Book Bonanza

We’re already halfway through August and I have so much to catch you guys up on! But I’ll start with my most recent excitement – a trip to Book Bonanza in Grapevine, Texas!

Book Bonanza is an event that started last year, created by my favorite author Colleen Hoover, her sisters, and her team at The Bookworm Box – a bookstore and subscription service that Colleen also founded and uses as a tool to donate thousands upon thousands of dollars to charity. I wasn’t aware of Book Bonanza until it was actually happening last year and I was SO jealous. I definitely jumped at the chance to go this year – buying my ticket last September and preparing for it in the following eleven months! If you read my monthly book recaps you’ll notice I’ve been VERY heavy on Book Bonanza authors the last few months, trying to make sure I fit in as many of the most highly recommended books that I could before I had a chance to meet those authors in person.

The event this year (and all future years) was held at the huge Gaylord Texan Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas. There were around 150 attending authors and close to 2000 attendees. It was a massive event, but SO well organized and thoroughly planned out. There were multiple facebook groups (attendees and those planning to go solo) with plenty of opportunity to meet people ahead of time, talk books, and really get hyped up about everything. This was my first time in Texas, so I decided to really take advantage of the trip and added on a few days in Dallas afterward to do some exploring. After eleven months of planning and paying attention to everyone’s insane game plans for getting author signatures and all the other prepwork that went into this event, I was actually feeling pretty apprehensive about the trip by the time I left. But all in all, I think it turned out pretty great!

I was able to take an uber to the hotel from the airport with a fellow solo attendee to cut back on costs (one time lol) and was really excited to able to check into my hotel a few hours early. After a little bit of exploration I decided to eat at their Riverwalk Cantina. It was a Mexican restaurant that was entirely enclosed, but also had a river running through it, giving you the appearance and feel of sitting outdoors at an adorable little cafe. Their chips were so tasty! The brisket tacos were good.

Book Bonanza didn’t officially begin until Friday morning, but we were able to check in and pick up our swag bags on Thursday afternoon. They also had a smaller version of their bookstore completely set up, where basically everyone immediately ran to after checking in! That began my weekend of standing in lines. SO MANY LINES. The cool thing is that everyone was just so happy and excited to be there, that the atmosphere was fun and friendly. I didn’t really make any new friends – I also didn’t even try – but it was great to have that camaraderie and be surrounded by so many book loving kindred spirits.

I realized pretty quickly I really should have brought more snacks! There were technically nine different dining options inside the hotel, but I only ever walked by three of them – two very expensive sit down restaurants and more of a convenience store type place. I wasn’t hungry enough for a full meal, but also didn’t want to skip eating all together, so I picked up a turkey sandwich (that was gross) and an enormous peanut butter Texas sized cookie. My original intention for the night was to head out into Grapevine and explore a little. But I knew I was too tired for that, so I thought I’d just read in my room and rest up for Friday. But there was just so much excitement going on in the halls, that I kept going back out to just walk around and soak it all up. And check out the bookstore a few more times!

Friday morning kicked off with a welcome panel of authors that have had their books made into movies or tv shows – Colleen Hoover (Confess), Caroline Kepnes (You), Anna Todd (After), and E. L. James (50 Shades). After that everyone split up and chose between six different options of author panels each hour for the next three hours. The first one I went to was called “ROMCOM,” which was pretty funny. The only author I had read from that group was Avery Flynn. Next I went to “Giving Us the Giggles,” which was hysterical. I hadn’t read any of those authors – but I plan to! I finished with “Redeeming the Bad Guy,” which turned out to be a much more serious discussion than I was expecting. I really enjoyed the panels – and doing something other than looking for author signatures. My only regret was that I should have chosen to go to panels with authors I already knew, rather than choosing by topic alone. I might have had more fun with it. Though I did really enjoy seeing how many of the authors seem to be genuine real life friends with each other. I guess it never even crossed my mind that writers seek out other writers and form some great friendships!

After the panels was a two hour block for lunch – which most people took to stand in line for the first signing block at 2:00. I got in line for lunch, which turned out to be a sandwich that looked a whole lot like the one I bought the night before. So I took it to my room to eat later (which I never did) and chose instead to go back to the Cantina for their lunch buffet. Allllll the chips I could eat. Actually, very few people were in the restaurant and I felt like the waiters were all staring at me, so it was kind of a very uncomfortable meal. But it was delicious!

