them out and let out any wrinkles they have from sitting in your suitcase, and it keeps them from mingling with any of your dirty clothes. Plus it beats waking up late in the morning and having to rummage through your case to find what you want.

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Know your needs

Everyone is different, but we all have certain things that we aren’t comfortable doing without while traveling. Because I like to be prepared for every eventuality, and because I don’t want to run the risk of having to search a strange city at a late hour for some necessity, I tend to over-pack when it comes to my toiletries. I have a sizable toiletry case here that fits snugly in the bottom of my case because it’s rectangular. I keep a whole double set of toiletries in here that are separate from my toiletries at home, so that when I have to travel on short notice I don’t run the risk of forgetting what I need. I also have small travel containers full of acetaminophen, ibuprofen, Tums, etc. – anything I can anticipate needing at any time.

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I also bring along my own shampoo and conditioner, because with my sensitive skin I can’t trust that I won’t react badly to the complimentary items the hotel supplies. When I do this I run the risk of dealing with leaked shampoo all over my other stuff due to pressure changes when flying or rough handling of my bags. So that’s why I use GoToobs, which I’ve had for a million years and I take them every where I go. These flexible tubes are made of silicone and have a tight seal so they never leak. They’re also really easy to clean out at the end of a trip. I highly recommend them.

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I travel enough that I spend a decent amount of time sealed inside air-conditioned hotel rooms and more often than not the air is super dry after being recycled so many times. I don’t have a picture of this but I like to travel with one of my two travel humidifiers, which also fit nicely in my suitcase and require a standard bottle of water to function. I have this one from Bell + Howell and this one from Air-o-Swiss and they’re both great.

Another essential for me is my Kindle.  The Pie bought this for me for Christmas the first year we were married so it’s an old-school version but for me it’s the best thing ever. I read very quickly and will easily go through three or four novels in a four-day trip. Rather than haul all those heavy and space-taking books all over the continent it’s easier for me to carry my Kindle with its thousand books. The bonus is that it charges with the same cable as my cell phone so that saves me some space as well.

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The final item that I often bring with me but don’t always use is a bathing suit. Most (though not all) of the hotels I stay in have pools, and I absolutely love to swim. And especially when I’m traveling in [arts of cities where perhaps it’s not the smartest idea for a lone female to go out wandering about in the evening, the pool is always a good option to get a daily dose of exercise in a safe and secure manner.

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As long as you keep your on-the-road practices simple and practical you should be just fine. Safe and happy travels!

Rhubarb Bars

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°You guys. Listen. Seriously. These rhubarb bars from Lara Ferroni are my new favourite thing. Honest. I like ’em even better than my famous lemon bars. I was going to bring these into work one day but then the Pie and I decided to eat them all ourselves. So we totally did. We even ate them for breakfast. And I don’t even feel bad about it.

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Start by chopping up about 400g fresh rhubarb into 1/2″ chunks. My stalks were super skinny and tender so I didn’t bother to peel it but if you’re working with the thicker, tougher stalks, then you might want to consider it. Plop the bits into a bowl with 1/3 cup sugar, give that a stir, and let that macerate for about 10 minutes.

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When the rhubarb bits are starting to get a little juicy, plop them into a medium-sized pot with about 1/4 cup water and cook over low heat until everything is mushy.

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Remove your rhubarb mush from the heat and allow to cool. You can purée the rhubarb at this point but it’s not necessary. Just mush it up a little more so there are no solid pieces. Depending on the colour of your rhubarb, your stewed ‘barb will be any colour from an orange-ish yellow to a deep red. Don’t worry if it’s any variation in between.

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Now we need to make a gorgeous flaky shortbread crust for these. Preheat the oven to 350° and line a 9″ x 5″ baking dish with parchment paper. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together 4oz room temperature butter, 1 cup flour, and 1/4 cup sugar. Start slow when it’s all powdery like this:

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But then it will very quickly come together into a soft dough.

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Press this into the baking dish and let it rest for 15 minutes.

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Then bake it until it’s nice and golden, about 20 minutes.

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While that’s on the go you can finish up your rhubarb goo by turning it into rhubarb curd. In a bowl suspended over a pot of simmering water or the top of a double boiler, whisk together 6 egg yolks and 3/4 cup sugar and let those get nice and warm.

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Add in the stewed rhubarb a little at a time until it’s got the taste and consistency that you like. I ended up adding in all of mine.

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When you’re happy, remove it from the heat and tip in 50g butter, cut into chunks.

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Stir that until smooth – you now have rhubarb curd!

