Monday, December 19, 2011

Dipping Pretzels is Awful

I think the title says it all, but let me spell it all out for you in detail.

A couple years ago I got a hair up my butt (pretty picture, huh?!) to make cookies for friends, family & neighbors.  I made loads of cookies of all different kinds.  One of the kinds was pretzels dipped in almond bark.  

I was inspired to do this cookie making by attending a "cookie making party" a friend of mine was having.  Let me tell you, it is much different when you have 15 sets of hands making cookies than when you have 1 set.  MUCH different.

But when friends & family actually indulged in said cookies, I got a pretty strong response regarding the dipped pretzels.  Apparently they are a favorite of both my husband and my brother.  All the other cookies were fine, but those were gobbled up the fastest.

Last year I never got the cookie making bug.  At all.  There were no cookies at the Christian house other than the few that trickled in as gifts from others.

This year, I decided to make a few kinds, but keep it pretty small.  One kind I determined would be the dipped pretzels.  As Jake is now gluten free, I'd stumbled upon a decent sale a couple months ago on gluten free pretzels and saved them just for this purpose.  And then I bought regular pretzels since the gluten free pretzels must be made out of gold for how much they cost.  No way am I serving those to just anybody!

And last Monday I set about making cookies.  I spent all morning on my "few" kinds of cookies.  And this is what I determined:  dipping pretzels is THE most tedious, awful part of it all.  I absolutely abhor it.  I did a few of both regular and gluten free, then used the rest of the melted almond bark to dip some Oreo ball cookies (mash up a whole package of Oreos, mix with softened cream cheese, roll into balls and dip into melted almond bark = amazingness).  

Since I had many more pretzels to use up, I bought more almond bark and decided that either Jake would have to help me so he'd know how much it sucks to make them & truly appreciate me more than ever OR we'd have to figure out something entirely new.  I chose option B.  

I chose to make Pretzel Bark instead.  I melted the almond bark, spread it out onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and then dropped the pretzels and a few holiday M&M's in.  I pressed the pretzels down to really "set".  Then I let it cool for several hours and broke it up into pieces.  

I don't really have large cookie sheets without sides, so it was hard for me to spread the melted almond bark out real thin.  The bark ended up being rather thick in spots.  This might be a problem for people that want more pretzel than bark, but my husband was pretty excited about it.  

Another way to use up pretzels is Pretzel Turtles:  line a cookie sheet with tin foil, spread out pretzels, place an unwrapped Rolo candy on each pretzel, bake at 250 degrees for 2-3 minutes (just til the candy is soft), then remove from the oven and press a pecan half onto each candy.  They look just like little turtles, especially if you use the round pretzels!  But I like to use the waffle shaped pretzels - better surface area coverage.

Since Jake doesn't like caramel that much, we tried miniature Reese's peanut butter cups this year and replaced the pecan halves with holiday M&M's.  THIS WAS NOT ENTIRELY SUCCESSFUL.  The PB cups were MUCH more expensive - you don't get nearly as many for the money - and a bit too large for the pretzels.  And the chocolate melts way too much but the peanut butter doesn't get soft at all really.  They looked really messy too. Kind of like melted ice cream sundaes.  But they tasted pretty good.  Just way too expensive for the payoff.

Do you have any tedious holiday recipes that others just love?  Do you give into the pressure to please them?  Or have you found a great shortcut instead?

Happy Holidays, all!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Here's to New Traditions!

My family has some pretty serious holiday food traditions.  I've mentioned that before.  And the hubs has a fairly strict view of Thanksgiving fare.  So serious that I finally had to nail down what exactly is essential to him, since it's apparently his favorite meal AND he takes it so seriously.  The result?  Turkey, mashed potatoes & gravy, Stovetop stuffing (NOT homemade) and pumpkin pie with whipped topping.  Though now that he's gluten-free, he does enjoy pumpkin pie bars, which are basically pumpkin pie without the crust.  And evidently, he's never been a big crust fan anyway.

This year, we all gathered at my brother's home for a family Thanksgiving affair.  Beautiful weather, an abundance of food, a brand spanking new baby and a great-grandmother rounded out the day.  It was exactly what Thanksgiving is about.  

And to top it off, those of us that are not of the crazy persuasion (i.e. those of us that love coconut with an everlasting love) enjoyed my brother's perfectly crafted homemade Coconut Meringue Pie.  He made one last year, but that was when he lived far, far away in a land called Illinois.  Now he's able to grace us with his presence.  And he's perfected the crafting of a fine meringue, something yours truly has not yet attempted.  But not only that.  He used an actual coconut for his Coconut Meringue Pie.  You know, one of those brown hairy things that look like a rock?  Yep, that.  And apparently he broke a knife in the process.  

I guess this pie called for unsweetened coconut flakes in the pie filling.  And after looking at a couple stores and not finding unsweetened coconut flakes, my brother decided he'd give the real deal a go.  Me, I'd just grab a bag of the sweetened stuff & call it good, knowing that it's PIE afterall.  But I'm not a glutton for punishment.  Just pie.

