March Subscription Box Review: Birchbox and Sample Society

Monthly delivery for $10/month

Includes 4-5 beauty and lifestyle samples

This month my box included amika Bombshell Blowout Spray, Cargo Water Resistant Blush, Super Goop CC Cream, Number 4 Clarifying Shampoo, Whish Hair Inhibiting Gel, and a bonus Number 4 Reconstructing Masque. So Birchbox has a program where each month you have the option to pick between 3 highlighted samples, or you can pick a box that has been chosen by a guest curator, or you can let BB surprise you. This month I wasn’t really into any of the highlighted samples, so I opted to get a surprise box…and I got the Blowout Spray, which was one of the highlighted samples. This isn’t too big of a deal, since I chose to be surprised, but a interesting that the surprise was up for grabs. Anyway, this box is kind of ‘meh’ for me. I’ve gotten a fair amount of blush lately so that’s probably a sample I’ll donate, along with the Whish- I’m a little leery of ‘hair inhibiting’. The CC cream is nice, but also tiny! I don’t know if I’ll get more than an application or two out of it. The Shampoo and Masque are curious- I would normally be frustrated to get just shampoo without conditioner, but they sent it as a bonus sample, but it’s a tiny amount of conditioner compared to the shampoo, but it’s a bonus so I can’t really complain. So it’s pretty clear that this box wasn’t a run away winner, but I don’t hate it. For $10, though, it’s not a great value for me and I’m a little frustrated.
Sample Society
Monthly delivery for $15/month
Includes 4-5 full and deluxe sized beauty and makeup samples
This month I received Juice Beauty Age Defy Moisturizer, Benefit Roller Lash Mascara, Oscar Blandi Texture and Volume Spray, Cargo Cosmetics Lip Gloss, and Malin + Goetz Mojito Lipbalm. Let me just get this out of the way- I was so, irrationally irritated when I opened this box and saw glittery lipgloss. I ended my sub with Ipsy because they kept sending me childish makeup, so seeing that in this box (and having it be the full size item, no less) was so disappointing! I thought maybe I should give it the benefit of the doubt, so I tried it on, but no dice- this gloss is full on glitter. Everything else in this box was pretty underwhelming for me, as well- I already have at least two tubes of the Juicy Beauty moisturizer, so I don’t need that, and Sephora is also giving away the mascara samples, so that doesn’t seem like a great value. The Malin + Goetz balm is nice (good flavor and pretty moisturizing) and the texture spray turned out to be great for my newly short hair. Overall, my frustration with the glitter gloss wasn’t cancelled out by the other samples, so I’m pretty disappointed in Sample Society this month. On the other hand, I’ve been pretty satisfied with them in general over the past few months, so maybe this is a case of ‘you can’t win them all’? We’ll keep our hopes up for a better showing next month.

Sweet and Tangy Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

I think about food an awful lot. Like, I think about food what foods I shouldn’t eat, and what food I’d like to eat immediately, and food that was really amazing and I’d like to recreate, and food that I made that was kind of a failure, and…food in general, really. You know how people say that scents can be memory triggers and can tie you closely to a person, or a place, or an emotion? Well, food is like that for me.

Sometimes I think about how, when my parents wanted to go out and my grandparents would babysit us, my grandpa would make us scrambled eggs with ham (and then I get sad, because I really missed getting to know him as an adult). And my other grandpa would always buy yesterday’s donuts at the grocery store and microwave them, and they were far superior to any fresh donuts (he’s blessedly still with us, so that’s such a happy memory). When drive in movies used to be more prevalent, my parents would load us all up in the station wagon with blankets and pillows and homemade frosted brownies- those always taste like summer time and friendship to me.

Cabbage Rolls5After Evan’s grandma passed away last year we happened to sign up for a pasta making class, and Evan shared some memories from his childhood- his family would come to his grandparents house for dinner and they would feast on her sauce that she cooked all day, using whatever meat was on sale. I love hearing these sweet memories, and I was happy that we could carry on her legacy on some small way- even if the pasta we were making that day was a far cry from Grandma D’s sauce.

Similarly, a few months ago I was sitting with my grandma and her sister; my grandma has had some health scares lately, so I try to soak up any time I can with her. Conversation wandered to the topic of food, as it tends to do, and Grandma and my Aunt Julie started talking about the kinds of food their mom used to make. Aunt Julie mentioned that cabbage rolls had made a regular appearance in their childhood home- much to the clear distaste of my grandmother :) I’ve never had cabbage rolls, nor desired to make them, but I’m really feeling compelled lately to make food that ties me to family, or to memories of family. So, armchair psychoanalyze me if you must, but today I have for you a recipe for Sweet and Tangy Cabbage Rolls.

