4 Tips to Prevent Baking Disasters

posted in: Baking, Tips 95 comments

This post first appeared as a guest post at a fellow Malaysian mother’s blog in 2011. I’ve edited it to repost here because it is still relevant – I am occasionally a disaster in kitchen.

4 tips to prevent baking disasters

I have a page of recipes, many of which are some of my favorite things to bake and cook. It may give you the impression that I’m rather good at it.

Pssst – a little secret? I’m not, really. 

I’m a trial-and-error-sometime baker, and I’ve had my fair share of baking disasters. Here are four hard-earned tips on how to avoid them. 

Use a recipe

If you remember the proportions of flour, butter, sugar and all the other ingredients you need in a recipe…. well, you’re not real and if you are, you don’t have to read this post. If you’re a normal person like me, use a recipe. Guesswork is not going to fly here. Baking is chemistry, you need the right amounts of each ingredient to ensure your carrot muffins do not turn out rock hard (yes, this happened to me).

Get organized

Before you start weighing, sifting, mixing, whisking and pouring? Always preheat the oven first. Next, prepare the muffin tray/ cake tin/ cookie tray. Then make sure you have all the tools you need at hand – weighing machine, mixer, mixing bowl and so on. Next, line up all the ingredients you need.

Read the instructions

Okay, you have the recipe. Read it. Read it again. Then read it a third time. When you face a slightly more complicated recipe than ‘Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, then mix’, chances are you WILL scramble around if you don’t read the recipe correctly.

Case in point: I made honey cake once, and assumed (hah! NEVER assume anything in baking) that it was a simple mix wet with dry method. I then read the instructions again and realized I had to heat the honey with sugar first in a pan, THEN let it cool for at least 20 minutes, before I added it in with the egg. If I’d known that earlier, that would have been the first thing I started on. Instead, I wasted time standing around impatiently waiting for the honey mixture to cool, with nothing to do.

Also? When you read the instructions properly, you’ll be less likely to measure out the ingredients wrongly. 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract is very different from 2 tablespoons, just sayin’, ahem.

Make sure you have your computer on, and Google as your homepage

There have been instances when I was just seized by a desire to bake, and I look for a recipe. Then I find that I’m missing one or two ingredients, such as turbinado sugar (which I’m not familiar with at all). What do I do? Give up? Not bake that yummy cake I really want to eat?

No!! I turn to Google to look for a substitute ingredient. There are a million suggestions offered out there. Be careful to look through a few before you decide on a substitute, some sources are just not reliable. I usually look up baking sites.

Google is also helpful for converting quantities. I have recipes from all over the world, which use their own system of measurement. I always find out the recipe source, then convert the quantities to a measuring system I’m familiar with (that’d be metric), BEFORE I start baking.

What are you waiting for? Go forth and bake!

Have you had any fun stories of baking/ cooking disasters?  Tell me!

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Alison Lee is a former PR and marketing professional turned work-at-home mother. After a 10-year career in various PR agencies, and of the world’s biggest sports brands, Alison traded in product launches and world travel, for sippy cups, diapers, and breastfeeding. Alison's writing has been featured on Mamalode, On Parenting at The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Everyday Family, Scary Mommy, and DrGreene.com. She is one of 35 essayists in the anthology, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends. In 2012, she founded Little Love Media, a social media consultancy specializing in blog book tours, and because she doesn’t sleep, is an editor at BonBon Break, an online magazine. Alison lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with her husband and four children (two boys and boy/ girl twins).

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  • July 8, 2013 vanita

    you wrote this with me in mind, didn’t ya’ mama? Ok, I promise to read the instructions. πŸ˜€
    vanita recently wrote…The Truth About Whether You Need SEOMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Hah! I thought your teenagers are responsible for all baking activities πŸ˜‰

      • July 10, 2013 vanita

        they are cuz i don’t read all the instructions, but who’s gonna yell at me?