It was great, though.  And totally worth the effort of drilling a hole in the coconut, draining the milk, peeling the coconut, putting it in the food processor, and then actually making the PIE.  (His super awesome wife made a homemade crust for him too.  SERIOUSLY, people!  They need a show of their own.)

Since this is the second year Matt's made this pie for Thanksgiving, I officially declare it a tradition.  You're welcome, Smith family.  You're welcome.  (Make a note, Matt!)

After the Smith family affair, we stopped by my husband's relatives to say hello & goodbye.  And in the meantime, we learned that Jake's aunt Marti (she's been noted highly on this here blog before) had a bag of unsweetened coconut flakes in her pantry that she'd apparently procured at the Supersaver store just down the street.  My brother was super happy to learn of this the next day.

We extended our Thanksgiving celebrations to the following day, not with crazy shopping but with sushi.  As it should be.  Jake & I joined a couple of friends, my two younger brothers, their wives, and one sister-in-law's parents and brother at Hiro, our fave sushi joint for happy hour sushi on Friday night at 10pm.  LOTS of sushi was had by all.  And we declared the newest family holiday tradition to be Black Friday Sushi.  So you'll know where to find us next year.  Our table is open to all!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Lemon VS. Lime

The debate has been raging in the Christian household for some time now.  ("Raging" *might* be overstating it a bit for effect. Might.)  I think it started when my helpful younger brother stated his preference for lime juice over lemon juice in cooking.  And my ever faithful husband hopped on that bandwagon with glee.

I don't mind lime juice.  I simply prefer the lemon variety.  It's slightly less tart & pungent.  More soothing and discreet.  There - with a kick - but not a kick AND a punch.  Know-what-I-mean?

Not to mention that lime juice is infinitely more expensive than lemon.  I can find multiple generic varieties of lemon juice on the market.  Not so much with lime.  And for MORE money, I can be the proud owner of a SMALLER bottle of lime juice.  What a deal!

My favorite Skinny Taste Black Bean Corn Salad calls for fresh lime juice.  Newsflash: I prefer it with lemon juice.  And the kind out of the bottle in my fridge works just fine, thanks.  (I know, this pretty much knocks me out of the "Foodie of the Year" award running, but I can deal with it, so join me, won't you?)  

We've been eating lots of fish lately & a preferred method of preparation is to drizzle the fish with olive oil & lime juice, sprinkle with some salt & pepper (and maybe some garlic salt or powder) and bake it at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.  Top it with chopped avocado (sprinkled with a bit of garlic salt) after baking for added panache.  I would be more than happy to substitute lemon juice for the lime juice, but I think I might be met with a revolt.   

What's the verdict in your household: lemon or lime?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Best Cheese Curd in Wisconsin

Growing up we had white cheddar cheese curds from the Kalona, Iowa, cheese factory in Amish country.  Our parents taught us that the freshest cheese curds squeak when you bite into them.  And the field trips to the cheese factory in grade school taught me that cheese making is kinda gross to look at but definitely delicious.  Mark Chitwood’s recent blog post reminded me of my innate love of cheese curds.

While in WI this fall I went to the Vernon County Fair. This fair has been going strong for 150 years. Though, this was my first time.

I love county fairs. The people are amazing. There are barn animals everywhere. Fried food. Need I say more.

The Westby Dairy is by far my favorite place to buy cheese curd in the world. Every time I am in SW Wisconsin I go to this dairy.

Well they had the curd mobile at the fair. I kid you not - there was always a line. Always. All they have there is Curd or Fried Curd and shakes. YUM YUM. If you love cheese - and I know you do - find your way to Westby, WI and go the this dairy. You cannot miss it - right on the main drag.

(Reposted with permission.  To learn more about great photography, visit Mark’s blog regularly:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Starbucks' Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate

The days are turning cooler on a more regular basis.  This leads me to crave a hot drink in my hand.  A yummy, sweet, flavorful drink.

So my drink of choice lately has definitely been the new Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate at Starbucks.  I'm not a huge fan of coffee.  I like it moderately, but a lot of times I find it much too bitter for my tastes.  Thus, hot chocolate.

The first time I ordered this particular beverage, I didn't notice much - if any - of a difference with the "Salted Caramel".   But I think if you drink it with the lid on, I find that you miss out on the specialness of the salt.  (And it takes too long for the drink to cool down enough for me to actually drink it!)  So since I've been removing the lid, it's been much more noticeable.  The "salted" part anyway.  I'm still not sure the "caramel" part is strong enough.

I'm intrigued with the balance of sweet to savory in my diet.  Just the right amount of salt brings out the full flavor of the chocolate, something I've known about in cooking for some time.  (Hello, Wendy's fries dipped in a frosty!!)  It's this kind of "science" of food that I find most interesting of late.  How cooking & baking are really just chemistry, but a kind that I enjoy much more than anything I worked on in a high school lab!

I am trying to cut down on my sugar/caloric intake most days.  So this particular drink is a special treat!  Though I do order it "nonfat, no whip", which helps a bit.  And I don't miss those extra calories one bit.  The froth on top is just as yummy without the added "whip".

Have you tried the new Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate or Mochas at Starbucks?  What's your favorite new food combo?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Homemade Yogurt

A fabulous fellow blogger recently posted about making homemade yogurt and said I could repost for y'all here.  I'm going to try it myself very soon.  I promise.  I hope.  Enjoy!!

