Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Vacation...Hurrah!

As of tomorrow, I’m officially on vacation. I’m quite excited about that. It’s nice to have time away from the office.

This week leading up to my vacation hasn’t been quite as festive as I’d have liked due to the impairment of my tastebuds and ability to smell the gingerbread/pepperminty scents of the season. However, I’m recovering my senses slowly and defeating this pesky cold.

On the plus side, I still have been able to get all my festive activities completed. I did finally build the gingerbread house, believe it or not. It actually wasn’t nearly as hard as I remember though actually a lot messier. It turns out that it’s all to do with the consistency of the icing. All these years, I’ve been making it too runny. You’d have think I’d have figured it out before this but, finally, I realized if I make the icing very thick, it sticks better and dries faster. Granted, this epiphany occurred after almost drowning in a cloud of powdered sugar. Note to readers: If you’re going to use a bowl that’s too small for all of the powdered sugar, don’t accidentally put the hand mixer on high when you first start mixing the sugar with the water. This induces a rather large cloud that is hazardous to ones breathing apparatus.

Once I got my house standing, it was a piece of cake to decorate it (pun intended). My only disappointment was that the kit only had three types of candy to decorate the house and the picture on the box showed a lot more. I tried to get creative but at some point, I had to concede, when you stick candy on a prefabricated gingerbread house, it still sort of looks like you stuck candy on the gingerbread house. In my mind, I always envision one of those beautiful, immaculate Hansel and Gretel type houses with the perfectly placed icicles, candy cane pathways and everything else you see in catalogues and magazines. In reality, it’s a slightly splotchy, drippy gingerbread house with gumdrops stuck on it. I did manage to pipe a design on the roof but it dripped a little and instead of having a perfectly symmetrical artistically swirled roof that matched on both sides, I had a bit of a Jackson Pollock thing going on.

Nevertheless, the gingerbread house stands. I was triumphant. Next year, I shall try not to suffer from Gingerbread House Amnesia and will not invest in kit. We’ll see if I remember that when I’m feeling the need to dive into Christmas.

I also got all my gifts wrapped. I managed to bake cookies although next year, I’m using a cookie press. I wanted to make these German cookies that my grandmother used to make. They’re hazelnut cookies that are piped onto baking sheets and baked. I managed to get the recipe right but the piping was not quite so successful. The dough was rather stiff and my disposable decorating bags didn’t hold up very well. I managed to get them done but I used up quite a few decorating bags as well as having to resort to cutting the corner off a Ziploc bag and using that. Next year, I think it’ll be worth using a cookie press instead.

Tomorrow, I head to my parents for a while where I’ll spend Christmas and New Years. I’m hoping it all goes smoothly. My dad has a new puppy who is rather adorable. Unfortunately, my own pups aren’t very fond of her. Sookie, especially, does not like the new puppy to come near me. I didn’t realize quite how possessive of me she was until last weekend when she got rather upset every time the new pup came near me. I’m clearly HER person. I’m hoping that since the puppy won’t be quite so new and unfamiliar that my girls will be a little more accepting this weekend. Unfortunately, you can’t lecture dogs on the spirit of Christmas because they just look up at you like you’re demented. Yes, I have tried and yes, I have firsthand knowledge of that look.

We’ll see how it all goes. Regardless, I’m ready to submit fully to the season. Since this will be the last blog until after Christmas, I’d like to wish every one of you a safe and happy Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Colds Stink!

I have a cold.

I hate having a cold. I generally only get one cold a year. Usually it's around Thanksgiving. This year, I triumphantly passed Thanksgiving in full healthy.

Then, about a week ago, I started getting that scratchy feeling in your throat that you know is the precursor to a cold. I started eating more oranges. I started regularly popping my gummi vitamins that have echinacea and zinc in them. I know these ingredients have not been proven to fight colds but psychologically, they work for me and that's good enough.

It seemed to be working. I got to take my mum out for her gourmet birthday meal and had the luxury of having my taste buds unhindered by a cold and I enjoyed it.

And then, the next day, I woke up with a golf-ball in my throat and a stuffy nose. It was downhill from there.

The thing with colds is that it's hard to argue that you're sick because, well, it's just a cold. Even when it's a lousy cold, it's still just a cold. Just because your taste buds are numb, your nose won't stop running and you develop a cough that won't stop annoying you, you still only have a cold.

Still, colds are horrible things. I hate them. I especially hate this one because it arrived during my very favourite week of the year and has made my Christmas fesivities a little damped. Instead of drinking mulled mead or mulled wine, I'm drinking...tea. Lots of tea. I'm eating soup instead of cheese and crackers and I'm generally not feeling too much like decking the halls.

It doesn't help that I was banished from my office yesterday. One croak from me and I was soon treated like Typhoid Mary. I ended up being sent home to work in fear that I'd infect everyone else. One of my coworkers is off to Mexico for Christmas with her family and she most certainly doesn't want a cold to take with her.

Thus, I was banished today as well. It hasn't been so bad. It's rather nice to work from home, honestly. It's just a little, well, hard to work. It's nice to have the dogs to keep me company though. Rory, in particular, seems rather concerned regarding my coughing fits and stares at me worriedly until I'm done. Then she comes and presses up against me which is her way of wanting me to cuddle her. It's very sweet. It's also a bit of a treat to work with the dogs on my lap even if it is a little hard to work.

On the plus side, it was nice to take it easy today. I know I'll be feeling better tomorrow which means I will be back in the office. Even if my coworkers don't like it, they'll have to deal with it. I'm out on Friday for vacation so I figure I should at least show my face in the office a little this week.

It just stinks having a cold. That's all I have to say. I'm hoping that all my tea with honey drinking and my vitamin C shovelling may make this nasty virus go away and that I'll feel a little more Christmas cheer tomorrow especially as I want to do some baking and baking while having a cold is not as much fun as don't have a cold.