Cabbae Rolls3To be clear, I’ve never made nor eaten cabbage rolls before I embarked on this mission. As such, I’ve relied on recipes sources from all over the internet, particularly this recipe and commentary from Mark Bittman, this recipe that involves gingersnaps from Spicy Southern Kitchen (though I didn’t actually use gingersnaps, and this recent post from Bev Cooks (who I only recently stumbled upon, but really adore). This recipe wasn’t necessarily a fast one (it look about 30 minutes to assemble and another hour to bake) but it was pretty easy, and I imagine that you could make it ahead of time and just bake when you needed it. From the perspective of a cabbage roll skeptic…it was actually really delicious! Evan and I have been eating leftovers this week, and they’re so, so good! Evan also suggested that this is a meal that he’s like to make at the firehouse, so take that however you choose, but I see it as a stamp of approval :)

Cabbage Rolls4

Sweet and Tangy Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

1 head napa cabbage
1 medium yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
1 pound meatloaf mix (or ground beef or pork, but I love to use meatload mix for things like this)
Olive oil
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp parsley
1 tsp thyme
½ cup jasmine rice (or whatever you have on hand- I had jasmine, and Bev said it was okay)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
Salt and Pepper
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 14 oz can tomato puree

Prepare the cabbage leaves: put a pot of water on to boil, and slice the bottom two-ish inches from the cabbage. You should be able to peel apart the leaves now, so separate about 20 of them. What we’re trying to do, here, is soften the leaves so they roll nicely without breaking. To make that happen, bring the water to a boil, then submerge each leaf for about 30 seconds to one minute. I did six or so leaves at a time so, once the water was boiling, this step only took about two minutes. Remove the leaves from the water and drain on a towel, and set aside.

Prepare the sauce: Dice the onion and mince the garlic. In a pan over medium heat, melt the butter in the oil and add the onions. Cook for about five minutes, or until the onions are nice and soft and translucent. Season with kosher salt and cracked pepper, and add the garlic. Cook for another three minutes or so, stirring frequently, until the onions start to take on some color. At this point, remove half of the onion mixture to a mixing bowl and set those aside to cool. With the other half of the onions remaining in the pan, add the sugar and vinegar- stand back, as the vinegar will hit your sinuses if you stand right over the pan. Cook this mixture down until it seems like there’s very little liquid left- that will only take a minute or two.Then pour in the tomato puree, along with about a half a can worth of water. Stir everything together, add salt and pepper to taste, then lower the heat to a simmer while you make the meat mixture. You want this sauce to a bit thinner than jarred sauce, but not watery, so cook it down or add water as needed to achieve a good consistency.

Prepare the meat: To the bowl with the cooled onions, add the ground meat, egg, milk, parsley, thyme, and rice, then season with kosher salt and cracked pepper. Use your hands to mix everything thoroughly- if it seems like the mixture is a little loose, wait a few seconds then mix again…sometimes it just needs to rest a minute, but without over working it.

: I used a white Corningware casserole, and I only mention this to say that I think a 9×13 would be too big- try for something a bit smaller and a bit deeper. Anyway, lay down about two layers of uncooked cabbage leaves (I read that this will stop anything from burning, but this may be completely unnecessary). Then, start the rolls. Lay down a cabbage leaf, with the stem side towards you, and place about ¼ cup of the meat mixture at the bottom. Roll it over once, then fold both sides in like a burrito, and continue to roll to the end of the leaf. Lay the cabbage roll seam side down in the casserole and continue until you run out of leaves or meat (in my case, I had a bit of meat left over, so I made a meatball and added it to the pan). Add enough sauce to cover the rolls, then cover with a lid or with foil. Bake at 350 for one hour, then remove from the oven and allow to rest for a minute. Evan and I enjoyed these by themselves with only bread for the sauce, but also thought they would be really good with mashed potatoes (does that sounds weird?). Either way, they were super delicious and, not surprisingly, reminded me of food that my grandma used to make when I was very little- I call that a success.

Wellness Wednesday: Nighttime Routine

Happy Wellness Wednesday, my friends! I mentioned on Monday that things are getting pretty busy in my neck of the woods- work is picking up, and it’s getting to be the time in the semester where I’m getting deep into research and writing and presenting for my classes. For me, this is usually the point in my life where all the rules go out the window and I just doc whatever I need to do to aim order to keep my head above water. This strategy has been successful, in terms of getting through rough patches, but hasn’t really done anything to preserve my sanity.

Enter: my wellness routines. You all know that 2015 is my year of wellness and establishing some healthy rituals seemed like an easy way to ensure that i am able to refocus on wellness every single day. Today I’ll talk about my night time routine, and If anyone is interested I can follow with my healthy morning routine :)
So I’ve designed my bedtime routine to help make sure that I am in the best possible position for have a great morning and a great day. (Oh! And I’ve linked to items in my routine that I actually use, just so you can see what I’m working with. I’m always really interested in real products that people use, so thought you might be too!)