So first of all, this was not my idea.  I didn't even know it was possible to make yogurt at home without a yogurt maker (which would make enough to last about one DAY over here), or at least a lot of jars, temperature checks, storage space, blah blah blah.  I had looked into it, and thought it was way too time consuming and tedious for me to mess with (for instance, a very long tutorial on this site here).  Then, my friend Robyn, sent me this link:  here.  Robyn is a lot smarter than me, and a lot more kitchen savvy.  Plus, she likes to make stuff from scratch and she's thrifty.  See why I like her?  All my good recipes started from her, somewhere along the line! 

Anyway!  I finally sucked it up and tried it, and it worked.  Glory, Glory, Halleluiah!  She and I were both skeptical, because it was that easy.  So, I sucked it up again, and read thru the long, boring, tedious instructions on the first site.  Just to make myself feel better, I thought I'd better check temps and make sure I wasn't going to kill us all with rotten homemade dairy products.  Turns out, to start you only need to remember a few things, and once you've got a system, you won't have to check temps ever again. 

I have a big crock pot, I don't know what size.  I'm guessing it's between 6-8qts.  I should go fill it up right now and check, but I'm too lazy.  Laziness is what got me to this recipe in the first place, so think whatever you want about that!  Anyway, this is what I use.
  • Big crock-pot, milk, starter yogurt.  

This is the yogurt I used for my starter.  This 6oz of yogurt costs $1 and contains 6 different strains of bacteria.  I thought, if I'm going to make my own, I may as well make some really good yogurt, right?  Once you've got your batches going, you don't have to buy another starter, you save back some of your own, and use that.  For every 8 cups of milk you use, you'll need 1/2 cup yogurt (4oz, for all of you who are math-challenged like me).

  • Start by pouring 8 cups of milk into the crock-pot, set it on LOW, and leave it for 2.5 hours.  I discovered that mine cooks hotter than some, maybe because it's bigger?  Your goal is to get the milk to 185*.  I caught mine at 189* after 2 hours, so I wrote that down, and will never check the temp again for that step.
  • Then, turn off (or unplug, if the knob fell off six years ago) and leave it for another 2.5 to 3 hours.  Again, you will just have to check temps and see how long it takes...your goal is to get the milk back down to around 110*.  Some people put it in the fridge to make it go faster, take the crock out of the warmer, put it outside...whatever.  I'm lazy!  So, I just unplugged mine, and left it sitting on the counter, and it took about 2.5 hours.  This is where other recipes get crazy with pouring into individual jars, setting up warm baths, packing hot water in coolers...too much work for me. 
  • Once you're at about 110* remove about 1/2 cup warm milk and mix with your 1/2 cup starter yogurt.  I say mix, but I actually kind of fold gently Then, pour the starter + milk back into the crock.  
  • Wrap the crock-pot (which now contains milk + starter, at about 110*) in heavy towels, and let it sit.  This is when the starter is going to make yogurt out of all that warm milk, and your goal is to keep everything warm while it's doing it's thing.  Since we like our house pretty cool, I decided to warm up my oven to 200*, then turned it off, then shoved that whole mess into the oven and shut it.  I figure it keeps the heat in a little better, plus it's out of the way.  Then I unplug my oven so I don't forget it's in there :) 

That. Is. It.  You can let it sit anywhere between 4 and 24 hours.  I've been letting mine go between 6 and 8 hours, and think the consistency and sweetness are great.  Plus, since I'm not checking the temp or keeping it heated, I figure 6-8 hours is probably the max I should go.  However, this last batch went closer to 13 hours, because I forgot about it...and it was fine.  It did have more whey on the top, which is OK.  There are all kinds of sites with info about the length of time you should let it this one, if you care and aren't as lazy as I am :)

I store mine in quart containers, in the fridge.  We go through it so fast, I can't imagine it would do me any good to freeze it, but you can freeze yogurt! 

THICK!  And, cheap.  Holy thrifty goodness.  I owe Robyn $$ for getting me obsessed started.  With a $3 gallon of milk, you can make 6oz of that expensive yogurt for $0.15.  For real?  Let me check my math again... YES.  FIFTEEN CENTS vs. $1?  I am in.  Just don't forget to save some back to use as a starter for your next batch, otherwise you'll have to add another dollar... :) 

And yes, I'll probably stand a utensil up in the yogurt every time I make it, just because I'm so amazed that it's so thick and it worked!  Every time I open that container I feel like I'm cheating the system.  Take that, suckas!  We've been adding pureed fruit or homemade jam to ours, and making parfaits.  Anything tastes better when you call it a parfait! 

If you want to copy and paste, here's the quick version:
Heat 8 cups milk to 185* in crock-pot (approx. 2.5 hours)
Turn off and cool milk to around 110*
mix 1/2 cup starter yogurt with 1/2 cup warm milk-then add back into crock-pot
Cover, wrap, and let sit 4-24 hours

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Out of Gas

For my faithful readers and staunch supporters (yes, Judy - you!!):

I have had a hard time with the idea of blogging lately.  I've simply run out of ideas, motivation, etc.  I'm not entirely sure why, but it probably stems from the fact that I haven't really been "cooking" much lately.  I do make meals.  But they rarely start with much of a recipe.  They're mostly just "fish" or "chicken" with veggies or rice.  And I rotate the fish and/or chicken.  Sometimes I even throw in some pork or a different kind of fish.  Wild, I know!