The line was already so ridiculously long by lunch time (many people also skipped the panels to get an earlier place in line), that I gave myself a little break and didn’t join the line until 2:45 – when I expected everyone would be in the room by then. Nope! The line snaked through the entire convention center and the entire indoor river area. It was insane. I was least interested in getting author signatures – when I went to my first book signing last summer (Colleen Hoover’s), I felt so awkward and stupid, it was an experience I never really wanted to repeat. And then I came to Book Bonanza, where this was like the whole point. I honestly would have probably skipped it entirely, but I had a few books preordered from authors and the only way to get them would be to face the crowds! The more popular authors went by a wristband system, so you got a numbered wristband and then waited for your number to be up – ensuring only about 15 people would be standing in a line at a time. Of course the two authors I whittled my list down to – because of the preorders – had long waits. I ended up walking back and forth to my room multiple times during the block.

I was about ready to give up, when in the final ten minutes the volunteer for Penny Reid let me stand in her line, even though my number wasn’t anywhere close to being called. I love Penny’s Winston Brothers series, and two of her newest books in the Dear Professor series. I was really excited to get to meet her in person – and get my photo with Cletus, one of my all time favorite book characters!

Penny told me that she loved my braids and my earrings, which is why she wrote about watching me creepily. Anyway, most of the attendees were there just to get those author signatures. Everyone had carts full of books. I only ended up bringing three books from home – and then didn’t even attempt to get them signed. I can understand the excitement of seeing authors you adore, but it was hard to muster up enthusiasm (for me) to talk to people I haven’t read before. While I was waiting I did get a few authors to sign a Book Beau I had bought (it’s a padded book case), but every single one of them asked me what my favorite of their books was and I had to hem and haw and finally admit I hadn’t read them. AWKWARD. I was more than happy to skip the signing blocks on Saturday. It’s just not my thing.

Right after the signing, there was an event called Rocking at Book Bonanza, which was basically another signing with only 26 of the authors in a different location. We were all given a free autograph book for that one, so I stood in line for the book and promptly went back to my room! The evening ended with a Q&A session between Colleen, Anna Todd and actor Hero Fiennes Tiffin and a showing of their movie After. It was a late night! But I was excited to see the movie since it only lasted about a week in the theater here. Everything that made me so incredibly angry about that book did not come through in the movie, so I’m definitely interested in continuing the series to figure out why it’s such a phenomenon!

So, I kind of played hooky from Book Bonanza for most of Saturday. The only thing on the schedule was a four hour signing block, another bagged lunch which I assume would be the same turkey sandwich, and then another four hour signing block. I had no interest in any more signing attempts, so I had a somewhat lazy morning and then took the first available shuttle bus into downtown Grapevine to do a little shopping. It was already SO HOT by then. I’m trying not to be annoying about this because obviously it was Texas and it’s August and it’s just going to be hot. I knew that. Clearly. But it didn’t take away from how hot it actually did feel. I’ve never felt so disgusting and sweaty and suffocatingly hot in my life, every day that I ventured outside. It was awful.

I walked through Grapevine’s indoor farmers market and their small outdoor one. It was fun to see all the stuff, but also depressing because I would have loved to have bought some salsas and hot sauces, but I just didn’t trust the airline’s ability to not break a glass container in my suitcase. I went into a couple of stores and bought a few spices at a spice market. I finally had a very late breakfast of this amazingly delicious sugar donut – fresh from the fryer – and a mocha at a coffee shop (that was not good). I only lasted two hours before I was more than ready to hop back on the shuttle and go back to the hotel.

I took a little break back in my room and then spent some time walking back and forth to get boxes from BB’s shipping station, pack up all my books and swag, and go back to ship it all out. I forgot to take a photo of all my stuff before I packed it up, and I don’t have it yet at home, so I’ll have to add that on later! I ended up with quite a stack of new books – most of which were free. I even ended up leaving eight free books behind because I was pretty sure I’d never read them, so why pay to send them home? I still had a lot of time before the evening festivities, so I took an uber to a Mexican restaurant I had researched. It was good. I picked that one because it was across the street from an enormous mall – making the price of my uber ride a little more worth it. I walked the whole mall, but nothing was unique or special about it. Kind of a waste of an afternoon, honestly. At least I got some good food out of it.