As I always think, you can let the cold win or you can beat the cold. I've let the cold have two days of making me miserable. I'm taking control tomorrow. It's been rather nice working in the comfort of my home but it's time to get back to reality.

At least for two more days. Besides, I have mead to drink!

Happy Wednesday!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Thrill of the Wait

I love this time of year. In previous blogs, I've mentioned how I love Christmas Eve far more than Christmas Day because I love the anticipation. I've always been like that. I think I enjoy the excitement and build up of many things in life far more than I enjoy the actual event.

I think it's the thrill of what might be rather than what something actually is that I like. In many cases, the actual event is everything I hoped, sometimes even more but still, the thrill of the waiting and the hope and anticipation is still something I appreciate.

That's why I love this time of year. I'm fully allowed to indulge in everything Christmas-y because Christmas is close. There's exactly a week until Christmas day and this whole next week gets to be a full on Christmas celebration. It's the countdown until the actual event and it's the best time to buy last minute gifts, bake, wrap, watch holiday movies and, best of all, eat.

I usually spend Christmas with my parents. This year will be no exception. I'll spend the 23rd through January 2nd with them. However, before I leave, I get to do lots of Christmasy things at home. I do need to build that darn gingerbread house but I also want to bake, wrap and watch Christmas movies. It's just too bad that I have to work because I have rather a lot of stuff I could be doing instead of working. However, since working pays the bills and funds my Christmas activities, it's a bit of a catch-22.

Still, I can enjoy the anticipation of Christmas and a vacation in the meantime. The week before Christmas is usually fun at work because no one really wants to be in the office. Some of the staff will already be out and those that are left tend to be a little less dedicated. There's usually treats to be had. There's fun conversation and, best of all, everyone finds a reason to slide out a little early which ends up being fine because most offices are the same way which means no one gets any work done after 4 p.m.

So even though we have to work, it's not so bad. It's nice to go home, have a nice evening and know that there are only a couple of days left before a much-needed vacation. It makes it easier. Also, the anticipation of a vacation is pretty much the same as the anticipation of Christmas: just as much fun because there's a reward at the end of it.

It's worth waiting for like so many things. I finally got my snow this weekend. Granted, I had to visit my parents to get it but since it was a great visit, I can't complain. I took my mum out to Joseph Decuis- a fabulous restaurant in the unlikely location of Roanoke, Indiana. It was expensive as good restaurants are but since every bite was worth it, I certainly didn't mind the check at the end. It's the type of place you want to do well so it survives and continues to maintain its excellence but also the type of place you don't want to do SO well that it because too trendy and gets so busy it becomes difficult to get a reservation if that makes any sense.

The fantastic meal was topped off by a lovely snowfall as we were driving home. I'd say that was pretty much the perfect topping to a wonderful evening. Granted, mum doesn't agree but, well, she enjoyed her meal so she wasn't as unhappy about it as she might have been.

Still, now the snow has melted. There's the possibility we might have a white Christmas. I'm going to hope, wear my snowflake necklace and keep my fingers crossed. Even if it doesn't snow, the hope and anticipation that it might is still quite fun.

I'll just be a little disappointed if it doesn't!

Happy Monday!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Where Are You, Snow?

I’m very disappointed that we haven’t really had any snow this year. We’ve had a mere flurry or two that lasted less than an hour. It’s been so warm that even if it has flurried, it’s gone as soon as it lands.

I know there are readers of my blog who don’t share my disappointment- yes, mother, I am talking to you- but I can’t help but be a little sad that the world around me has yet to be covered with a soft white carpet and I can have my annual “YAY, it’s snowing” mug of peppermint hot chocolate.

The thing is, it hasn’t really even been that cold yet. We’ve had a few cold days but mostly, it’s been rather mild. Yesterday, for example, it was 63 degrees.

I like 63 degrees in the autumn. I like it in the spring. It’s quite nice even in the summer when it gives you a break from the hot summer days.

It’s just that, well, there are ten days until Christmas and it’s just too…warm!

One of the novelties I always found about California when I lived there is that I’d go Christmas shopping in Santa Monica and it would be 68 degrees, warm and sunny about a week before Christmas. I used to smugly think of my family and friends back in the Midwest who were usually in the middle of a frigid spell and bask in the novelty of the warm weather. Of course, I wouldn’t have been so smug if I hadn’t known that I’d be flying back to the Midwest in a few days and I’d get to experience the cold weather.

I was spoiled, you see. I got to come home for the holidays and enjoy a taste of winter but go back to a place where it rarely gets below 45 degrees.

Yet I missed my snow. I missed the days when it was too cold to do anything but wrap up in a blanket, make a mug of tea and sit on the sofa watching movies, reading a book and enjoying the fact that winter gave me an excuse to be lazy.

I won’t wax poetical on why I love snow. All you have to do is search my blogs for the mention of “snow” and you’ll see that I’ve already waxed poetical on the stuff. I’m not just a fickle fan of snow- liking it to fall at Christmas because it’s tradition and then wanting it to go away. I’m a real fan of snow. I like it when it snows and I like it when it sticks around. The only time I don’t like it if it’s worn out its welcome in April and is stepping on the toes of spring or when it’s really messing with my life and being rude which usually means the roads are terrible but not terrible enough for me to be able to stay home, my icescraper doesn’t work or it’s not really snow- it’s ice which is a total different thing.

No, I’d like to see a little gentle snowfall now. It’s time. I’m a traditionalist. I’d like a white Christmas. Also, it feels rather wrong to go outside and have it be warm and balmy when you’re in Ohio in December, only ten days away from Christmas.

I’ve even tried wearing my snowflake necklace. It is actually working its magic but it seems to be a little broken because the magic is working for my parents, two and a half hours north, not for me. Each time I’ve worn it, they’ve seemed to have an unexpected snowfall. The first time I wore it, they were supposed to have a warm day with a little rain. They ended up having a cold day and got four inches of snow.