So I'll try to work up some blogging steam and in the meantime, I'm just enjoying this perfect place that food has in my life: fuel to keep me going (tasty, tasty fuel) but not something that overwhelms my every waking thought.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Aunt Marti's Tailgate Time

Recently Jake’s aunt added me to an email list she has for sending out recipes on a regular basis.  Hallelujah!! What a fabulous idea, right?!  The first email was all about some great tailgating recipes she has, so I thought I’d share it with you all since this is the perfect time to start gearing up for just such an occasion.  I even have a friend who told me recently that his wife is about to be quite lonely due to the approaching football season schedule – apparently for four months he will be preoccupied with the sport.  Here’s to feeding him & trying to keep him happy!

Hello {friends}........time to start again with the recipes of the week.....since summer is nearing to a close and FOOTBALL is upon us I thought for the next few weeks I would share some great grill and tailgate are 2 recipes that are cheap and sure to please.......hope you ENJOY the recipes........


1 dozen brats
Enough beer of your choice to cover......lager is good
1 large sweet onion, sliced
1/2 stick of REAL butter

Put the brats in a dutch oven with the onions and butter, cover the brats with beer and bring to a boil reduce to simmer and simmer till the brats are cooked.  Remove the brats from pan and set aside the beer mixture.  Grill the brats till golden brown and then return to the beer mixture on warm till ready to serve.  Serve on your best buns with sauerkraut, onions, green peppers and your choice of condiment..........can't beat them.........


Soak wooden skewers in water about 20 minutes.

2 pounds of good quality kielbasa or other smoked sausage.... cut into bite-sized chunks
red onion or green pepper
3/4 cup of ketchup
3/4 cup spicy brown mustard
1 TB. hot sauce

Preheat Grill to med.....Thread the sausage onto the skewers using a chunk of onion or green pepper to separate them.  Grill till slightly crisp about 3-4 minutes on each side.....mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl and serve the sausage with.

I know – Jake has the best aunt ever, right?!  We are more than lucky to sit at her table from time to time.  I plan to pass on many of her other fantastic tips, so be vigilant, friends!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My New Best Cooking Ally

For the past few months, I’ve come to a new appreciation for Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix.  It is one of the few gluten-free, low fat / cholesterol cooking aids I was already familiar with, was cheap enough to stockpile, and could find lots of uses for.  Lately I’ve come to utilize it quite a bit.  It finds it’s way into several recipes, sometimes as a substitute for something else, sometimes as a brand new experiment. 

I have a deep & abiding love for shortcuts in cooking.  I don’t love to make stuff from scratch, simply because I’m lazy & it takes lots and lots of time, preparation and ingredients that aren’t always easy to just keep on hand.  Something like Onion Soup Mix comes in very, very handy then.  I can stockpile it in my pantry & it keeps for a very long time.  Also, it’s pretty cheap as far as gluten-free products go.  (Only the Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix is gluten free, not their other soup mix options, FYI.)

Here are a few easy recipes that I’ve prepared quite a bit lately using my new food pal:

Chicken, Onion & Potato Bake
2-4 skinless boneless chicken breasts
4 large red potatoes, cut into bitesize chunks
1 medium onion
1 pkg Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix
3 T water

Mix everything in a large Ziploc bag and shake to coat.  Spread in a shallow baking pan (I use my round stoneware baker).  Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through.

Onion Chicken
2-4 skinless boneless chicken breasts
1/3 C Miracle Whip (we use Light)
1 pkg Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix

Mix Miracle Whip & soup mix.  Spread onto chicken breasts and top with breadcrumbs, if desired.  Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until chicken juices run clear.
*I’ve been substituting Rice Chex crumbs for breadcrumbs and love the crunch.  Jake is not a fan, so we just leave them off for him, which he likes fine.

Onion Roasted Potatoes
1 pkg Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix   
¼ C olive or canola oil
2 lbs potatoes, washed & cubed (red potatoes work the best)

In a large bowl, add all ingredients and toss until potatoes are evenly coated.  Spread potatoes in a shallow baking pan.  Bake for 40 minutes at 450 degrees or until tender and golden brown, stirring once midway through. 

Quick Onion Rice Pilaf
1 ½ C Minute Rice
1 ½ C chicken broth
1 pkg Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix

Mix all ingredients together in a 2 quart microwave safe dish.  Microwave on high for 5 minutes.  Stir and let rest for 1-2 minutes.  (This can be made with regular long grain rice: 1 C rice, 2 C chicken broth, 1 pkg soup mix.  Cook as regular white rice.)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Perfect Saturday Morning

A few Saturdays this summer have been spent just the way I like them:  meet up with my friend Erin to head to the farmer's market and snag a cinnamon roll at Bliss Bakery afterward.  I haven't gotten to experience this routine nearly as much as I'd have liked to.  I can't believe it is already mid August!!  