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Pour about half to two-thirds of the curd on top of the baked shortbread crust.

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Save the other curd and chuck it in your fridge to use on toast.

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Shove that back into your oven for about 10 minutes, until the curd has set.

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Let that cool completely before slicing into lots of pieces. I found it was best to keep these in the fridge as the curd likes to travel when it gets warm.

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Cinnamon Rhubarb Muffins

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My mother foisted off some of her bumper crop of rhubarb on me so today’s and Monday’s recipes are both going to be rhubarb-related, and I think you’re going to like both of them if you are a fan of the sour stalks of not-fruit-not-vegetable. This recipe comes from Fine Cooking and the original recipe involves a streusel topping but I decided to skip it this time around. You can do what you like. But before you do, position a rack in the centre of your oven and preheat it to 400°F. Grease a muffin tin or line it with cupcake cups.

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Chop up 1 1/2 cups’ worth of fresh rhubarb into 1/4″ pieces. Set that aside for a few minutes.

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In a large bowl, whisk together 2 cups flour, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda.

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In a small heatsafe bowl, melt 1/2 cup butter and then let that cool slightly.

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In another bowl, whisk together 2 large eggs, 1 cup sour cream (I replaced this with 1 cup buttermilk), and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Add in the slightly cooled butter and mix that well.

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Make a well in the centre of your flour mixture and pour in the liquids.

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Stir that with a fork until just combined. Let it be lumpy.

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Tip in your rhubarb and stir that in, again, until just combined.

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Scoop the muffin batter into the prepared tin until each cup is full, then bake for 18-22 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the centre muffin comes out clean.

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Let the muffins cool in the pan on a rack for about 5-10 minutes before scooping them out and eating them still warm with a little bit of butter.

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Oh my!

Strawberry Shortcake

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As you may have figured out by now, my birthday gifts to my friends and family members usually end up being the birthday cake of their choice – no cake too elaborate, no tower of layers too high. We have had a few memorable ones over the years, but this one sticks out because when I asked Atlas which cake she’d like for her birthday a couple weeks ago, she said she wanted a strawberry shortcake. And I realized that I had never actually ever made this classical and simple dessert delight. So I decided to go right back to the cake’s roots and make it as classic as possible, following this recipe from Fine Cooking.

Strawberry shortcake, in its traditional form, is not really a cake at all. It’s more of a sweet sandwich in a biscuit (“short” cake indicating that the cake isn’t really made with any leavening agents and ends up pretty dense and flat). This recipe also doesn’t really lend itself well to making ahead, as it must be assembled immediately before cooking, but it’s simple enough that this is not a huge deal.

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Let’s start with our dough, shall we? I did make the dough ahead of time, and kept it in the fridge, wrapped in plastic, until I was ready to bake it.  Grab 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, 2 1/2 teaspoons  baking powder,  and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda (leavening agents, I know, but give me a break). Whisk those around in a bowl until they’re nice and mixed.

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Now grab yourself 1/2 cup cold butter and cut it into little cubes. Tip the butter into the flour and use a pastry cutter to blend it all up until you have a mess of coarse-looking flour with pea-sized bits of butter throughout.

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In another bowl, mix together 1/4 cup whipping cream, 1/4 cup buttermilk (why oh why don’t they sell buttermilk in smaller cartons?), and 1 large egg.

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Make a well in the centre of your flour/butter mixture and pour in the wet ingredients.

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Stir that around with a fork until you get a shaggy dough.

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Then knead it a little bit with your hand until it all comes together.

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At this point I wrapped it tight in plastic wrap and shoved it in the fridge overnight, but if you want to bake it right away you totally can.

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Ideally the biscuits are made so that they’re still slightly warm when you assemble them with the strawberries, but you can make them up to four hours ahead of when you need them. Just make sure to col them completely and then shove them in an airtight container until they’re needed. So when you’re ready to bake,  preheat your oven to 425°F, line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and lightly flour a nice surface to work on. Grab your rolling pin as well.

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Roll the dough out into a rough rectangle about 3/4″ thick. The original recipe calls for making six biscuits from this dough but those seemed absolutely ginormous so I cut the rectangle into eight biscuits instead and even then they were pretty big.

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Lay the cut biscuits on your baking sheet and brush with a tablespoon of whipping cream and sprinkle with a bit more sugar.

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Bake those for 10-15 minutes, until golden brown.

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While they’re baking and cooling slightly, you can do your strawberries. You can prepare the strawberries a couple hours ahead of time as well, because they need to macerate (i.e. sit cut up in sugar) for at least 30 minutes. The recipe calls for 1lb fresh strawberries, but I probably used about 1 1/2lbs, and we all agreed later that I could have used the whole 2lbs that I bought. You can never have too many strawberries in strawberry shortcake.