Nighttime Routine1. Sleep app
I first started using a sleep app last summer, and at first I thought it was silly- how in the hell is technology supposed to help me sleep? Oh, friends- I had so much to learn. I use Sleep as Android, my experience with it has been great, and I really look forward to talking more about it in a post dedicated to wellness apps. For the purposes of my night routine, though, my sleep at knows what time I like to wake up in the morning, so it knows what time I need to go to bed in order to get eight hours of sleep, which is my preferred duration. Using this information, the app lets me know when it’s an hour before bedtime, and as soon as I hear that alarm I know that I need to start to power down and start my bedtime routine. It’s so handy!

2. Power down screens
The first thing that happens when I get the alarm is I start to power down my screens. Evan definitely makes fun of my technology addiction in our house- it’s not uncommon for me to have my laptop, phone, and ipad going all at once for different functions, and frequently there’s a tv on besides. A ton of research shows that screen exposure before bed, especially phones, computers and tablets, leads to difficulty falling a sleep and lower quality of sleep. So, one hour before bed I start to power down. My laptop goes in the yoga room for a morning practice, my iPad gets plugged in downstairs (so I’m not temped) and my phone gets plugged in on my bedside table. Ideally my phone would go in another room, but I use it for sleep tracking, so…bedside table it is.
2. Coffee pot
My coffee routine is absolutely the best part of my morning, so I always make sure to set it up at night. Here’s the thing, guys- I use an in-bedroom coffee set-up, and I cannot even underscore the difference that this has made in my morning. It’s awesome. So, I have this coffee pot at the end of my bed (it’s very inexpensive and it’s small, but it’s programmable). I program it to start at 6:00, and then add fresh coffee and fill with water.  It is a small miracle, then, to be able to wake up to the sound and smell of coffee brewing :)
3. Prepare my room
I like to take a few minutes to straighten my room for sleeping. Nothing crazy, but I clear off my bedside table and make sure that my laundry is either in a hamper or in the closet. I also like to staighten our sheets and blankets- Evan and I have separate sheets and blankets on the bed, to preserve our sanity, so I like to make sure those are pulled up and separated so we can just climb in. This winter has been brutally dry, so I’ve also recently added in the step of filling and starting our humidifier for the night. This usually takes less than five minutes altogether, but it’s so important to me to make sure my room feels calm and organized- it’s much easier for me to fall asleep if I’m not thinking about what a mess it is.
4. Prepare food, clothes, bag, for next day
I mentioned above that I like to use my night routine to set myself up for the next day, and here’s where that really comes into play. I know it reminds you of elementary school, but I absolutely set my clothes out for the day, pack my lunch, and organize my awesome work bag to include everything I need. I do morning yoga, so I also set my yoga clothes out at the end of my bed so I can just toss those on as soon as I wake up. If there are things that I feel like I might forget (like I need to print something, or stop at the store on my way, or get gas) I write myself a post it and stick it next to my bag where I’ll see if before I leave. This habit helps me to intentionally plan for the next day, and not have to think about thingsg in the morning when I’m rushing around. Like I said, childish, but it works.
5. Down load into thought journals or meditate
Occasionally, I just can’t turn my brain off enough to relax at night. For these times, I have two resources. One option is using a journal to do a brain dump; I like to use the Simplified Journal by Emily Ley because there are a few prompts and ton of space for me to get out everything that’s on my mind. A thought journal can be helpful for tracking thoughts, concerns, and obligations, but sometimes I don’t really need to commit those things to paper. In those cases, I like to just meditate- I like guided meditations slime the ones offered through Headspace. I don’t get my thoughts out, necessary, but I can come to peace with my ticker tape of thoughts and find some space for mental clarity. Either way, this is absolutely a vital part of my winding down.
6. Body maintenance 
I know showering preferences can be divisive, but I like to shower right before bed. For me, it means that I always climb into clean sheets and it conveniently eliminates the need to make time for that in the morning. A lot of people can’t, or don’t prefer to, shower in the morning but I like it and studies suggest that it results in a drop in body temp that makes falling asleep easier. Even if I don’t actually shower before bed, I absolutely wash my face and apply eye cream and moisturizer so that it has time to work over night. And, of course, I brush my teeth and address my contacts and all that jazz; the usual.
7. Pajamas
I didn’t used to wear dedicated pajamas, and even now I don’t always. But there certainly is a case to be made for clothes that are dedicated to one activity- sleeping. Just as experts make the argument that all you should use your bed for is sleeping, having clothes that are only sleeping clothes really cues your mind, letting it know that it’s time for sleep and preparing for that task. Plus, I’ve recently learned that VS jammies are actually really comfy and convenient!
8. Book time
Finally. If there’s any time left over in my evening, I like to read a book. Like, an actual book. As in paper and pages. I’m a reader to start with, but this is my time for trashy novels or the magazines that I haven’t had time to read all month, or doing crossword puzzles or sudoku, or anything that involves paper- I also sometimes too needlework in this time, if I’m so moved. The point here

Chicken Tikka Masala

Oh my word, friends- these past few weeks have been something else! I’m not claiming to have more going on than anyone else, but I am definitely saying that I have more going on than I would prefer :) Between work and class and life- who has time to do anything??