But Erin & I have both been anxiously awaiting the farmer's market's fruit season and it is upon us FINALLY.  She and I have each gotten some good finds in the meantime, though we've both been extremely busy this summer so our farmer's market runs have been sparse to say the least.  Anyway, now we're finally coming together again and I'm certain we're going to find an abundance of the fruit of our labors.  (Get the fruit pun?!) 

This is our routine: we find a parking space, if there is one to be had - avoiding the pay garage if at all possible, though it's not always possible.  Then we start at the end of the market near 10th & Jackson and work our way through, going counter clockwise.  We check out all the booths before we make a purchase.  We like to know what each other is looking for so we can both be scouting the best product for the best price.  After we've made the circuit, we go back to the booths that we've selected as our top contenders.  

My favorite farmer's market finds:  cucumbers, tomatoes (if I can't get them through family & friends, which is indeed the case this year due to our weird, tomato-unfriendly weather patterns), zucchini (same exception applies), summer squash, melons - especially black diamond - and pork burgers.  Yep, pork burgers.  They are cheap & delicious.  And I grew up on them.  (Jake's not as big a fan, though I've turned several friends and their families onto them as well.)  

After we've made all the purchases we can stand or spent all our cash, we head over to Bliss Bakery on 11th & Jones, one block south of the market area.  We purchase our enormous cinnamon rolls, sometimes splitting one due to the massive proportions.  Erin usually takes one home to her hubby too, though my hubby's gluten free diet doesn't allow them and I don't want to tempt him.  Those rolls would definitely send him over the edge.

Today I'm making an exception to that rule.  Today our husbands and a few extended family members (my brother's wedding was yesterday - CONGRATS TO ALEX & KRISTINA SMITH!!! - so we have extra family still in town who are also lovers of Bliss) are joining us.  So I'm allowing him at least one of the gooey, delicious rolls to enjoy & savor.  It might be his last one for awhile.

What's your perfect Saturday morning activity?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fish Faves

We've been eating a lot of fish lately.  We both love seafood (refer to my first posts!!).  And fish fits well with Jake's (and thus, my) new diet restrictions.  Mostly I've been buying tilapia and salmon fillets, prepackaged in frozen, single serve portions.  At Aldi I can buy a bag of about 6 fillets of either tilapia, flounder or salmon for $5-6.  I tried the flounder and Jake thought it was fine, but I wasn't a big fan.  

My favorite way to cook the fish is to bake it in my round stoneware baker (a pan with sides) at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.  I usually season it with salt & pepper, maybe some olive oil and lime juice or some dijon mustard and honey.  If I use the olive oil & lime juice, we love to cut up avocado to top it with after it's done baking.  This is a fast, delicious, nutritious protein and goes well with rice pilaf and a veggie.  Most often we pair it with two kinds of veggies.  Usually this makes a really colorful plate, which I really enjoy.

Do you like fish?  How do you like to prepare it?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Cupcake Wars: Bliss Bakery

Two nights ago, we met several of our pals downtown at Bliss Bakery / Aroma’s Coffeehouse to watch Autumn (owner, proprietor & all around amazing person) & Kacie (baker extradonnaire) compete on Cupcake Wars, a reality program on the Food Network. 

It was a fun-filled, armpit-to-armpit crowd downtown.  (Well, maybe not THAT crowded, but pretty close.)  Several large TVs and a huge screen with projector aided us all in watching our favorite hometown bakers work their magic. 

Having never watched the show before, I didn’t really know what to expect, other than from some snippets I’d heard here & there.  So I knew Miss USA was going to be a guest judge and that the contest was geared in that general direction.  Apparently our reigning Miss USA is from Middle Eastern descent, so the first round was a challenge to make a cupcake that included at least 3 of a variety of ingredients hailing from that region:  honey, cloves, orange, pistachios, rosewater, etc.  (Let’s be honest – I wasn’t intent on memorizing all those ingredients.  I was focused on more important matters, like how beautiful my two gals looked!)  The four challengers and their assistants took off, having a limited amount of time to create a fabulous cupcake.

Autumn & Kacie owned that challenge!  Their cupcake was a pistachio cupcake with a honey cream cheese frosting and topped with sugared orange zest and a sliver of pistachio brittle.  Some of the others succeeded as well, though I’d have to say Autumn’s was on top.  One of the contestants was eliminated, and it wasn’t Autumn!

2nd Round:  create 3 cupcakes with the “classic Americana” or “pageant” theme.  Autumn & Kacie came up with a lemonade cupcake filled with lemon curd & topped with a super cute straw, a chocolate beer cupcake topped with salted peanut butter frosting and caramel corn reminiscent of American’s favorite pastime (baseball, for those of you who are sports-challenged like myself), and an apple pie cupcake topped with a dried apple slice and a cheddar cheese crisp to represent how it is served in the south (the cheese creates a yummy chewiness that’s perfection!). 

Unfortunately, our girls didn’t pass the 2nd round.  (There are 3 rounds.)  Autumn and Kacie exhibited amazing grace under pressure, whereas I’m sure I would have been alternately sweating, swearing and crying!  Watching the show with a crowd of supporters was definitely the way to go – lots of cheering and booing, in all the appropriate places. 