At 6:00 there was a cocktail party put on by Passionflix. I stopped by to see what it was and got a small plate of cheese and crackers. I wasn’t really in the mood to try and mingle with strangers – most of which had buddied and grouped up after standing in so many lines together. I went to my room again and finished the night at the closing ceremonies and karaoke night. This was a charity event, and in the end it raised $80K which was split between multiple causes. Once the ceremony was over, the authors did karaoke and eventually anyone could participate. I stayed about another hour until I figured that was enough!

Anyway, I really had a great time on Friday, but for obvious reasons felt pretty disconnected on Saturday. I’m definitely glad I got to experience it and be at such a fun event, but I’m also not sure it’s something I’d do again. Next year they’re changing the scheduling up a bit and having it over three days, which does sound intriguing. But two years in a row would be a lot. This was an expensive trip! The hotel alone – yikes! (But worth EVERY PENNY to have a room to myself to relax in!) Book Bonanza has opened my eyes to the possibility of seeking out OTHER book conferences and events, though. My original uber friend was telling me about a few that she’s been to where it’s almost all panels and speaking. I think that might be more my thing! I’ll have to look into those possibilities in the coming years. 🙂

On Sunday morning I packed up and ubered to my next hotel in downtown Dallas. I planned to store my bag and go exploring, but I was actually able to check in already at 10:30! My first stop was a walk to the Dallas Farmers Market. They have a permanent indoor building which is all smaller restaurants – one of my all time favorite things to seek out in larger cities. And because it was the weekend they also had an outdoor market set up, also with many actual meal food booths. Very little produce! And a crazy number of stands that just sold infused waters and juices and teas. Texans at least know the importance of staying hydrated in that heat!

I got a mango juice outside that was divine and after three walks around the building landed on jerk chicken sliders from a Caribbean restaurant inside. That was by far the best meal I ate on the trip. It was so spicy and SO delicious. I picked up some macaroons to eat later, though I’ve realized for the second them they really just don’t appeal to me.

I went back to my hotel afterward and picked up a fresh watermelon infused iced tea from the attached coffee shop. It was really tasty! Then I finally took a nap – the only nap I took the entire trip! I somehow thought this vacation was going to get me so rested up. No such luck! I honestly felt so icky and crappy the entire trip. I know I’m showing you a lot of good food pics, but most of my meals I only ate about half of. I’m not sure if it was simply the heat or I was actually sick, but physically it was a really rough trip.

In the evening I went for a walk about six blocks around my hotel and saw the JKF Memorial and some other downtown sites.

I was stuck again with not feeling great, not being particularly hungry, but not wanting to just skip another meal since I was already only eating like one meal a day, so I stopped at this wing place I had researched ahead of time. I only ate a few bites – really should have just skipped it.

Monday was my last full day and I was bound and determined to try and suck up my heat wimpiness and make the most of it. For breakfast I had a cold brew at the hotel.

I took a walk to the famous cattle drive sculptures. That was cool to see!

Next I took an uber to the Bishop Arts District of Dallas. I was under the impression this was going to be a long street filled with unique shopping opportunities, but in actuality it was just a single block with a handful of stores that weren’t set to open for another one to two hours later than when I got there. There was no way I was going to just sit outside that whole time, and I didn’t want to wander too far, so I stopped at the first restaurant I happened upon. I thought I was going into just a coffee shop, not a sit down place, but figured I might as well stay once I was there. I had banana bread french toast with fruit.

The shops ended up being a disappointment. There was one local artist place that I waited an extra hour for it to open and bought a couple of 4×6 prints. The main reason I wanted to go to that side of town in the first place – for a unique bookstore and a grilled cheese restaurant – were rendered pointless since I had just eaten something else (and was feeling really sick) and the bookstore didn’t open another two hours. So I picked another random place online and ubered to an antique store, also assuming there would be other places nearby to check out. Nope! That one was on the side of a highway! I was totally over exploring in the 112 degree heat at that point and went back to the hotel.