  • July 8, 2013 Kim

    I have tried to wing a few recipes – and usually have had disastrous results. For a while I was on a quest to make the perfect pizza muffin for my oldest’s lunch. I kept switching a few things, adding a bit of this, a little cheese -some were inedible. Then when I finally got them right, no one seemed to really care for them – I ended up eating most of them. πŸ™‚
    Kim recently wrote…I am Sorry, FortyMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Hah! Right? No one really cares how ‘perfect’ we get them. As long as it tastes decent. πŸ™‚

  • July 8, 2013 AlwaysARedhead

    My baking disaster, switching salt for sugar, thus making the cookies inedible.
    AlwaysARedhead recently wrote…What happened when she didn’t sleep for five days?My Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Oops. πŸ™‚

  • July 8, 2013 Rivki Silver

    Oh man, reading the directions. That’s a big one! Also, making sure you have all the ingredients. Sometimes there’s no substitution (though I *did* just substitute honey for sugar and apple juice for milk in a corn bread recipe last night and it was AWESOME).

    This isn’t really a baking mishap, but it does involve the oven: Once, when I was newly newly married, I took out a chicken dish I had slaved over and placed the Pyrex glass casserole dish on the countertop. And it exploded. So don’t do that. Instead of putting it on a cool counter, put it on a cloth towel or wood trivet or something.
    Rivki Silver recently wrote…Embracing ImperfectionMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Oh, that’s scary (and slightly dangerous, heh).

      Oh yes, sometimes, quick subs DO work. Like when I ran out of buttermilk, I used Greek yogurt for a muffin recipe, and it worked out great. It’s usually when the texture is different (e.g. subbing a liquid ingredient with powder), that one needs to be careful.

  • July 8, 2013 Michelle

    This is why I can’t bake. With baking, you have to follow a recipe. Not see it calls for a spice and sprinkle it in haphazardly, or decide another ingredient might be quite nice in addition to, or as a substitute. I love to cook because I do this all the time and most of the time it turns out pretty well (or is at least edible). When I bake, forget it. I’ve forgotten eggs, I’ve forgotten sugar…and I’ve burned a lot of things. I’m not real good with that timer thing either. I’ve pretty much given up on baking!
    Michelle recently wrote…Celebrating the 4th of July with FriendsMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Cooking is definitely more of an art than a science in that sense, yes! I do the same thing with cooking – I don’t measure as much, and I taste as I cook, so I do add/ subtract stuff all the time. Which is why I couldn’t write a recipe for say, fried rice. πŸ™‚

  • July 8, 2013 Tracie

    These are all really good tips.

    If I was to write about baking tips, it would one tip, which would read, “Hire someone to do it for you so it comes out edible.” But yours seems much more helpful. πŸ˜‰
    Tracie recently wrote…LongingMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Hah! Well, that’d work too. πŸ™‚

  • July 8, 2013 JDaniel4's Mom

    I so don’t read recipes over enough. I am always surprised by a step I misread the first time.
    JDaniel4’s Mom recently wrote…Bento Lunch for Kids- Summer SunshineMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      It’s fairly common, I find! I don’t take my own advice, sometimes.

  • July 8, 2013 thekitchwitch

    I am a wretched baker. Wretched. I think the worst was the time I baked brownies so hard that I ended up just chucking the whole thing, pan and all, into the trash. They were stuck in there like cement!
    thekitchwitch recently wrote…July 4th: A Daddy-o StoryMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      You’re a good cook though! I think it’s meant to be – good bakers don’t make good cooks and vice versa. The former is too science-y and organized and must-follow-recipe. While a cook just loves to throw things together and still create something beautiful.

  • July 8, 2013 Tamara

    You can’t imagine the mistakes I’ve made in the kitchen..terrible. Mostly with cooking, though. I’m decent enough at baking only as long as I follow your tips. Trust me – I need this as a printout. And then all will be ok.
    Tamara recently wrote…Piece Of My Heart.My Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Hee! You will rock, Tamara.