They sold boxes of the 4 cupcakes they made on the show for $13 after the viewing, which was a perfect treat for those of us who had watched.  The cupcakes were all amazing, but my favorite was definitely the pistachio one from the first round.  I hope they make that a regular menu item! 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sugar Free Summer Time Goodness

Remember that last post I wrote about how I’m supposed to give up snacks if I want to lose weight?  Well, I DO want to lose weight.  So, with the help of my sugar-free strawberry shortcake gum and sugar free popsicles, I’m fighting the good fight against my sweet tooth.  Most days.

It’s really the sugar free popsicles that do the trick.  They are cold, sweet nectar on hot summer days.  I get the Popsicle brand with the grape, cherry & orange flavors.  They are 15 calories each and I can suck down 2 a day with no worries or cares. 

I know, you’re thinking, “Hasn’t this chick written about these popsicles before?!”  And yes.  Yes, I have.  And I will probably do so again.  Because they are just that good. 

And yes.  I did just write in the last post that I don’t like “diet” versions of things, which usually contain some sort of artificial sweetener.  And yes, these popsicles do contain an artificial sweetener.  But I don’t taste it AT ALL! 

So go out & grab yourself a box and thank me later.  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sweet Tea Goodness

I gave up soda.  I know, I know – I’m the Dr. Pepper queen.  But I had a little convo with my doc a few weeks ago and he suggested that if I was serious about losing weight (something he didn’t seem to think I really needed – I LOVE him!!!  But seriously, I do need to lose some; I’m not sure what he was seeing but I’ll be wearing that outfit every other day til I DIE – he also said he thought I had nice hair & that I looked young.  Best. Doctor. EVER) I needed to exercise regularly and cut out soda, snacks, etc.  Portion control is a biggie as well.  And walking my dog doesn’t count as “exercise”.  Apparently I need to get on that honking machine we keep in our basement that’s called an elliptical and do some intervals for 30-45 minutes 3 to 5 times a week.  Yes, sir!

So yeah.  I’ve done some of that, some of the time.  But the thing I have really done is give up soda.  I haven’t touched it for almost 4 weeks.  And I haven’t missed it too much either.  (We had pizza and that was hard.  Because pizza & soda GO together.  I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten pizza without soda in my entire life.  So I made Jake stop & get me a sweet tea, at least.  Because I thought I would puke up the pizza if I had to wash it down with water.  Gross!)  I went cold turkey, just like Jake did this winter.  He feels like if he has even one, he’ll fall off the wagon.  I decided I’m probably the same way.  So we have the occasional Koolaid (though even that has decreased dramatically) and Crystal Light (for him, not so much for me). 

But sweet tea.  Oh, sweet tea goodness!  I almost bought a gallon of it at the store, but then decided that I was probably missing the point of giving up soda if I just replaced it with sweet tea.  So I have sweet tea every now & then, but not as regularly as I was indulging in soda.  My body and my pocketbook thank me.  (Work days were especially hard for me with soda.  Almost as soon as I would sit down at my desk, I would start craving that Dr. Pepper sweetness.  Thankfully, it’s really not been a problem!  This last week I started missing soda more, though.)

Let me rank my fave sweet teas for you:

  1. Famous Dave’s – sweet but not too sweet.  Light & refreshing.  Keep ‘em coming!
  2. Lipton’s PureLeaf sweetened iced tea – sweeter than Dave’s but still not too sweet.  Avoid the “extra sweet” version, though!  (The one I like comes in a glass bottle with a metal lid and has a blue band around the label, pictured below.  I think the glass bottle & metal lid makes it colder & thus, taste better.)
  3. McDonald’s – somewhat too sweet and they always overload the ice, even when I order it with “light ice”, something they have a key for but apparently don’t pay any attention to.  And I think their tea is maybe too strong or bitter sometimes.  But how can you beat $1 large sweet teas in the hot, hot summer?!  (Someone suggested I order it “half cut” –something else they actually have a button for: half sweet / half unsweetened - to cut the sweetness & I tried it.  It was much better but they don’t really mix it well so you end up with really sweet on the bottom & not at all sweet at the top.  Shaking it up yourself helps but if they’ve loaded it with ice, it doesn’t work all that well.)

I’m not a huge fan of flavored sweet teas.  And I’ve never liked “diet” drinks of any kind, though there are some I can stand more than others.  Regular tea is fine, but sweet tea is even better.

Do you like sweet tea?  If so, what’s your favorite?  Have you ever made it yourself?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

One Wild Girls Night Out (but not for the reason you may think) / Ingredient restaurant review

A couple weeks ago one of our friends came into town to visit.  She and her husband were a part of our small group many moons ago.  Back when our small group was a different small group than the current one.  So a couple of us from that group went out to meet said friend (Sarah) for dinner, along with one of Sarah’s old co-workers, who we’d met before as well.  Ingredient restaurant in midtown was chosen for our dining pleasure for a variety of reasons.  First, because this was during the College World Series and far away enough from downtown to avoid the traffic onslaught but still have a fun, urban vibe.  (And free parking!)  Second, because it is decently priced compared to some of the other options in midtown.  And we’d all heard good things about it but never actually gone ourselves. 