Chicken TikkaIt is for this reason (insanely jam packed schedules) that today’s post is so awesome- I have the most delicious, relatively not- unhealthy, time sensitive dinner. I’m going to call it Chicken Tikka Masala, but you should know that it’s really just my take on the dish. If this were a traditional recipe, my chicken would be marinated in yogurt for a while and then roasted, and I would likely be making my own spice blend. But this isn’t a traditional recipe, so…..LIBERTY!!

The background is this- during a work lunch last week, a friend mentioned that she had made a really good Chicken Tikka in her slow cooker, so she agreed to forward the recipe. (Actually, we were mainly talking about chicken thighs, and how I cannot handle cooking with them or eating them. The fat, and the changing textures, and the color…I’ve tried, but I simply cannot get behind them. Anyway, I digress.) I don’t like using a crock pot (I know, what am I??) so I updated the process and changed around a few ingredients. After I got home from grocery shopping over the weekend I was positively starving, so I threw this together.Chicken Tikka2And it. was. magical.

Chicken Tikka3Seriously, this was a 30 Minute Meal, from grocery bags to sitting down at the table. I was feeling extra time conscious so I used frozen rice, but you can definitely put the rice on first and then start the chicken. And the flavor…amazing!! The only thing missing from my beloved Aab India is the naan, and I didn’t even miss that too terribly. All I’m saying here is that if you’re in need of a quick, delicious weekday meal that doesn’t involve stopping for takeout, this is a definite winner. Give it a try!

Chicken Tikka Masala

Adapted from The Lemon Bowl

2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cleaned
1 medium yellow onion
15 oz can light coconut milk
1 cup plain greek yogurt
About 5 tbsp tomato paste (get a tiny can and use a little more than half)
2 tablespoons grated ginger root (I used the squeeze tube…)
2 garlic cloves, chopped or grated…or in a squeeze tube
3 tablespoons garam masala, divided (I know that you’re thinking you’ll never use this after this recipe, so why buy it? Answer: so you can keep making this recipe.)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoon salt, divided
2-4 tbsp sriracha
1 tsp smoked chipotle powder (optional, but awesome)
½ cup chopped cilantro
Olive oil

Jasmine or basmati rice (Trader Joes makes frozen, so…efficiency!)

Prepare the sauce: in a large bowl, whisk together the yogurt, coconut milk, tomato paste, ginger, garlic, 2 tbsp garam masala, starch and 2 tbsp sriracha. Set aside. Chop the onion to about a medium dice.

Prepare the chicken: Heat a wide, heavy pan to medium high and add about 1 tbsp olive oil. Trim any visible fat from the chicken, cut into 1 inch chunks, and add to the hot pan. Cook the chicken for about seven or eight minutes, turning occasionally so that the edges take on some color. Add the onion, along with 1 tbsp garam masala, 1 tsp kosher salt, and smoke chipotle powder. After about two minutes, pour the yogurt sauce over the chicken, cover, and reduce heat to medium or even medium low (hint: it gets much darker as it cooks). Cook for about fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally (After ten minutes or so, give it a taste test. Add salt and the rest of the sriracha to taste). Remove from the heat and let sit for a minute or two, then serve over rice. Sprinkle one some cilantro- it makes everything taste fresh and wonderful! Serve with naan, or some green veggies, or nothing at all. Life is busy, so you do you :)

February Subscription Boxes: Birchbox and Sample Society

Birchbox February 2015

Birchbox

Monthly delivery for $10/month

Includes 4-5 beauty and lifestyle samples

This month my box included Fekkai Dry Shampoo, Not Soap, Radio Body Wash, Sumita Color Contrast Eyeliner, theBalm Read My Lips Lip Gloss, and Derma e Anti Wrinkle Exfoliating Cleanser. Birchbox has a few options each month- you can choose one of your samples, or you can choose a curated box, or you can choose to be completely surprised. I’m not particular about any of these options- I’ve done all three, and it really depends on whether or not anything really jumps out at me. This month, I was really into the curated box! So, nothing here is a surprise to me, and I don’t mind at all. I’m really into dry shampoo, and having sample sizes around is great for travel. I’ve loved the Not Soap, Radio brand, so always choose their items when available. The eyeliner is interesting (the color was actually a surprise, since they were randomly assigned) but I’m looking forward to seeing if I can make a blue eyeliner work. I’m pretty well set on glosses now, but I’m sure that one of my sisters will love this. And the exfoliating cleanser is perfect- it has a nice texture, but also feels super moisturizing, which is great for my sad winter skin. Overall, I’m pretty happy with my Birchbox this month.