  • July 8, 2013 Christine

    Oh yes. I’ve tried winging baking recipes before and it’s not a good idea. And read the recipe multiple times!! My other lesson? Don’t forget to let the buttercream frosting soften (if you’ve made it ahead of time and put it in the refrigerator)! I think that once I took it out about an hour before we were to leave the house expecting that I would be able to frost the cake right away. Oops.
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    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Oh, oops!
      I suck at frosting, which is why I rarely do it. The one I made for the baby’s first birthday? Looked better than it tasted. πŸ™‚

  • July 8, 2013 Robin

    I’m the queen of baking disasters. I usually don’t bake because I just can’t seem to do it right. I don’t like following recipes and I’m awful at making sure I have all the stuff on hand.
    Robin recently wrote…Freedom in a BottleMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Well, yes, that is a er, recipe for a disaster. πŸ™‚

  • July 9, 2013 Adrienne

    I love to bake! These are great tips. I’m not one of those “eye ball it” kind of bakers either. I have to measure exactly as the recipe says or else I’m left with mush. My two favorite must use tips-sift your flour (every single time) and I use parchment paper for all my cookies! πŸ˜‰ Now I need to go bake something, which will not go well with my swim suit. Thankyouverymuch.
    Adrienne recently wrote…#FABsmile Giveaway from FlossAndBrush.com!My Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Good tips, Adrienne! I’m a stickler with flour sifting too, it totally makes a difference!

  • July 9, 2013 Arnebya

    I’ve actually started to tweak recipes (doesn’t always end well, honestly. I don’t measure. It’s my biggest downfall in baking). I have one thing I absolutely cannot make well: cake. They don’t rise. Cupcakes are better (if I fill them more than normal so that they rise) but cakes come out dry and flat and I want it to stop.
    Arnebya recently wrote…The Pills In My PurseMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      It’s all in the aeration, my friend! Light and fluffy means you need to beat the shit out of it. With a mixer if you’ve got one. Also, don’t open the oven door while it’s baking.

  • July 9, 2013 Rochelle Melander

    Alison, Thanks for stopping by my blog to comment on Nina’s great article. And thank you for this great post. Baking is one of the things that grounds me (besides yoga and exercise and hanging with the family)–so I hate baking disasters. And you’ve got it: my number one disaster-prevention tool is reading the WHOLE recipe before I begin, so I don’t end up mixing things out of order or in the wrong consistency or whatever. Of course, I often forget to do that so sometimes I end up with eggs that cook a little when I add them to my warm ingredients (eww). The other almost disaster I court often: forgetting that I’ve run out of an essential ingredient. Like oatmeal for granola bars. Thanks for the tips! -Rochelle
    Rochelle Melander recently wrote…The Write Now! CoachMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Oh yes, I’ve had the egg-cooking happen before. It just looks like baby poo, lol.
      And no oatmeal for granola bars? Dude. πŸ™‚

  • July 9, 2013 Elaine A.

    I am so bad about the third one. I will get all the ingredients and scan the instructions but many times I miss something pretty important! πŸ˜‰ Good thing I have some recipes I love memorized… ha!
    Elaine A. recently wrote…Enjoying The PictureMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      I used to have one recipe memorized because I made it every week – oatmeal raisin cookies. But that was before Pinterest and ALLTHEPRETTYPICTURESANDRECIPESMUSTTRY. πŸ™‚

  • July 9, 2013 Jin Ai

    I’m such a duffer at baking and actually fear it more than most things. On the days I do bake, I read the recipe over and over again you’d think I didn’t understand English!
    Jin Ai recently wrote…11 things about my morning sicknessMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      It’s a good trait!

  • July 9, 2013 Natalie

    I am always known to have a few baking/cooking disasters! Forgetting an ingredient or mixing things at the wrong time…yep I’ve done it all!
    Natalie recently wrote…A Rainy 4th…My Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Welcome to the club! πŸ™‚

  • July 9, 2013 Andrea

    I am a baking disaster. When my cookie sheets and measuring cups see me coming, they alternately hide and scream.

    About every other batch of baked goods I make fail miserably, for all the reasons you described here. πŸ™‚
    Andrea recently wrote…The Real Independence Day, not that Will Smith movie that still gives me nightmares.My Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Haha! You made me laugh so hard.

  • July 9, 2013 Gin

    I once skimmed a recipe and used a Tablespoon of Baking Soda instead of the teaspoon it called for. Not my best baking attempt. Blech!!