Since leaving our small group, Sarah has moved a couple times (her man works for Kiewit, which moves their people around a TON) and had a baby.  Levi is now a year and a half old and busy, busy. Since he'd be joining us, that was a factor as well.

Never having been to Ingredient before, I was unaware that it wasn’t a regular “wait staff” restaurant.  Instead, it’s more like Panera Bread, where you read the menu on the wall, follow the line to order, place your order and sit down with a corresponding number flag to your order number.  (They actually expressly tell you on their signage not to sit down before ordering.  We disobeyed, waiting for everyone to arrive before placing our orders.  But it wasn’t busy enough to cause a ruckus.)  That was a nice surprise, actually.  And with a busy little guy to entertain, it was nice that the setting was a bit more casual. 

Ordering was hard.  They have a LARGE menu, with soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, and pizzas.  And everything sounded really good.  I finally settled on a pizza.  The Wild Mushroom Pizza: wild mushrooms, fresh herbs, caramelized onions, alfredo sauce and brie cheese.  It was rich and delicious, though I decided I’m not a huge fan of brie.  It was good that there wasn’t much of that on the pizza. 

Prior to our rendezvous, it had been recommended to us that the One Pacific Place location (where California Pizza Kitchen vacated) was superior to the midtown location in terms of service.  Having never been to either, I didn’t really think it would matter much to me.  And it didn’t.  I wouldn’t say the service was great or bad, just adequate.  The clientele was interesting, though.  Levi kept running around, since he’d been cooped up in a car for 5+ hours that day.  And one man in particular felt a bit creepy to those of us watching.  He seemed all too keen on Levi, talking baby talk to him and waving him over regularly.  We kept a good eye on Levi and all was fine.

And then.  We’d started to notice the dark clouds headed our way from the west.  And one friend decided she might start to head home.  There’d been a brief discussion about the impending thunderstorm warnings earlier in the day, but we dismissed them when the forecasters didn’t seem to be too concerned.  But just as she was starting to get ready to leave, a friend of hers from further out west texted about the storm heading our way.  This friend was already in a shelter situation with her fellow apartment complex dwellers.  And to top it off, the restaurant manager (a young woman about 24 maybe?) came out & made the announcement that a storm was coming and we needed to seek shelter either in their cooler or in the gym across the street.  As we started to head to the gym, she announced that it was too late (literally about 30 seconds after her first announcement) and that we needed to proceed to their cooler.  I made the comment to my group that the “cooler” was actually a freezer and started to put my sweater on.  Others from my group weren’t sure my statement was accurate, until we got to the cooler. 

As we filed in – standing shoulder to shoulder, single file, pushing all the way to the back with meat & other food stacked ceiling on high both sides – our group somehow got a bit separated and other people were intermingled with us.  Apparently an older woman toward the back had a small radio and we were all anxious to hear what storm accounts it held.  Unfortunately, a cooler in the middle of a restaurant during a storm doesn’t get great reception.  Neither do cell phones.  Just an FYI.  'Cuz I'm helpful like that.

The manager announced that if people were more comfortable heading to their cars in the parking garage, they could do so.  Or a room somewhere in the parking garage.  Since one of us – not me – was parked in the attached garage, we decided we’d rather make a break for that than be crowded in the cooler armpit to armpit with strangers for any longer.  The manager wasn’t too keen on us going and told us that if we wanted back in, to just bang on the back door (the door we were exiting) really hard and they’d open up for us.

We got to the car in the garage & decided to move it a bit farther into the interior.  The winds were pretty strong and the sky was quite dark.  And it was raining pretty heavily.  We turned on the car radio and engaged in quite a bit of texting with our storm watcher loved ones.  We sat there for awhile, just reveling in the moment and the experience we’d all just had.  Finally, we all decided we were in the clear.  We ran through the rain to our various cars and headed home. 

I forgot my leftover pizza box on the table in the restaurant. Which was disappointing, but not the end of the world.  I liked the pizza fine, but I'm not sure I'd order it again.  It was so rich that it was on the verge of being too rich.

I will definitely try Ingredient again.  They have fresh food and decent prices.  I am cheap these days, so not having to tip is always a bonus.  They also offer many gluten-free options on their menu, which is a rarity.  Oh, and my baker friend makes their gluten-free sweets.  I have to support that!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Texas Roadhouse: Not Jake’s Kind of Joint

“Texas Roadhouse's hand-cut steaks, fresh-baked bread, fall-off-the-bone ribs, and made-from-scratch sides will keep you smiling. With ice cold beer and legendary margaritas — what more could you ask for?”

I’ll tell you what: the ability to call ahead as advertised and actually be seated in a timely manner without a whole lot of run-around. 

We gathered at Texas Roadhouse for my nephew’s 11th birthday.  His choice, due to the famed ride on a saddle & wearing of a “hat” (a headband with two braids coming off it – for a BOY?!) while being “serenaded” by the surrounding wait staff and other customers.  An 11-year-old’s dream.