I’m annoyed. I like my snowflake necklace a lot but I’d like it to bring ME snow! Perhaps this is wrong but, well, I like my snow, as I’ve mentioned quite a few times already.

Still, I suppose I should just do the right thing and appreciate this warm spell. In two months, I’ll probably be dreaming of warm days where I don’t have to wear five layers of clothes, sleep under a heavy comforter and have two dogs with freezing noses fighting to warm them on any exposed part of my body they can find.

It’s just…hard. I mean, I’m listening to Christmas music in my car when I drive and it just doesn’t feel the same knowing that it’s warm outside.

Still, this time of year, I shouldn’t be selfish. Not everyone loves snow or even likes it and so they’re probably getting an early Christmas wish.

But I’m still going to wear my snowflake necklace anyway.

Happy Friday!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Unfestive Dogs and Gingerbread House Amnesia

My dogs don’t seem to be quite as fond of Christmas as I am.

It started with the tree. I think my dogs wondered why their ‘mother’ was putting up a fake tree in the house and hanging things on it. They might have preferred a real tree but really, unless it had a squirrel in it, they probably wouldn’t like that either.

They didn’t like the tree going up it an activity that took up rather a lot of time in the evening which meant I wasn’t sitting on the sofa where they could cuddle up next to me. Also, the tree was DIFFERENT and, well, my dogs don’t like DIFFERENT. My dogs like their routine. This is why whenever I get home from work, it is time for a walk regardless of whether it’s bucketing down with rain or not. This is also why when they don’t get said walk due to the torrential rain, they sulk.

My dogs don’t like it when I bake. They mope if I’m in the kitchen because, again, I’m not paying any attention to them. My sense is that they seem to feel that while I am home, it is their canine right to have my full attention. When they don’t get it, they are not happy pups.

I’ve been baking quite a lot lately. Well, I’ve been in the kitchen a lot anyway, not necessarily just baking. The only time that the pups don’t seem to mind when I’m cooking is when it involves cheese. My girls love their cheese. I might have mentioned this. Rory, in particular, is rather partial to the more expensive types of cheese like parmigiano reggiano and gruyere. I know, I know…I shouldn’t give them cheese but…I do anyway. Just not that much.

They love cheese so much that they can actually tell when I’m getting my grater out of the cupboard. This may sound like I’m exaggerating but whenever I reach up to pull out the box grater, there are suddenly two pleading little dachshunds staring up at me whereas moments before, they were in the other room.

So, even though they don’t like it when I’m in the kitchen a lot, they don’t mind when it involves cheese.

However, they also don’t like it when I write Christmas cards. This is also an activity that means I’m not sitting on the couch with them. They don’t like it when I wrap gifts either. Not only am I still not cuddling with them but, also, I’m on the floor where they like to play and there’s a mess of which they don’t approve.

I have several other Christmas activities planned over the next week or two. One involves making a gingerbread house. I bought a kit because when it first becomes permissible to start diving into Christmas without seeming too premature, gingerbread houses seem like a lovely seasonal thing. I mean, gingerbread houses are a little symbol of Christmas festivity, are they not? I love gingerbread. I love houses. The combination seems pretty nifty when it comes in a neato kit with a carrying handle and you have a 50% off coupon.

The problem is that, well, they’re way better in theory than reality. Well, perhaps I should say, they’re way better in the picture on the box and in the images in your head than what generally manifests when you actually try to build one. I know that some of my readers are a lot…craftier than I am and thus may not be able to relate to the trials and tribulations of my former attempts to build gingerbread houses. However, I’ve built a few in the past. I always use kits because frankly I’m too lazy to bake them myself.

These kits usually involve making icing that theoretically should glue the house together. You have to get the icing exactly right otherwise it doesn’t work. And, actually, even if you get it right, it still doesn’t really work. I remember the time I assisted my friend’s son with his gingerbread house. My friend was also building a gingerbread construction with her other son- this was a tree that, essentially, was just a bunch of cookies stacked on top of one another. Our house, on the other hand, proved to be so problematic and the icing so un-gluelike that we literally resorted to duct tape to hold the blasted thing together while it dried. I’m not proud of this. Also, the duct tape did not work. We eventually got some semblance of a house that was standing and we covered the worst parts with lots of candy to hide the problems.

I should have learned from that experience and yet, two years later, I tried another gingerbread construction. This was a little more successful in that I eventually got the house to hold together. However, it did involve multiple dives across the counter to catch the walls as they fell and having to re-build it. Nevertheless, I did end up with a somewhat decent looking house. It just involved rather a lot of colourful adjectives every time I had to save it from collapsing.

I should have learned from THAT experience. Unfortunately, I think I simply suffer from Gingerbread House Amnesia. This is a condition that kicks in at the start of every Christmas season and manifests itself whenever I’m standing in front of a display of gingerbread houses. The amnesia causes me to say “Aw, fun!” instead of “HELL, NO!” and I end up buying a kit.

Then the kit sits in my house. One night, I will think, “time to make the house”. I’ll open the box and pull out that evil bag of icing that will be the glue. Then I’ll put the icing back in the box and put the kit away. This usually happens at least once.

I do eventually make the gingerbread house. I just haven’t done so when I’ve had the dogs. I’m hoping this effort will be slightly smoother than my last ones merely because I get a little mean and crotchety when things don’t go according to plan and I tend to yell a bit. The poor dogs have witnessed this many a time whether it involves my building IKEA furniture, laying down floor tiles, trying to decorate my clock for Christmas with a string of festive berries and knocking the clock off the wall or trying to get a picture on my wall to stay straight. I hate that I do get mean and that I shout but it’s a coping mechanism. It’s rather akin to, say, dropping a hammer on your foot and saying the f-word rather loudly. You can’t really stop it- it’s a reflex reaction. I have dropped a hammer on my foot a couple of times, in case you were wondering.