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Oh, yikes!

  • July 9, 2013 Stacey

    Pretty much every time I attempt to bake is considered a disaster! My family still talks about the time I botched a simple recipe for snicker doodles!
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    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Mmmm snicker doodles….. πŸ™‚

  • July 9, 2013 Leah Davidson

    Great advice! I hate to admit though, I have many a time sat down saying “It’s supposed to be XYZ, or supposed to taste like this, but… I added XYZ instead”. I just made this amazing peanut butter chocolate cake for my Stepson’s bday. It had this amazing peanut butter fudge sauce as a layer in between. Only problem – I mistakenly used MINT chocolate chips to make this yummy fudgey sauce. My family was eating the cake, and being really polite, “Wow, this cake has an INTENSE flavour”, “Is that a hint of mint”? and “Interesting – a peanut butter mint cake”. I had to laugh. They ate it anyways (beauty of boys – they will eat pretty much anything!)
    Leah Davidson recently wrote…Introducing…ReggieMy Profile

    • July 10, 2013 Alison

      Hah, too funny!
      Yes, the good thing about boys (especially teens), they eat everything! This reminds me of the Friends episode when Rachel messed up a trifle recipe, she added beef to the cream, and Joey ate it, loved it and said, cream, meat etc – what’s not to love? lol

  • July 9, 2013 Maureen

    As someone who mostly flunk baking, this is so awesome, Alison!
    And yes thank God for those conversion calculators πŸ˜‰
    Maureen recently wrote…I Am My Mother’s DaughterMy Profile

    • July 11, 2013 Alison

      Right? So awesome. No idea how I baked in the old days without Google.

  • July 9, 2013 Alexa (katbiggie)

    I have had more than my fair share of disasters! But I think the funniest was when my sister confused baking soda and baking powder in a cookie recipe. They were NOT good.
    Alexa (katbiggie) recently wrote…Portobello Mushrooms and Beef TipsMy Profile

    • July 11, 2013 Alison

      Hah! No, not good. πŸ™‚

  • July 9, 2013 Ilene

    I am guilty of starting a baking project and then realizing I don’t have all the ingredients. Why have I never thought of using Google to find substitutes? Great advice!
    Ilene recently wrote…The B SidesMy Profile

    • July 11, 2013 Alison

      Thanks Ilene!! I rely on Google for EVERYTHING.

  • July 9, 2013 Leslie

    Great recommendations! It’s especially important to read through a recipe. Without doing that first, I would have never been able to finish Death by Chocolate…that sucker takes 3 days to finish!
    Leslie recently wrote…{30 Things} The Hardest Thing About Growing UpMy Profile

    • July 11, 2013 Alison

      OMG you made that? I bow down to you.

  • July 9, 2013 Katie

    These are my secrets to baking/cooking too! Right down to having Google ready on demand! I usually use it as I read the recipe to decide if it’s something I can tackle with Eddie or if I should do it on my own.

    Pinning this!
    Katie recently wrote…Six Ways To Say ThanksMy Profile

    • July 11, 2013 Alison

      Yay, thank you!
      Great minds, aren’t we?

  • July 9, 2013 Poppy

    I’m a way better eater than a baker – so glad my teenager has taken over the baking in our house!
    Poppy recently wrote…Earn Your Scars at the Spartan RunMy Profile

    • July 11, 2013 Alison

      Lucky you!

  • Oh yes, I have had plenty of baking disasters! Such as the time I decided to make a tiramisu cake, misread the recipe, had to throw away the tiramisu filling and ended up banging togheter an icecream cake. (one layer vanilla, one layer mokka on a pre-made cookie-crumb crust, put in freezer)
    That is why I always make sure I have more then enough flour/chocolate/butter/sugar on hand to start over if necessary.
    Practice makes perfect that is all I can add… and know your oven. For instance in my previous house I had an oven which did not require pre-heating. It was a moody old beast and would jump straight to the required temperature.
    Tinne from Tantrums and Tomatoes recently wrote…The essence of Summer: my MIL awesome no-bake strawberry cheesecakeMy Profile

    • July 12, 2013 Alison

      The oven at my old place was a bitch too. And yes, practice definitely makes perfect.