Oh!! Right! So this box was sponsored by Rent the Runway, which is a service that I love and use regularly, so there is a $30 coupon code in the box. I have an event coming up next month that I need a dress for, so I was so thrilled to get this discount! I know that alot of people might not have a reason to use their code, but since I do, this box is an incredible value for me- I couldn’t be more satisfied!

SampleSociety February 2015

Allure Sample Society

Monthly delivery for $15/month

Includes 4-5 full and deluxe sized beauty and makeup samples

This month I received nugg Face Masks, Nails Inc Polish, Batiste Dry Shampoo, Chloe Love Story Perfume Sample, and StriVectin Intensive Illuminating Serum. So let’s start right in on the StriVectin- it was mistakenly sent out last month, so they resent it…and I’m not mad! It has a great value, and the packaging is perfect for saving to use when I travel. You know how I feel about perfume samples (meh) and we talked about my love for dry shampoos above in the Birchbox (yay!) so we can skip over those items. The nail polish is an interesting color, sort of a grey blue, and I’m not really sure about it. I’m not usually very adventurous with my nails, but it seems like I’m getting tons of polish lately, so my nails are currently a minty green and I’ll probably try this color next- why not? And lastly, the masks. I tried the moisturizing one last night, and it was pretty effective. The thing is, if Sample Society had only sent one of these I probably would have been pretty unimpressed with this box. I know adding two more doesn’t significantly increase the value but it does expose me to more products- and that’s my end game. So for me, this box was was a win! Not thrilling, by any means, but I feel pretty satisfied.

So far, no one else seems to be getting boxes- are you guys telling me that I’m the only one among my readers that subscribes? If not, tell me what you guys are looking forward to in the mail :)

 

 

Wellness Wednesday: She Reads Truth

Happy Wellness Wednesday, my friends! I hope you are enjoying a very reflective Ash Wednesday, as well. You might remember that 2015 is my journey in ‘Wellness’ and one aspect of this is spiritual wellness. I’ve always had a pretty strong sense of spirituality- I was raised in the Catholic Church, and I studied religions somewhat seriously in my undergrad. There are so many interesting and compelling aspects of each religion, but I still identified most strongly with the Roman Catholic doctrine on which I was raised, so when we moved to Columbus I joined a local parish and began to contribute to that community as a lay minister.

And then…and then our wedding happened. The experience that my husband and I had with the administration and leadership of the Parish was nothing short of appalling, and it became readily apparent that we were not engaged in a community that was either productive, or supportive, or even particularly community oriented. I was so disappointed- actually, I was heartbroken, and furious. And I knew (hoped?) that it wasn’t a reflection of the larger Catholic Church, but all the same- I quit my church.

Anyway, how this ties back into Wellness Wednesday- I’m really to get my spirituality back on track! I’ve maintained a sense of prayerfulness and quiet reflection over the past two years, sure, but now that I’ve had my cooling off period, I recognize that I need to re-engage in the Catholic Church in a more formal way…and Lent is the perfect season for such an embarkation. One tool that I’m really excited about is an app/website/daily email called She Reads Truth.

She Reads Truth

I discovered She Reads Truth through a friend, and it might be best described as a virtual Bible study for women. It was developed by a group of women who are really committed to making the word of God significant in their lives- I’m not sure, but I don’t believe that any of them are Catholic…and that doesn’t matter at all! What does matter is that they make the Bible accessible, and digestible, and relevant.

She Reads Truth has a number of study plans that cover different books, and different topics. Through Lent, I’m very excited to be following along their Lenten Plan. I signed up for the daily newsletter, but you can also follow the current plan for free on the website, or you can use the app for a nominal charge. As I understand it, there is a community engagement option if you’re interested- I am not into that just yet, but it’s nice to know that it exists. For me, I just prefer to do the daily readings and reflect in solitude. I’m hoping that, by interacting with the Bible and Lenten teachings for the next several weeks, I can begin to rebuild my relationship with the Church and address any deficiencies in spiritual wellness.

 

So that’s Ash Wednesday, and how it applies to Wellness Wednesday, and yet another awesome resource that I’ve found in my quest for wellness. Tell me- what aspect of wellness are you all working towards?