Anyway, I am eventually going to build this gingerbread house. I just don’t think it will be tonight. Tonight I will wrap more gifts which will not make my dogs happy but it might be a little safer for them than the gingerbread house.

I think they actually like it better when I watch Christmas movies because then, at least, I’m doing what they want which is staying still long enough for them to bury their cold noses in my lap and get comfortable.

It’s even better when I have cheese.

Happy Wednesday and thanks for reading!(And Happy Birthday to my lovely mum and best friend, Saz!)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Gingerbread Cake with Caramel Syrup and Vanilla Whipped Cream

For the Cake:


• 8 tablespoons of butter
• 1/2 cup of sugar
• 1 cup of Lyle's golden syrup***
• 2 eggs
• 2 1/2 cups of flour
• 1/4 teaspoon of salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda
• 1 1/4 teaspoons of ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
• 1 cup of water

(***This is a British thing- if you're in the States and don't have access to golden syrup, you can use maple syrup of agave syrup though, on occasion, you can find golden syrup at TJ Maxx!)

Instructions:Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

1. Cream butter and sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy.
2. Warm the syrup slightly in the microwave until runny- about 25 seconds should do it.
3. Beat syrup into the creamed butter/sugar.
4. Add eggs to mixture and beat well.
5. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, ginger and cinnamon together and stir into the cream mixture.
6. Add the water slowly and stir until smooth.
7. Pour batter into a well-greased loaf pan and bake for 45-60 minutes- whenever a skewer comes out clean.
8. Leave to cool in tin and turn onto a cooling rack when cooled. It's best reheated just a tad when you serve with the caramel sauce and whipped cream.

Easy Caramel Sauce (Warning- this isn't healthy in any way but SO tasty!)


• 1 cup of sugar
• 6 tablespoons of butter
• 1/2 cup of heavy whipping cream


1. Before you begin, make sure you have all ingredients measured out and close by. This process is super fast and if you're not ready, it won't work right!
2. Melt sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan by heating on moderately high heat and stirring constantly once it starts to melt. As soon as it starts getting soft, this is when you want to start stirring. A wooden spoon works best. Don't stop until the sugar comes to a boil. If you stop stirring, it will burn.
3. As soon as all of the sugar has melted, the sugar should be dark amber. Add all of the butter and stir until melted.
4. As soon as butter melts, immediately remove pan from heat. Once pan has been set down somewhere cool, add the cream to the pan and stir constantly. The mixture will bubble up. Keep stirring.
5. Whisk until sauce is smooth and let cool for a few minutes.
6. Pour sauce into a glass container and let cool to room temperature. It will be hot at this point so be very careful.
8. Sauce stores in the fridge for up to a week and re-liquifies when heated in the microwave for about 35 seconds.

Vanilla Whipped Cream


• 1 cup of heavy whipping cream
• 1-2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract depending on how vanilla-y you want it.


(Note: I have a nice stand mixer which makes this very easy. However, before I had a nice stand mixer, I had a cheap $7.99 hand mixer from Walgreens. This works too. Either way, place whatever bowl in which you're going to whip the cream in the fridge or freezer. I usually try to put it in the fridge for a few hours but if I forget, which is often, I put it in the freezer for less time.)

1. Combine cream and vanilla.
2. Beat in chilled stand mixer bowl or in a chilled normal bowl with a hand-held mixer, slowly increasing speed until you're on high. Beat cream until nice and stiff.
3. Serve.

I like to drizzle some sauce on the cake, top with whipped cream and then drizzle a little more caramel on top but that's up to you.

I did mention this wasn't healthy but, well, it's a great recipe for this time of year and we can all make it our New Years' resolution not to eat like this anymore, right?


A Very Busy Food Weekend!

This has been a rather busy weekend. This is why I don't find myself awfully shocked on this Sunday evening that it's gone by already.

This was a very food-based weekend for me. This is not to say that most weekends don't involve food but I entertained twice this weekend and since I've become rather fond of entertaining, I like to make sure I plan the right menu.

My first event was Friday night. It wasn't really an event as much as my friend coming over to dinner and to watch "The Holiday" with me. This has become a tradition for us over the past three years. Usually we watch it at her house and she cooks but this year, we decided to watch it at mine.

Since she was coming to mine, it involved planning dinner. This was not an issue except she's a bit of a picky eater. I like a challenge, however. Most of my 'classic' dinner recipes usually involve quite a lot of vegetables and she's not a huge fan. She does, however, like strong flavours like garlic, onion, etc. Thus, I decided to make my thick and hearty potato leek soup. I use bacon as a base which sounds rather unhealthy but, actually, one serving of the soup still only has 7 grams of fat and 290 calories and considering it's nice and filling, it's pretty good for dinner. I also decided to be festive and for dessert, I made a gingerbread cake with caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream. And yes, I actually did bake this cake from scratch. I made it last year and it was a hit so I figured I'd try it again. It was a hit this year too. My friend seemed quite happy with the food I made and we ended up having a great evening while enjoying a great movie.

My second 'event' was my parents' coming to visit. They like to come down at least once before Christmas to stock up at Jungle Jim's on treats/food for the holidays. Normally, I make them a sit-down meal. This year, I decided to challenge myself while also 'treating' them. Usually, on Christmas night, my mum and I prepare a cold buffet for the family that takes a lot of preparation. The problem with this is that it's hard to enjoy the buffet as much when you've had to prepare it so I decided to make a mini buffet for my parents. This particular buffet included the following:

• Cheese and crackers (Cheeses: Wensleydale, Coach Farms goat cheese, Stilton, Seriously Sharp Cheddar, Gruyere and smoked Gouda)
• Steamed shrimp
• Smoked salmon
• Homemade guacamole and homemade tortilla chips,
• Black Bean soup
• An antipasti tray with prosciutto and salami and assorted pickled treats
• Roasted beet salad
• Crusty bread
• Homemade cheese straws
• Sausage rolls
• Cream cheese and watercress finger sandwiches
• A small vegetable plate
• Roasted ham with a cumin, garlic and thyme glaze

For dessert, I baked another gingerbread cake, whipped some more cream and used the leftover caramel sauce from Friday since it keeps for a while.