  • July 9, 2013 keely

    I once baked scones (in London!) that a boyfriend deemed inedible. He actually begged me rather kindly never to bake again.

    10 years later, P.J. high-fives me for every lemon sour cream muffin, chocolate chip cake, and miniature cupcake. πŸ™‚
    keely recently wrote…Is There A Penance For That?My Profile

    • July 12, 2013 Alison

      Which is why PJ is a keeper.
      Also, scones are HARD to make right.

  • July 9, 2013 Stevie

    I once tried to convert a cupcake recipe into a layer cake and it ended up so dry! It was for my Aunt’s birthday and everyone politely had a bite but it wasn’t a big hit. I also one time baked a batch of brownies that came out gooey (as in not cooked) with a crispy outer layer. I realized I had the oven set to “broil.” Oops.
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    • July 12, 2013 Alison

      Broil!!! Bwahahahaha!

  • July 10, 2013 Kathy Radigan

    Love your tips! Yes, you do have to follow a recipe when you bake. That’s what I love about it, you know if you follow the steps you will end up with a cake, cookies, or muffins. I haven’t had too many baking disasters, but when I have had a fail it’s because I got cocky and thought I could wing it. Sadly, I can not! πŸ™‚
    Kathy Radigan recently wrote…Being My Teens Mom Not His FriendMy Profile

    • July 12, 2013 Alison

      I can’t either! Though I’ve had some lucky surprises when I substitute a couple of things here and there.

  • July 10, 2013 My Inner Chick

    1.******Use a recipe****

    HAaaaa, I’m not good at that. Perhaps that is the reason most of my stuff turns out burnt, undone, and uneatable!

    My Inner Chick recently wrote…Blogs, Oxygen, Twisted Syllables, & Anne SextonMy Profile

    • July 13, 2013 Alison

      Oh hon, what I’ve seen of your food, I think you’re okay. xo

  • July 10, 2013 Stasha

    Great post. Google has taught me what to replace eggs in pancakes with and how to make my own masala spice! Who knew nearly everything has it’s substitute.
    Stasha recently wrote…You can thank me laterMy Profile

    • July 13, 2013 Alison

      Thank god for Google!

  • July 10, 2013 Natalie

    Awesome tips, Alison! πŸ˜‰ I can use all the help I can get.
    Natalie recently wrote…Gone Fishin’My Profile

    • July 13, 2013 Alison

      Thanks Natalie!

  • July 10, 2013 The Dose of Reality

    Excellent advice about the recipe. It is like chemistry. You can’t just wing it. I never cook *anything* without Google open on my laptop. I always need to figure out some substitution or definition of something. It’s a life saver!! –Lisa
    The Dose of Reality recently wrote…Would You Rather: Show Up At Your High School Reunion Wearing A Bikini Or With Your Head Shaved?My Profile

    • July 13, 2013 Alison

      I cannot live without Google!

  • July 11, 2013 Jennifer

    What a great idea, I have never thought to go to Google for a substitute that I couldn’t find. Thanks for sharing!
    Jennifer recently wrote…DIY Minnie Mouse Drawstring BackpackMy Profile

    • July 13, 2013 Alison

      You’re welcome, Jennifer!

  • July 11, 2013 Kimber

    I love to cook and bake and these are great tips! Some of my best memories are baking with my mom growing up. Great tips!

    One funny baking story is that when I had my baby a friend brought over dinner. She was so sweet and made me cupcakes too. The last thing she said before she left was “Oh and make sure you eat each bite with a lot of frosting because I forgot to add the water.” They were a bit dry, but good thing frosting saves everything. We still laugh about it today!
    Kimber recently wrote…{Product Review} Lollacup Straw Sippy CupMy Profile

    • July 13, 2013 Alison

      Haha! It’s sweet of her to make you cupcakes though.