But standing around in elbow-room-only waiting areas for half an hour was not anyone's dream.  The fact that my sister-in-law called ahead for her party of 10, but was told only upon arrival that they wouldn’t seat the party until everyone had arrived was not a dream.  The fact that we have a “better late than never” family mentality about punctuality didn’t help.  (I was about 5 minutes late.  My brother was more like 20 minutes late.  My husband strolled in a half hour past, but that was expected due to a prior engagement.  That was actually earlier than I’d anticipated his arrival.)

Finally my sister-in-law had enough of the waiting around endlessly and inquired about the table again.  She didn’t even have to lie about the whole party having arrived - since they didn’t ask - and we were escorted to our table. 

I suppose the one small enchantment to waiting around forever is that the Roadhouse provides you with ample peanuts for your munching consumption.  And you can just throw the shells on the floor.  Which seems to be quite a walking hazard to me – especially for the multitudes of older folks that seemed to be frequenting the joint – but I’m no Department of Sanitation judge. 

Thankfully the servers bring rolls with them as they guide you to your table, so there is no waiting around for bread.  And normally I wouldn’t give two rips about rolls, but these rolls are indeed special.  Soft, chewy & sweet, they are just about the best bread item around.  Not to mention the cinnamon butter that accompanies them.  (Is that melted butter on top of the roll?  Yes.  Does that mean I shouldn’t spread more butter – mixed with delicious cinnamon – on top of the already buttered roll?  NO.)  And our table was doused with baskets of rolls.  Score one for the Roadhouse.

Since one Texas Roadhouse location is not too far down the road from our church (StoneBridge Christian Church – shameless plug!), they often drop off samples of rolls on Sunday mornings, sweetly enticing church goers to their eatery.  Smart, I say!  (It should be noted that the particular location we visited for this birthday bash was the Shadowlake franchise, though.)

When we finally got around to ordering our food, our waitress was abrupt but helpful and available.  That’s pretty much all I ask.  Friendly is nice, but professional works!

I ordered a 6 oz. sirloin ($9.95), cooked medium-well according to their menu’s directions (some pink); I deem this a normal “medium” but it arrived to my specifications so I was happy.  It was small, but probably the perfect portion for my size.  And it was delicious.

Along with the main course came a side salad (decent – chopped hard-boiled eggs was a nice surprise) and loaded sweet potato.  Heaven.  I love this treat.  Like a little pile of Thanksgiving right there on my plate.  See the picture below & tell me if your mouth doesn’t start watering?!  (Note that my potato wasn’t dripping with as much of whatever that is, but it was still darn good and topped with toasted marshmallows.  Ignore the rest of that dish; I just needed a good shot of the sweet potato.)
Jake ordered boneless pork chops, which turned out to be somewhat dry but paired with the accompanying peppercorn sauce were quite edible.  But the best thing by far on his plate was his side order of sautéed mushrooms.  I will never order a side salad again!  (The picture indicates how small a serving you receive, but they were piled fairly high in that small dish and the taste outweighs the size.  I think you can even see the carmelized garlic edges.  Mmm…)

When most of us had finished our food and were sitting around chatting and waiting for the birthday bash to begin, my husband leaned over to me and whispered, “I don’t think this is my kind of place.”  It was at that moment that I noticed the loud country music (and not the classic kind he’s amenable to) and the wait staff line dancing around the corner.  Not his kind of place indeed.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I Need a Food Processor

I’ve never desired a food processor.  I’ve always thought of them as very optional.  I didn’t want another piece of kitchen equipment I just stored but rarely, if ever, used.  I didn’t even get a blender until after about 7 years of marriage.  And that was just because I desired to make my own homemade Orange Julius beverages.  (Hats off to Stacy Hatten for that recipe!  Not quite like the real thing but wonderful when we lived in Cincinnati and the nearest Orange Julius was HOURS away.)

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking it might be time to procure one.  A food processor, that is.  If you read my last posts, you know that I’ve been using my blender in place of a food processor for some recipes.  And it’s been a bit hard on my blender, which got more use recently from our live-in, soon-to-be missionary housemate for a few months.  (She was on some smoothie diet.)  We drug it up from downstairs for her, dusted it off and made a place for it on the counter.  So I finally had no excuses and set about making some of the recipes I’d stalled on. 

But using a blender in place of a food processor is tricky business.  And at times the blender has smelled pretty hot, like in an-about-to-catch-on-fire kind of way.  (Thank you, frozen banana ‘ice cream’!)  I don’t blame it. 

When I used it to make the fudgy snow balls, it was really difficult to get the batter out of the blender in order to roll it into balls.  Sticky stuff and all stuck around the blade.  And I still had to mix it up a bit afterward. 

So, I’m in the market for a small food processor.  I’m thinking something that’s about 3 cups, no larger.  I don’t want a huge contraption I have to store.  And the 1.5 cup mini seems a little on the small side for some projects.  I saw an Oster brand version at Walmart for about $20 for the 3 cup size that seems like a good option.  Might be a good addition to my gift wish list for birthday or Christmas, though I might not be able to wait that long.  Fresh salsa is calling my name.

Do you have a food processor?  If so, do you use it?  What size/brand is it?