It was rather a lot of food but one thing I like about a buffet is that it's fun to have a selection and people love to nibble. While I had a lot of leftovers, there actually weren't nearly as many as you'd expect and I got to send my parents home with half the ham, the sausage rolls and shrimp since I don't actually like shrimp. I also have plenty of food left for the week and a nice cheese selection which not only will last me a while but I can also bring out when I have guests.

All in all, it was a very food-heavy weekend. The buffet prep took a long while but, sadly, I enjoyed every minute of it, even beheading, deveining and peeling all of the shrimp which I've never done before. I'll post my gingerbread cake recipe just because it's a pretty easy thing to make and seems to be quite popular whenever I make it.

Now it's Sunday night, my parents have gone and I'm alone with two sleeping dachshunds. I plan on enjoying the rest of my Sunday evening by relaxing since I don't seem to have much time for that.

Also, I think I might have to eat some leftovers. I have plenty to choose from.

Happy Monday and thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

I Baked, I Conquered...I Cheated...

Lately, I’ve been trying to bake a little more. This is partially due to the fact that the stuff I want to eat isn’t easily accessible in stores near me. However, it’s also because I simply know I’m not particularly good at baking and want to be a more well-rounded cook.

While I lack the patience to ever be a very good baker, I will admit it’s rather fun to bake something, pipe frosting onto it, decorate it and give it to people to eat. This is particularly why I like making cupcakes.

When it comes to cupcakes, I have a confession: I’m a dirty rotten cheater. Sure, I can make the cakes from scratch but, well, I’m a bit lazy. Also, due to the fact that I’m not the most precise baker, my cakes never quite taste right or rise right. So, I use a box of cake mix. When I make the mix, I do often embellish as was the case on Saturday with my peppermint chocolate cupcakes. I added peppermint extract and mini chocolate chips to my devil’s food cake box mix.

Now, I do make the buttercream icing myself. It’s easy and tastes fantastic. Oh, fine, it’s terrible for you because it’s pretty much just butter and sugar but I wager it’s no worse than those cans of frosting that are made primarily from Crisco and corn syrup.

Recently, I’ve had a couple of people ask me for recipes. Thus, I decided to try something new and paste them on my blog. So, I’ve put my whoopee-pie recipe below. The filling is my own recipe based on my buttercream frosting. The Candy Cane Kisses do make it rather rich but if you’ve got a sweet tooth, you probably won’t mind.

They’re super easy and quite fun to make. Also, people think they’re pretty nifty if you take them to a party. When people are fighting over the last one and someone steals it to take home, you know you’ve got a hit on your hands:

Whoopie Pies

• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
• 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
• 1 cup packed brown sugar
• 1 large egg


• 2 egg whites , beaten
• 4 tablespoons milk
• 2 teaspoons vanilla
• 4 cups powdered sugar (10x)
• 1 cup shortening
• 12-14 Hershey Candy Cane Kisses

Instructions for the Cakes
• Whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt in a bowl until combined. Stir together buttermilk and vanilla in a small bowl.
• Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes in a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a handheld, then add egg, beating until combined well. Reduce speed to low and alternately mix in flour mixture and buttermilk in batches, beginning and ending with flour, scraping down side of bowl occasionally, and mixing until smooth.
• Spoon 1/4-cup mounds of batter about 2 inches apart onto 2 buttered large baking sheets. Bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until tops are puffed and cakes spring back when touched, 11 to 13 minutes. Transfer with a metal spatula to a rack to cool completely.

Instructions for the Filling

• Mix together egg whites,vanilla, milk and 2 cups of the powdered sugar. Beat in the butter and the remaining sugar. Chop, grind or mince the Candy Cane Kisses until they're in small pieces and add to the sugar/butter mix and stir/blend until smooth.
• When cookies have cooled, spread a dab of cream filling on flat side of cookie and top with another cookie to form a pie. Voila!

Happy Friday!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Muddled Near-Winter Days

Some days, it just rather hard to be productive. This week at work has already been a bit of a muddle. Yesterday, when I got into the office, I was later than normal because I’d had to drop a candidate off for her first day of work. When I logged in, I discovered that I had no internet access.

Now, even a few years ago, this would have been a pain but not a HUGE problem. Nowadays, however, it’s actually quite a paralyzing thing not to have internet access. In my job, I use both my email and the web almost exclusively to do my job. Oh, sure, I have a phone but in order to call people, I generally need to have access to my email and the web to locate resumes, phone numbers, etc.

It turned out that we had quite a large problem with the internet. My boss, always trying to help people out, had allowed one of clients to come in this week and use our conference room for training. There were five people in there using the internet. Combined with the eight of us in the office, there were 13 users. Our internet firewall only has room for 9 users so as soon as we exceeded that amount, we started having issues.

Since we can’t kick out the trainees, my boss had to come up with another solution. Our IT Guru did something with a new router which finally arrived in our office today. In the meantime, he let the account managers work from home. Since I’m not an account manager, I didn’t get to work from home. I’m not bitter but I was a little disappointed. I suppose my bosses logic made sense: Recruiters need access to the phone and the printer more than the account managers. However, since I have two phones and two printers at home, I would quite easily stayed at home on this dreary, drizzly day, worked in my comfy clothes and had the girls curled up nearby.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Thus, I’ve been in the office all day which is a little like a ghost town since half the staff is working at home. I’m not quite sure how hard they’re actually working since, well, I’ve only actually heard from one of them today but, well, that’s not my business.

Fortunately, even though it was difficult to be productive, I have had a productive day. Lately, it’s been a little too quiet in the office. While I adore the holiday season, it’s not a very popular time for employers to be seeking candidates for jobs or for candidates to be looking. Generally speaking, if it’s their choice, employees generally like to keep working around the holidays rather than quit a job to find a new one.