February Popsugar MUSTHAVE Review

Popsugar February 2015PopSugar Must Have

Monthly delivery for $39.95/month

Includes “must have” items across all catagories, targeted for women, chosen by PopSugar editors.Popsugar February 2015b

This month’s box included an ACME Bamboo Cutting Board and Cheese Knife, US Apothecary Rose Water Bubble Bath, Tarte Cosmetics 12-hour Blush in True Love, Chuao Rocky Road Chocolate Bar, Sally Beauty Finger Paints Nailpolish in Pink Imagination, Figs and Rouge Lip Balm in Pomegranate, and Bauble Bar Mini Arrow Necklace in Gold. As it turns out…everything in this box is awesome. The cutting board is my least favorite item, due to the heart shape and the ACME engraving, but I bet I will still put it to use as a blog prop and for entertaining. Many people commented that they don’t like the rose scented bubble bath, but I’m secretly an elderly woman and love it- so much so that I drove to my parents’ house this weekend so I could use their whirlpool tub. People also commented that they didn’t love the necklace, due to the rhinestones or the metal they received, but I really like it- I think the design is dainty, which I prefer, and I’ve started to wear more gold, so that was a win for me. The Tarte blush is a super high value item, and Tarte is a really great brand, so I’m interested to see what the blush looks like with my already pink skin! I always like getting nail polish and lip balm, so these two items are a hit. And the chocolate…delish! Overall, I think it’s pretty clear that I love the February box, and am not at all dissatisfied with the curation or value.

As it relates to costs and expenditures, though…I bought the Popsugar box in December, and used several of the items as gifts. Then in January I had a 50% off code, so felt okay buying it again. I failed to cancel my subscription before February, though, and won’t give anything away, so this is $40 I’m just spending on myself. The items are absolutely a great value, but I probably only would have bought the candy bar of my own volition. So, in the end, I decided to unsubscribe for March because I was having a hard time justifying that expenditure…we’ll see if the spoilers can sway that decision :)

Chocolate Caramel Turtle Cake

So you all are pretty familiar with my dessert game by now- while I love to bake desserts, I don’t love to be eating them all week. To help combat this, I’ve developed a habit of making desserts on the Sundays that Evan works. That way, I can swing by the station and enjoy one slice of cake, but give the rest away to some very appreciative men. This strategy has been very helpful for my waistline, and I suspect that it’s also a hit with the firefighters :)

Chocolate Caramel Turtle CakeAnyway, this week I wanted to make something that would be a great Valentines dessert-  nothing heart shaped or pink, necessarily, but something that was a little bit more decadent than usual. It wasn’t heart to settle on a chocolate cake (because I have a great, fool proof recipe!) but choosing the toppings was a bit more of a challenge. In the end, I settled on a ‘turtle’ theme- because what’s more decadent than salted caramel with a double dose of chocolate, topped with toasted pecans?

Chocolate Caramel Turtle Cake3This is a great cake recipe, for which I can’t take any credit, since it’s a very slightly modified version of Hershey’s Black Magic Cake. I used a ganache/buttercream hybrid that whipped up in a second for the chocolate portion, and then made some dulce de leche, slightly thinned so it would spread. This cake isn’t difficult, by any means, but does have a few steps- so plan to take some time the morning that you plan to serve it (or, even better, the day before!). Also, it doesn’t travel very well- when I was driving to the station the top layer slid all over and the middle filling oozed everywhere. Beautiful or not, though, this cake is sooo delicious, and perfect for your next special event!

Chocolate Caramel Turtle Cake

Caramel:

2 cans sweetened condensed milk

Hershey’s Black Magic Cake (Original Recipe Here), with minor changes

2 cups sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup dark chocolate cocoa

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1 cup strong black coffee, still hot

2 tbsp white vinegar

1/2 cup butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup pecans

Chocolate Frosting:

1 7 oz bag dark chocolate chips

¼ cup milk

1 stick butter, but into pieces

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups powdered sugar

Start with the caramel, which is really dulce de leche: peel the labels off both cans, and plunk them in a saucepan. Cover with water and boil for about three hours. Remove from the pan, let cool for at least an hour, then empty into a mixing bowl, stirring in some milk (if necessary) to achieve a spreadable consistency.

Make the cake: heat the oven to 325 and spray two 9 inch baking pans. Stir together the sugar, flour, cocoa, soda and powder in a large bowl. Add eggs, milk, vinegar, coffee, melted butter and vanilla. Mix only until the ingredients are incorporated, and be aware that the batter will be pretty thin. Divide into pans and bake at 325 for 30 minutes, then increase the heat to 350 and cook 15 more minutes, checking every five minutes to see if the cake is set and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and cool completely. (Baking the cakes at 325 for the first portion is sooo important- the low temp allows the batter to cook without puffing up in the middle, resulting in perfectly flat cakes that I didn’t have to level myself!)

Toast the pecans: spread out on a baking sheet and slip them into the oven while the cake is baking. Bake for about 10 minutes, stirring after 5 minutes to prevent burning. Remove from the over, sprinkle with a generous amount of kosher salt, and set aside.