  • July 12, 2013 Jessica

    I almost always mess up the recipes because I don’t read them all the way through until it’s too late. Maybe one day I’ll learn. Or not.
    Jessica recently wrote…Essence of Now: DivasMy Profile

    • July 13, 2013 Alison

      It’s okay, you can train your girls to bake πŸ™‚

  • July 13, 2013 Bev

    I can’t tell you how many times I have skimmed over a recipe, only to realize when I’m in the midst of it I should have thoroughly read the directions before I began because of an important direction in the middle that is more complicated than I had anticipated. I have definitely had my share of cooking disasters, mostly from mistaking a teaspoon for a tablespoon or even a cup. Word to the wise: if you think a baking recipe calls for 1/4 cup of salt, reread the recipe. Chances are you read it wrong!
    Bev recently wrote…Screw the Heat, I’ll be at the Boston Handmade Marketplace!My Profile

    • July 23, 2013 Alison

      Hah! Even a savory dish wouldn’t require half a cup of salt πŸ™‚

  • July 13, 2013 Katie E

    I just saw that gorgeous cake picture you posted on facebook, so I can’t imagine you ever have baking disasters πŸ™‚ These are awesome tips – I kind of suck at baking, but I think I’d do much better if I followed these tips. I often find baking is just a bit more precise than I like to be when I’m cooking.
    Katie E recently wrote…This Toddler Will Make You Smile #iPPPMy Profile

    • July 23, 2013 Alison

      I have my fair share of disasters – the birthday cake was a fortunate success. And yes, baking is definite a precise process!

  • July 13, 2013 Amy

    Amen. I seriously CANNOT cook at all but I do okay with baking because it is a literal following of said directions. It does help to have the right tools (like a Kitchenaid mixer). But I read, reorganize, read and then read again. Still doesn’t always turn out so great, but every once in awhile, I’m pretty impressed with myself.
    Amy recently wrote…Mommy Fail Fridays…My Profile

    • July 23, 2013 Alison

      Oh yes, the KitchenAid has totally made many things possible for me, that wasn’t before!

  • July 13, 2013 Cyndi

    I have been burned so many times by not reading the recipe all the way through! Now, I also measure everything out before I even start, I have also been burned by the ‘I thought I had enough of..’

    • July 23, 2013 Alison

      Oh yes, measuring is a definite must.

  • July 14, 2013 Amber

    Great tips.

    I have a lot of disasters in the kitchen.
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    • July 23, 2013 Alison

      Thanks Amber!

  • July 14, 2013 Kesha of We Got Kidz

    I’ve wanted to start baking for a while now, but wasn’t sure where to start. These tips definitely help. Great piece for the baking newbs. πŸ™‚
    Kesha of We Got Kidz recently wrote…Why Potty Training Is the Devil and a $50 Amazon GC GiveawayMy Profile

    • July 23, 2013 Alison

      It’s so fun, I hope you try it!

  • July 14, 2013 Involuntary Housewife

    Absolutely excellent advice! I do a lot of baking and a lot of times it is for one of the above reasons!

    Visiting from SITS
    Involuntary Housewife recently wrote…When the Craving Cannot be Denied – Dark Chocolate Caramel SauceMy Profile

    • July 23, 2013 Alison

      Why, thank you! And thanks for dropping by.

  • July 15, 2013 Laura

    My husband doesn’t bake because he sees food preparation as an “art” and he can’t make that work with the precision of baking. Recipes? What recipes?

    I face disasters after disasters in the kitchen. Sometimes I have no idea what went wrong, other times I realize I missed a step or did something out of order. I swear, I read recipes often before starting.
    Laura recently wrote…When You Just KnowMy Profile

    • July 23, 2013 Alison

      I’m the opposite, I like baking BECAUSE it’s a science. The only science-y part of me. πŸ™‚

  • July 22, 2013 Tonya

    So smart. Especially the get organized and read the instructions tips. I am all thumbs when it comes to the kitchen and need all the help I can get. Thanks for putting these together.
    Tonya recently wrote…There Is Still So Much More To Share…My Profile

    • July 23, 2013 Alison

      Absolutely! I still haven’t forgotten the Oreo cupcakes you made. πŸ™‚

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