One of the first restaurants I had researched was called Wild Salsa. I was so excited when I realized it was only a block from my hotel. I realllly wasn’t feeling up to it, but it was my last chance to eat there, so I headed over on Monday night for dinner. I have to say I’ve had way better Mexican food in Madison for a whole lot less money. I just went back to the hotel for the rest of the night. Though I should point out that my Dallas hotel had a giant bathtub and I had brought a bunch of pampering things, so I was plenty happy to have the time to just chill out and relax. It’s just hard to shake the feeling of not doing enough, when I’m on a vacation to see a place I’d never been to before.

I had zero ambitions about doing anything else on Tuesday morning, so I went to the airport three hours early and just walked and walked and walked. I picked up this honey butter chicken on a jalapeno biscuit from Whataburger and it was the second best thing I had to eat on the trip – shocking!

The rest of my day was very long, but mostly uneventful. It was one of the worst plane rides I’ve ever been on – I honestly was on the brink of a panic attack because it was so flippin hot and I felt like I was suffocating. The airplane couldn’t counteract the heat from however long it was sitting in Dallas. That combined with the turbulence made for a pretty miserable flight. But I rewarded myself with a stop at Home Goods and Marshall’s before coming home to my family! They were all very excited to see me. I missed them too.

And that was my trip! I’m really glad I went and I did genuinely have a good time. But I really have no desire to ever go to Texas again, especially not in summer. It also reminded me how much more joy I find in vacations with outdoor spaces to breathe and appreciate beauty. Big cities are SO not for me. It was a great break from reality, though, and is really going to help launch me through these final weeks of summer. Solo vacations are the best!

My Favorite Things

Last night I hosted my fourth annual Favorite Things Party. It’s one of my favorite holiday traditions! It’s a great way to see friends and celebrate the season together in a unique and fun way. It’s also an awesome way to give and get some really cool presents! (I am ALL about presents!) All you do is invite a group of great people over and ask everyone to bring three of their favorite things in a certain price range (I did $8-10 this year) wrapped and ready to give. Provide a bit of food (I always do a mega cheese tray and wine), let everyone else know they’re welcome to bring their own treats if they choose, and then gather and enjoy! After a proper amount of time to linger and eat you have everyone put their name three times on paper in a bowl and go around the circle drawing recipients for each of your gifts and explaining a little about why that item is your favorite thing. It’s really fun, you’re pretty much guaranteed to go home with three really great little gifts, and you have plenty of ideas for other special things you might want to check out later. It always turns out to be a great night!

As I was thinking about my favorite things for this party, I decided I really ought to do a blog post of my favorite things of the year. I kind of have a tendency to get totally obsessed with certain items and I just want to share them with the world! I’ve been considering doing a more regular post on my favorite new thing of the week or month, so keep a lookout for that! 🙂 In the meantime, here’s a pretty comprehensive list of everything I’ve been obsessed with in the last year.

Formula 10.0.6 Peeling Face Masks

This was the first item I picked out to give at my party. I first tried the orange Get Your Glow On Peeling Mask earlier this year when I saw them at Target and picked a few up as little Valentine gifts for some friends. (They don’t sell them at the local target anymore, but you can find them at Ulta and target.com.) I think the peeling masks are so much more fun and feel so much more useful than sheet masks (which I’m not against, I just like the peeling!). This one smells great. I was really excited to see Ulta put out a sample set of all six of their masks this Christmas. I immediately bought one for myself and my party gift. Funnily, my friend Laura is the one who ended up with it – one of the friends I gave the original mask to at Valentine’s Day, who I also gave a set of masks to for her birthday last month because she told me how much she loves them, and she brought these masks as one of her own favorite things to give! They’re great. 🙂

Bones Coffee

So I only started drinking coffee on my 33rd birthday when my mom gave me a Keurig that I wanted pretty much just because the cool robin’s egg blue color matched my kitchen. In the last 14 months I’ve become a bit of an addict. While I definitely love my Keurig for its speed and ease (the boys especially love it for making their own hot cocoa whenever the mood strikes), I’ve really been venturing out into “real” coffee the last four or five months. I don’t really like the way any of it tastes in the Keurig’s reusable cup, so I’ve since acquired a french press, an aeropress, and from a Cyber Monday sale – a little pourover. I think I like the taste from the french press best, especially with this brand of coffee, but the pourover is really winning me over because it’s so much easier to clean (with our plumbing issues I have to try crazy hard to not get ANY grounds going down the drain). Anyway, I think I just came across Bones from a random facebook ad and took a chance on it buying multiple sample packs over the last few months. And I love it! It’s incredible to me how each of the flavors comes through so strongly (I only liked flavored coffees). My favorite flavor is one that they had this summer as a limited edition – chocolate covered strawberry cheesecake. The chocolate, the strawberry, the cheesecake – every flavor was so distinct in every sip. I’ve liked every flavor I’ve tried except perhaps the chocolate orange. But I’m not a huge orange fan to begin with and the flavor was super strong on that one.