Make the ganache/frosting/franache?/ganosting?: pour the chocolate chips and milk into a microwave safe bowl and microwave for one minute, then let it sit in the microwave for a few minutes while you’re stirring pecans or rinsing dishes to put in the dishwasher. Remove the bowl from the microwave and stir until smooth and silky. Add the butter pieces, then assemble your hand mixer (or stand mixer, I guess, if you’re so moved). Beat the buttery ganache until the butter is completely incorporated, then add the sugar and vanilla and whip til fluffy. Depending on your climate/humidity and ingredients, you may need to add a touch more powdered sugar to get the frosting to a place where it’s really soft, but holds its shape. Use discretion, my friends, but don’t be afraid! Once your frosting is the perfect consistency, set it aside and get ready for assembly.

Assemble your masterpiece: first, make sure your cakes are level, and place them side by side on the cooling rack (or cutting board, or wherever is handy). Spoon half of the frosting on each layer and spread it out so it’s about a half inch or so from the edge- and make a shallow well in the center. Then, spoon half of the dulce de leche into the center of the chocolate clouds, further spreading the chocolate until it almost reaches the edges. Sprinkle each layer with half of the toasted pecans and, if you like, some kosher salt. Transfer your layers to a serving platter, choosing the most beautiful as the top layer (I like to assemble them each separately to avoid smooshing the filling as much as possible). Service asap, and take any compliments as modestly as possible, while still acknowledging the fact that you are a baking goddess :)

Blueberry Lemon Smothered French Toast

Oooh my word, friends- I have the best idea for your brunching needs this weekend! French toast is a culinary delight in its own right, but smother it with lemon mascarpone filling and drizzle that with blueberry sauce, and it is perfection.

Smothered French ToastMy appreciation for French toast began remarkably early. For my sixth birthday, my mom decided that I could have a slumber party to celebrate. I’m sure it was quite the kindergarten rager, but all I really remember is my dad making breakfast the next morning; there may have been a dozen little girls, and we inhaled two loaves worth of French toast. With three sisters, slumber parties would become a regular occurrence at our house, and you could always count on Dad in the kitchen in the morning, manning the electric griddle to make French toast as fast as we could eat it.

Smothered French Toast 3It’s not surprising, then, that French toast holds a special nostalgic place in my heart, and at least one other post in my blog (you may or may not recall my Caramel Bananas French Toast, a few months ago). So this weekend, I’m offering you another insanely delicious variation on a classic- my Blueberry Lemon Smothered French Toast.

Smothered French Toast 2This version is smothered, not stuffed. I don’t love stuffed French toast because I think it’s really messy, and because I like my eggs to cook through- not raw egg batter hiding in my bread. For this one, I like to use a nice whole grain bread for some texture, and make traditional French toast. Then I smear on some lightly sweetened mascarpone, mixed with lemon juice and peel, and top with a super easy blueberry compote. This dish is fancy enough to impress brunch guests, but totally easy enough to make before climbing back into bed. I hope you enjoy!

Blueberry Lemon Smothered French Toast

  • 4 oz mascarpone cheese
  • 1 tbsp powdered sugar
  • 1 lemon, zested and sliced in half
  • 1 cup blueberries
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch
  • Salt
  • 1 loaf whole grain bread, sliced about ½-3/4 inches thick
  • 4 eggs
  • ½ cup milk
  • ½ tsp vanilla
  • ½ tsp cinnamon

Make the filling: stir the mascarpone together with the lemon zest, and the juice of ½ lemon. Stir in a sprinkle of salt, and set aside.

Make the compote: in a sauce pan, combine the sugar and cornstarch. Stir in the blueberries and juice of ½ lemon, and simmer until thick (I let it simmer away while I’m making the French toast, checking occasionally and adding water if too thick).

Make the French toast: whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. Add some butter to a skillet or griddle that’s over medium heat and coat the bottom. Working with one slice of bread at a time, dip each side into the egg mixture and lay on the griddle. Allow to cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side, or until lovely and golden. Plate the French toast, spread with each slice with the cheese filling and spoon over the compote. Enjoy!!

Amazing Chicken Tortilla Soup

When I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am bringing a strong soup game this winter, I was not kidding! I have classes on Monday and Tuesday evenings after work, from 5:00-9:30, so dinner usually needs to be completely prepared in advance, or I end up eating take-out…which makes me feel awful and doesn’t do anything to set me up for the rest of the week. To combat this, I’ve taken to making a huge pot of soup on Sundays and eating it for lunch, dinner, or snacks the entire week (or until it runs out). Knowing that I have a healthy, delicious option mere moments away usually deters me from hitting the drive-thru between work and class, or on my way home.

I’m a person that usually struggles with left overs, though- I get bored easily, and I tend to hate the taste of microwaved food (why, yes- I am a finicky eater!). So I know that, if I’m planning to eat leftovers, they need to be really delicious, insanely flavorful, and need to reheat well. In my experience, dishes with lots of liquid tend to do best in the microwave- otherwise the texture can change and that definitely affects the taste. Soup fits the bill in this regard, especially one that is jam-packed with flavor, like today’s Chicken Tortilla Soup.