It hasn’t helped that it’s been dreary outside. Yesterday, it poured with rain to the point where my back garden was nothing but one giant puddle. The poor pups had difficulty finding anywhere to do their business where they weren’t standing in two inches of water. It finally stopped sometime last night but since then, it’s been bleak and grey outside. We’re supposed to have some flurries tonight which would be nice. I’m ready for some real snow now. Not only do I very much want my traditional white Christmas but, also, I just love my snow.

Still, on the plus side, it’s a lot easier to leave the office when it’s already dark outside knowing that I have the glow of my Christmas tree in my living room. The dogs haven’t quite got used to it yet. Sookie casts it a suspicious glare whenever she bumps into it. I’ve hung jingle bells on the bottom row of branches to discourage too much roughhousing underneath the tree. My little dachshunds are just the right height to roll underneath the branches and when they’re playing with one another, they often get a little rough. It’s fun to watch because they’re having fun but it’s a bit alarming to see them tackle one another and bounce off one another into inanimate objects. They never hurt themselves, thankfully. More than anything, they just seem surprised that a table has appeared out of nowhere in the middle of their game.

The problem with the darker evenings is that they don’t get to spend much time outside. We try to walk when the weather cooperates. The girls do go out and play but they just don’t stay out as long as they do in the summer. On one hand, it’s nice not to have to keep checking to make sure they’re not Up to No Good but, on the other, I feel a little bad that they’re not as active and they can’t go exploring outside the way that they like to when the weather is warmer. The ground under my toolshed is probably thankful, there are a couple of holes that are becoming craters thanks to my industrious pups. They haven’t figured out that they really won’t dig under the shed as much as next to it but I think it’s funny that they’re trying.

It’s just a change from a few months ago where I sat outside, glass of pinot grigio in hand, watching the fireflies. The variety is nice and I like my cosy evenings inside where the wine has been replaced by a mug of tea and the fireflies have been replaced with a good book. At the moment, I’m reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern which I’m enjoying very much. It’s a dreamy book but it’s compelling and I’m fascinated to see how it ends. Since it’s a two-week Kindle library loan, I have an excuse to read greedily and quickly instead of savouring the book. By nature, I’m a greedy reader. I like to gobble up a book instead of chewing slowly. It’s a bad habit but one that’s been cultivated since childhood when I learned to read and all I wanted to do then was…read.

After a muddled day at work where we did finally get things up and running, it’ll be nice to go home to have a cosy evening indoors. Things should be back to normal tomorrow since our internet is supposedly fixed. We shall see if that actually happens once everyone is back in the office working.

Part of me hopes that it doesn’t work. That’s awful, I know…it’s just that it’s actually kind of fun when things are muddled.

Happy Wednesday!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christmasy Weekends and another Bridget Jones' Party Experience

It's another Sunday evening where the weekend has flown by entirely too fast. It's a wet, chilly night out there- the rain has been coming down for a couple of hours and with the glow of my Christmas tree lights, it seems positively cosy in my living room.

I've tried to have a very Christmas-y weekend. I decided earlier in the season that since I adore Christmas so much, I was going to make the most of it and try and be as festive as possible this year. It's hard to avoid jumping right into the Christmas spirit when the stores are festooned with yuletide glory, the radio is full of Christmas music and it seems like it smells like cinnamon everywhere.

I put up one of my Christmas trees on Friday night. Normally, I only have one. However, for the past couple of years, my sad, Walmart Black Friday $20 Bargain Tree has been looking a little forlorn and pathetic even when I've tried to hide the gaps with decorations and garlands. So this year, I splurged and got a new tree. It's very nice with no gaps and it looks somewhat real. I'd actually rather have a real one but since I spend Christmas at my parents' house, it seems a bit of a waste. I contemplated one of those burlap-bulbed trees so I could replant it but even though my little Toyota Corolla can haul far more than you'd imagine, I'm not quite sure even I could figure out a way to get a Christmas tree home in my car.

So, I got a nice artificial one. The only problem was that I couldn't bear to part with my little forlorn tree. It was the first tree of my own that I ever owned. Thus, I decided to bedeck my Tuscan room with my forlorn tree and use the new one in my living room.

Friday, I put my new tree up. I drank mulled wine and watched "Elf." I baked chocolate chip chocolate cupcakes and whoopie pies for a friends' party on Saturday. It was a very festive evening and I enjoyed every minute of it. By the time I was done, my tree looked rather nice, if I do say so myself.

Saturday, I did some Christmas shopping in the morning and then came home, put up my simple outdoor decorations- just a garland and bow around my little lampost and a couple of little pre-lit porch trees. Then I put up my forlorn tree in my Tuscan room. I also frosted the cupcakes I'd made with peppermint buttercream and filled my whoopie pies with candy-cane Hershey Kiss buttercream. Then I headed to my friends birthday party.

The first sign it wasn't going to be a great success was that just as I was lifting my cake carrier that was stuffed with cupcakes off my car seat to transport them into my friends' house, the stupid lid came off. It was my fault- I should have checked to make sure it was still locked and hadn't come loose during the journey. Needless to say, I had quite a few cupcake casulties which was rather too bad because they tasted rather yummy if I do say so myself. Still, the whoopie pies were safe since I'd packed the seperately.

The second sign that it wasn't going to be a terrifically fun party for me was that I quickly realized it was going to be another Bridget Jones Night. It was small gathering in honour of my friends 45th birthday. She was doing something unique- a blind wine tasting in which she would decide the winner, no gifts but, instead, we would bring a toy to donate to Toys for Tots that would have been something our hostess would have liked as a child and a concert by a local university acapella group which my friend had 'won' in a silent charity auction.

My wine was pretty good- I know my friends' tastes which are quite similar to mine so I brought a nice Zinfandel. My toy was Scrabble- my friend loves to read and write and oddly adores English grammar.