Candles from TJMaxx and Marshall’s

The third gift I gave at the party were three little candles from Marshall’s in holiday themed scents. I’ve always loved candles, especially in wintertime, but in the last couple of months I have been seriously obsessed. I have to look at them in every store I go to, but my favorite place to buy them are discount stores like TJMaxx and Marshall’s because you can get the most bang for your buck and most of their candles really smell amazing. My favorite company, and the one they seem to sell the most of, is DW Home. The cinnamon scents are always a sure bet, but I like a lot of their pines and vanillas too. Though Greg is apparently super sensitive to pine scents now, so I’m not allowed to burn them when he’s home. 🙁 If you enjoy candles and don’t want to spend a ton of money on them, I highly recommend checking out these stores. The variety is huge and it changes with every season.

Third Love’s 24/7 Perfect Coverage Bra

I was on the hunt for a new bra for over a year. I tried so many online companies and went to pretty much every store I could think of that sells bras for more (ahem) well endowed women. It was so discouraging. I had heard about Third Love a million times because they’ve sponsored so many of the podcasts I listen to. But I was pretty turned off by the price. Eventually, armed with a good coupon code, I decided to give them a shot. And I will never go back! They are seriously the most comfortable and well fitting bras I have ever tried. I did their fit finder quiz and they recommended a size different from what I’d been wearing and it worked so perfectly. The only downside to Third Love is that they seem to sell out very quickly whenever they have a size in stock. Also, if you need the bigger sizes, this is the only style they sell them in so it’s the only one I can vouch for. It’s taken me about eight months, but I’ve now acquired six of them and threw away all my old ones. These are the best and SO worth the price to have something that fits properly and will last a long time.

Mantraband Bracelets

I discovered Mantrabands when I was laid up after my ankle surgery. Something about the simple cuff with words of encouragement so plainly stated really resonated with me and what I needed during those months. I have four of them now and wear them when I’m feeling a little down on myself or my life. I really like that they come in multiple colors and have so many different mantras to choose from. There have been a couple times in the last few months they’ve even offered the chance to write your own mantra on a band. I think these would make perfect gifts for anyone going through a time of struggle and needs a little uplifting.

Mezzetta Habanero Hot Sauce

This has been my favorite hot sauce for probably the last eleven years. I have very vivid memories of stopping at the only store in Minnesota that I knew sold it on my way home from work before I had Caden. Because it’s been such long standing favorite and I eat it multiple times a week right now, it definitely deserves a spot on my favorites list. I love spicy food, tacos are my true love, and I need a good hot sauce to spice everything up. I’m not a fan of cayenne based sauces, jalapeno sauces are rare and kind of weird, but habanero – the best. Over the years I had a hard time getting ahold of this because it was only available on their website with massive shipping costs. But now it’s on amazon and makes me so happy! It can never, ever go away.

Only Love Today Book

I’ve been reading this book for over a year. Not because it’s crazy long or hard to get through, but because I want to savor each little nugget it has to offer. It’s hard to describe exactly what kind of book this is, but I’d probably call it a bit of a devotional, with less (but not no) emphasis on religion/God. I think it’s an amazing book for anybody who has children living at home with them. Rachel Macy Stafford offers so much wisdom on putting those little lives and your relationship with them above everything else because love is what truly matters in life. Each “chapter” is only a page or two long and I usually read one a day during my morning quiet time. I can’t recommend this book enough!