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Anyway, wash and hull the berries, and then take about one third of them and use a potato masher or pastry cutter to mush them up in the bottom of a bowl.

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Slice the rest of the berries and plop them in the bowl with the strawberry mush.

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Tip in 2 tablespoons granulated sugar and give that a stir. Leave that to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. At this time you might as well also chuck a bowl for whipping cream into the freezer, along with whatever beater you are going to use. Cold utensils make for a better whipped cream.

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Now you’ve finished your lunch or dinner and it’s time to assemble the cakes. Grab your bowl and beaters out of the freezer and pour in 1 1/2 cups whipping cream. Add vanilla and sugar to taste. I don’t have any photos of this because the Pie did it while I was doing other things.

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Use a serrated knife to cut all the biscuits in half horizontally and set the bottoms of the biscuits on your serving plates.

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Spoon on a generous amount of strawberry goo. It’s okay if it spills off the edges – it looks all artistic that way.

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Add a generous dollop of whipped cream to the mix.

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Then plop the biscuit top on.

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Add another scoop of strawberry goo, followed by more whipped cream.

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Admire your handiwork.

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Then serve immediately! Yum!

Freezer Pies

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What do you do when you have a big party coming up that requires lots of yummy baked goods, but you know that on the weekend in question you’re going to be way too busy to do anything as involved as make a pie? You take advantage of your freezer, of course.

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First you make up your favourite pastry dough. I always love the original Joy of Cooking version that you can find in a previous post here. The Joy also has some great information on how to make pies ahead of time by freezing them before baking.

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Then you make up your fillings. Here we opted for a vanilla peach and a strawberry-blueberry version. As long as you have about five cups of fruit, and then a couple tablespoons each of sugar, butter, and thickener (flour or corn starch), plus a few drops of lemon juice, then you can make any pie you want.

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We had a tool that Cait called a “strawberry effer-upper” (though she used a stronger word than “effer,” if you catch my drift) which handily slices your strawberries into several neat pieces. Cait’s sister Jules was very happy to take on the effer-upper role. She’s a little sadistic like that.

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Cait also made the error of purchasing clingstone peaches for our pies instead of freestone peaches, so getting the flesh of the fruit off the stone was a bit of a challenge. Eventually I discovered that if you cut wedges into the peach then it’s easier to pry off the sections.

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Once your fillings are made and mixed, leave them at least fifteen minutes to macerate.

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Ideally your dough has been chilling happily all this time and you’ve had a chance to roll it out and let it chill some more. The difference between a regular pie and a freezer pie is that when you plop the bottom shell into the pie dish, you leave a piece of plastic wrap on the bottom between the dish and the pastry. Honest.

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Then you fill your pie that is sitting on top of a layer of plastic wrap. This pie is quite tall.

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Seal it in with more pastry. Do not glaze your pastry at this point, if you’re into that kind of thing. You gotta wait on that.

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Now wrap the rest of it up in plastic wrap so it’s tightly sealed. Wrap again in foil and shove that into the freezer.

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When you’re ready to bake, haul the frozen pies out of the freezer. Preheat your oven to 425°F.

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I stored the strawberry/blueberry one on an angle so I did have a bit of leakage.

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Pry the pie out of the dish and peel off the bottom wrap.

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Plop the pie back into the dish (you can glaze it now if you wish) and pop it in the oven for 10 minutes.

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After ten minutes, haul it out and cut steam vents in the pastry.

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Then shove it back in the oven (this time at 350°F) for a further hour, until the pastry is light brown and crusty and the insides are bubbling out.

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Let those cool completely (or nearly completely) before eating. Yum!

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Ali Asks: What to do with old Business Cards?

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Maybe this has happened to you: you order a set of business cards and you get a whole box, like 250 or 500. And before you can use them all, your phone number changes, or your address, or your title. This has happened to me twice since I started at this job. The first time, my title changed, and then the second time, we re-branded and now we have a different logo.

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So now I have a whole bunch of business cards and I don’t know what to do with them. I know I can chuck them in the recycling, but that’s unoriginal and still a little wasteful. So I’ve been looking online to see the sorts of things you can do with business cards you don’t need anymore. Unfortunately, most of them seem to involve using the blank side to do something – but my cards are double-sided so that’s not an option. They’re also not very good to fold into origami as the edges fray almost instantly. Anyone got any ideas?

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adventures in grown-up living

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