The problem was that every single person there aside from me was married. Now, when I lived in L.A., even when I went to similar gatherings, it was ok- the 'marrieds' were independent enough that they circulated seperately from their spouses and it was just a gathering o' people. However, in the Midwest, it's a little different. Here, the spouses come as a pair. When one spouse is separated from the other and forced to talk to the lone singleton at the party, this spouse starts to panic and say things like "I wonder where John is!" Well, this would be ok if it was, say, a large house and there was a possibility of John being more than 25 feet away but in this case, my friends house is not huge and the reality was that John was 15 feet away in the next room talking to Bob whose wife is holding his arm possessively.

I know, that's a little harsh. I'm sure not every gathering in the Midwest is really like that but the few I've been too where I've been the lone singleton have been very much like that. I try very hard to be social but it's rather hard because couples seem to like to talk to other couples and discuss their children, how much they're paying the sitter and who their kids' teachers are.

Needless to say, it was a difficult evening. Fortunately, there was wine and cheese. The wine tasting went well. I came in second. I would have come in first, I suspect but the winning wine was the first one everyone tried and someone said, "Hey, wine #7 is good!" so everyone had to try wine #7 and it went fast. This meant that our hostess couldn't have a second taste of wine #7 to compare it to my wine and it won by default because it was so popular. I tried wine #7, for the record, and I found it to be a bit plummy. Also, wine #7 happened to be brought by the hostess' closest friends who'd been staying there that weekend. Yes, I probably sound bitter but three hours of standing around feeling more and more alone in a room full of smug married people made me feel a little bitter. Also, the hostess' dad asked me where 'my other half' was in reference to a former coworker I'd once showed up to a party with a few years ago. I've been to several of my friends' parties since without this coworker but he clearly thought we were a couple. I shouldn't have been surprised. An unmarried woman in the midwest in her thirties is bound to set off a few suspicions. Still, it was a bit like throwing salt in a wound by this point.

The party itself was lovely. My friend throws a good gathering. The acapella group was amazing though and it was nice to have a break from mingling to listen to some music. I was a little surprised that people were raving over my whoopie-pies which I found cloyingly sweet. They were actually fighting over the last one. Meanwhile, my lovely, hand frosted, crushed peppermint decorated cupcakes sat virtually untouched.

By the time it became safe for me to leave without being rude, I did so. It was a relief to get in my car, crank up the Tran-Siberian orchestra and drive home where I was greeted enthusiastically by my pups. It's nice to show I'm loved even if I am a pathetic singleton who apparently gives of lesbian vibes. Not that there's anything wrong with that it's just that I'm not a lesbian.

As much as I hated that it did so, my party experience made me feel a little down on Sunday. It's one thing to know I'm alone and accept it but it's another to be reminded of how alone I am at times. Still, I decided to fight off my blues by some intensive cleaning and organizing and finishing putting up the final Christmas decorations.

Now, I'm sitting inside, listening to the rain pour down, finishing some laundry and feeling sad that the weekend is already almost over. Tomorrow, it's back to work as normal. However, on the plus side, I now have the glow of the multicoloured lights of my Christmast tree when I come home in addition to my lovely pups who constantly love to show me how much I'm loved.

It's not all bad. I just need to stop going to parties where I'm the only single person. I think they're bad for me.

Happy Monday!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Rant: Why Charging for Happy Meal Toys is Not Going to Solve a Large Problem

I don’t usually get political with my blog because I generally like to not offend people or come across as left-leaning, right-leaning or any type of lean at all.

However, today I might make an exception. I know I’m a little behind on the times but I just read an article in which I learned that San Francisco passed legislation recently to ban giving away toys with high-fat, bad-for-you kids meal like Happy Meals in an effort to cut back on childhood obesity.

Now, while I’m not arguing that childhood obesity is a bad thing, I can’t help but think that the money and effort that’s gone into this legislation is a little…misdirected. Sure, I don’t argue that kids who eat McDonalds on a regular day are heavier than other kids. I’m also not arguing that McDonalds isn’t exactly the healthiest food on the planet.

However, the idea that simply giving away a toy with a meal is why kids eat McDonalds in the first place is just…a little silly. Yes, kids are susceptible to things they see on TV and they do like toys. Thus, to have a meal that comes with a free toy is a nice bonus.

Yet the key word is bonus. You can also use the word treat if you prefer. While I know that there are people and kids out there who love the McDonalds toys and go through the drive-thru just to get the one for the week, if you ever go to garage sales, you’ll see that for the most part, these toys basically end up in 10/$1 bins.

Which is ironic because San Francisco McDonald’s have found a way around the new legislation by, yes, charging 10 cents per toy in addition to the cost of the Happy Meal.

Now, my thoughts (and keep in mind these are just MY thoughts) is that perhaps the toy is not really the problem. Everyone knows that McDonalds is fried, fatty food that can taste really good when you’re really hungry. However, I don’t think I’m wrong to say that those of us who know that’s really bad for us regret eating it once we’ve stuffed our faces with those french fries and cheeseburgers and, if we were really hungry, a Big Mac. After all is said and done, it never tasted as good in hindsight to deserve those extra fat calories we consume.

Still, McDonalds serves a purpose to those of us who do have some sense of food-logic. Even though it’s bad for us, it fills a need. I love french fries. They’re one of my ‘cheat’ foods of choice. However, I don’t have them very often because I do try to be a somewhat healthier eater. Also, they taste way better if you haven’t had them for a while and they’re a rare treat. So, McDonalds can satisfy my french-fry craving. It serves that need for me. Also, if you’re in a hurry, are starving and need to eat before your next activity/engagement starts, the drive-thrus are conveniently placed in order to get a combo meal, pay and get out in a few minutes flat. That’s another purpose that McDonalds serves.