Chicken Tortilla Soup3Full disclosure: I have been working on tortilla soup for about two years now, and it’s always come up short. I don’t like a creamy soup (a la Max and Erma’s velveeta disaster) but I couldn’t seem to get enough body with a broth based version. Then I couldn’t figure out which peppers were best for maximum flavor without overpowering spiciness. Finally, through uncountable trial batches (don’t worry, no one minded taste testing) I landed on this incredible recipes.

Chicken Tortilla Soup2Friends, I am not exaggerating when I say that this soup is incredible.

This is one of my recipes that is not particularly quick, nor simple. There are plenty of short cuts available (like using rotisserie chicken and boxed stock/broth) though, so please don’t let that stop you! On the other hand, if you have two hours available on a Saturday afternoon, making this recipe from scratch would not be a bad way to spend your time.

Chicken Tortilla Soup

Amazing Chicken Tortilla Soup

  • Olive oil
  • Chicken (one whole 4-5 lb chicken, or 2-3 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts, or about 3-4 cups of shredded chicken)
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp chipotle powder
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp salt**
  • 6-8 cups water or 4 cups of broth and some water**
  • 2 cans fire roasted tomatoes
  • 1(7 oz) can green chiles**
  • 2 chipotles in adobo**
  • 1/2 cup cilantro**
  • 1 onion
  • 1 orange or red pepper
  • 3 stalks celery
  • 4-5 cloves garlic
  • 1-2 cans black beans
  • 4 corn tortillas
  • 1 lime
  • Toppings: lime wedges, monterey cheese, avocado, crispy tortilla strips, sour cream, etc

** FOOD NOTES: the amount of broth you end up using is completely discretionary. I like a thinner soup, so I use more, and Evan likes a thicker soup, so he would prefer I use less. Add water and broth until you achieve a texture that makes you happiest. Salt is also completely discretionary- I use a pinch of salt at nearly every step, so in addition to the spice mix, I probably also salt the veggies, and the blended tomatoes, and the final product. The only way you will learn what you prefer is to taste often, and practice. Remember, you can always add more! As it pertains to heat- the green chiles are not particularly spicy, but the chipotles are. If you’re trying for a less spicy soup, I recommend that you use the chiles and only use the adobo sauce that the chipotles are in (it has a distinctly smokey flavor that you could leave out, but is better in!). And the cilantro- I know that ½ cup seems like a lot, and it would be if it were being served fresh! But after it cooks for a while in the soup, all that flavor is subdued into something much more subtle. I really suggest that you stick to that amount and try it- I don’t think you will be disappointed J

Prepare the chicken and broth: First, stir together the spice mixture. If you already have shredded chicken, stir about half of the spices into the chicken, set that aside, and move on to the next step. If you’re using the raw chicken (whole or parts) use half of the spices, and rub them into the flesh of the chicken. Heat a heavy cast iron to medium high heat, add a tablespoon of oil, and sear the meat for a few minutes on all sides, until browned. Cover with water (about 8 cups) top with the lid, and let simmer for about 1 hour (or until a meat thermometer indicates that it is cooked through). When the chicken is cooked, transfer to plate or cutting board to cool for at least 30 minutes. Strain the broth into another bowl/pitcher/large measuring cup, and clean the dutch oven. When cool enough to handle, pull the chicken from the bones and tear into bite sized pieces; discard the carcass.

Prepare the broth component: In a blender, mix the tomatoes, chiles, chipotles, and cilantro. If you need to, add some of the broth to thin to a pourable consistency- but you don’t want it to be very thin at this point.

Prepare the soup: Dice the onion, orange pepper and celery into a medium dice, and finely slice the tortillas. Mince the garlic, and drain and rinse the black beans. Heat the dutch oven or soup pot to medium or medium-low heat, and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Saute the onion, pepper and celery for three or four minutes, until they start to soften a bit. Add the tortillas and garlic, and season with a pinch of salt. Cook this for another seven or eight minutes, adjusting the heat as needed, until the tortillas start to break down. Add the other half of the spice mixture, cooking for a minute, then stir in the chicken and beans. This will be a bit dry, but cook for two or three more minutes (you really want the tortillas to break down as much as possible before adding more liquid, to add texture and release that corn flavor). Stir in the blended pepper and tomato mix, and cook for another fifteen minutes. Finally, stir in the reserved broth- you may need to supplement with water to achieve your desired soup consistency. Simmer for twenty minutes, then remove from the heat and stir in the juice of one lime, and salt to taste.

Serve: with any and all toppings. I like avocado and extra lime, Evan likes extra tortillas to thicken- do it up!