I’d like to think that most of us know McDonalds is bad. When we eat it anyway, it’s not necessarily with shame but maybe a wee bit of guilt that we’re consuming a cheesy mess of carbohydrate laden fatty goodness instead of, say, broccoli or a salad.
I don’t have kids but I have nephews and nieces who like Happy Meals. I know that the toys change once a week. If McDonalds has a series of toys that the kids like, they generally want to go back the next week for the next one. Even I’ve fallen for it before when they had the mini beanie babies a few years ago.

Yet, if you’re a parent/aunt with a sense of food-logic, even though you know you shouldn’t indulge the kid with a Happy Meal, if it’s only once a week, it’s not that terrible. Besides, nowadays, you can substitute fries for apple wedges, soda for milk so if you’re concerned about your kid getting, well, chubby then there are ways to treat them to McDonalds without completely compromising nutrition.

The problem is that there are an awful lot of non-logical food people out there. I’ve watched “Super Size Me”. I’ve watched documentaries on why lower-income families tend to have obese children: It’s far cheaper to stuff them full of cheap food that fills them up than go out and buy healthy food. It’s a sad fact of life. I’ve actually been quite poor in my life. When I lived in L.A., I was very, very hard up for money for the first couple of years. If I didn’t have a coupon, it wasn’t on special or couldn’t buy it in the 99 cent store, I didn’t buy it. I used to make sure I had money in my budget for vegetables and fresh produce because, well, I have that food-logic gene. However, I can also see why parents who have to stretch out very little money to feed their kids opt for the giant box of macaroni and cheese on sale for $1 than paying $1.29 a pound for broccoli which doesn’t provide a whole meal but just a side dish.

Also, the irony of it is that many lower-income families tend to have parents who work hours that aren’t conducive to having time to spend cooking low-calorie, nutritious meals out of their limited pantry. This is where McDonalds steps in. You can buy a Happy Meal for about $3. It fills a kid up. It takes five minutes at most to run through the drive through to get it. If you have to go to work but you also have to feed your kid, it’s a quick, easy solution.

It’s just not very healthy.

I’ve seen articles where the older latchkey kids are left money to go get dinner. If there’s a McDonalds in walking distance, guess where they mostly head? By this time, McDonalds has been introduced into their lives as an acceptable meal choice because it’s most likely what they’ve been eating since they were old enough to chew solid food. It’s a comfort food to them because it’s what they know.

And it’s not just McDonalds. I’m only picking on them because they were the subject of the article I read. Many of the other fast food chains offer similar Kid Friendly Meals: Burger King, Wendys, KFC…etc. Kids grow up with the concept of a kids meal that comes with a toy but it doesn’t mean they only want the meal with a toy. I mean, you don’t see kids refusing to eat their Tyson chicken nuggets and Oscar Meyer wieners at home because they don’t get a toy, do you?

Kids are kids. There are some great kids out there who like healthy food. There are also kids with strong, smart parents who feed their kids right and even get their kids to get healthy snacks as a treat and reward. There are kids that do like Brussels sprouts and broccoli with their hotdogs and pizza. Yet, some kids just don’t like that stuff. I don’t know if it’s genetic. I don’t know if it’s psychological. They just simply don’t like green stuff and only like familiar food. My nephew, for example, is a very fussy eater. He wouldn’t eat turkey at Thanksgiving so with a slight shudder, we served him hot dogs with his trimmings because, well, we wanted him to eat and even though my mum and I know hot dogs are terrible for you, I’d rather see him eat something than nothing. Some of these kids become adults who still haven’t changed tastes. My brother in law is in his thirties- he still only likes hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and chicken nuggets. He doesn’t like salad. He doesn’t like anything green but peas. My old coworker was the same way- she was thirty-three and ate like a five year old boy.

With intervention, I think some of these kids can be helped and taught that not all healthy food tastes bad. Yet, it requires a heck of a lot more than charging 10 cents for a Happy Meal Toy. Perhaps the money and time that was spent passing the legislation to outlaw free toys with greasy kids meals should focus more on the root causes: How can we make kids want to eat healthy food? How can we get parents to see that cheap, quick solutions to feeding kids can be found in other places than fast-food drive thrus? Why does it cost more for a pound of apples than it does for a bag of frozen supermarket-brand french fries? Why are there rarely any coupons for fresh ingredients but tons for processed snacks, canned items and microwave meals?

My point with which I’m almost bludgeoning you is that you can’t try to stop a major problem like obesity by banning a toy with a meal. It’s like sticking your finger in the hole in a boat to stop it sinking or throwing a glass of water on your house when it’s on fire. Sure, it might have a quick effect but in the long term, what’s it really going to do? That house is going to burn and the boat will sink anyway unless someone comes along with a plan to fight the fire or, even better, make the boat harder to sink in the first place.

I’m not a politician and I would never want to be. It’s a hard job. You need to make an impact in a short time so that people feel that you’re worthwhile, that you’ve done something right. In my opinion, the best politicians are the ones that move slower, who dedicate themselves to a cause and fight for it from the ground up. They don’t just come in, slap a band aid on a problem and pat themselves on the back. The world doesn’t work like that- it never has and never will. It’s why I like lobbyists way more than politicians. My good friend Saz, for example, has been working hard on a bill to make button batteries safer due to their deadly nature if swallowed by a child. Now that is a worthy cause. She and her organization, The National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association are working to change something, to make it safer. I salute that. I’d salute San Francisco a lot more if they’d decided to work at helping make kids and parents understand what causes obesity and how to work against it rather than making them pay 10 cents for a toy they can get a few miles away outside city limits for free.

There is a lot more I could rant about or soapbox about but I think this is long enough for one day and I think I’ve made my point. Free toys are only a symbol of what’s causing childhood obesity. You can ban the symbol but the problem remains.

Ok. I’m stepping down off my soapbox now. Really. Besides, I’ve got a sudden craving for McDonalds fries. Ooh, Maybe I’ll see what the toy in the Happy Meal is this week…

Just kidding.

Thanks for reading.

Happy Friday!