Cool and Unique Mugs

My coffee obsession has come with a mug obsession. And I’m pretty picky about what I like. For awhile I was mostly using handmade pottery mugs that I picked up at craft fairs. But more recently I’ve gotten addicted to checking out Marshall’s or TJMaxx for mugs. Every once in awhile I find an amazing one – and it’s usually the only one there (like this pumpkin spice llama mug above). I’ve started collecting so many that I only have space to store 10ish at a time, so I’m now fully committing to have an arsenal of mugs to rotate by season! This was definitely my favorite fall find. A few weeks ago I found an amazing Santa one I use almost every day.

TJMaxx/Marshall’s/Home Goods

Okay, yes, I have a problem. Like seriously, an absolute addiction to these stores. I can no longer pass one up, EVER. I think this began when we lived in Minnesota and every month or two I’d drive to the next town over to visit their TJMaxx Home Goods. I’ve always liked stopping by them when I’m shopping in an area with one, but lately – I NEED to go in. Always. When I took my Minnesota vacation in August by myself I went to every discount store in every town. That’s seriously all I did for an entire day. I think I like them so much because every visit is like a treasure hunt. The stock changes so rapidly. Lately, with all the fun seasonal things out, I’ve been going to the closest Marshall’s almost every single week. I can’t stop. I’ve already mentioned candles and mugs are my favorite things to look for, but I also really love checking out the bath and beauty section, the food area, the blankets (they have THE BEST blankets) and pillows, and the small stationary/notebook section. The only areas I rarely look at are clothes, which I guess is the bulk of the store. But there are so many treasures to be found around the edges! I’ve also realized that one day every week or so, tjmaxx.com offers free shipping. Dangerous! I’ve gotten a few great blankets and pillows online that I haven’t seen in store. I’m super excited that they’re currently building a TJMaxx and a Home Goods store right between the Target and Costco I shop at every week in Sun Prairie! I can’t wait!

Bombas Socks

This is a new obsession, but already a favorite. I’ve never been that excited or interested in socks, but with the shifting winter weather I had been getting frustrated with all the lighter weight socks I wore all summer (needed tennis shoes every day for my ankle – lame!). Bombas had so many great coupon codes around Black Friday that I decided to check them out. And I LOVE THEM. Definitely pricey, but they seem to be very high quality, very thick and comfortable, and they offer coupon codes pretty often. I love these so much that (spoiler alert) a lot of people might be getting a pair for Christmas this year!

Frostbeard Studio Candles

My brother gave me this candle for my birthday and I loved it so much! I’ve heard of Frostbeard Studio before, but had never ordered a candle before. I loved that it’s a candle for book lovers (great marketing for book lovers! :)) and it actually smelled amazing. I’ve since ordered a few more in Christmasy scents. The Bookstore one is still my favorite and I really like Christmas in the Burrows. I currently have Bah Humbug lit right next to me. These candles are definitely more expensive, but I use it as a little treat to myself when I’m sitting down at my computer or in my chair to read for a long period of time. It doesn’t appear to be available at the moment, but I’m really hoping to get their Bookworm and Old Books scents sometime in the future.

Coffee Gator Pour Over Kettle

If you’re making coffee in any of the methods I talked about above, this is almost an essential accompanying item. Also – all of those coffee things are really only best if you’re making one cup/coffee for only one person. Which works great for me, but maybe not the best if you drink more than a cup at a time or are making for multiple people. Anyway, this little kettle is so much cooler than microwaving water and trying (and often failing) to get the perfect temperature. This one will tell you when it hits the ideal temperature. I love it! It really works great with the same company’s little pourover in teal that I bought last week.

Scribbles that Matter Bullet Journal

I started a new bullet journal at the beginning of this school year and this is the brand I went with. It’s really so great! The pages are really thick and it lays flat when opened. I’ve tried many other journals that regular bujo’s recommend, but this has definitely been my favorite. I love all their fun color combinations too!

Pentel EnerGel Pens

Last year I was all about Papermate Flair pens. Which I still LOVE and use every day in my bullet journal. But this year I’ve discovered these and use them everywhere else. They write so smoothly and the colors are great. I of course have a rainbow set at my desk and blues in the area of the house where I actually have to sign important things. 🙂

TACOS

Tacos have been my favorite food for as long as I can remember. But it’s only been in recent years that I realized tacos can be soooo much more than seasoned ground beef, hot sauce, and cheese in a hard taco shell. I’ve become seriously obsessed with tacos in all their flavors and forms. Whenever I go on a trip I’m immediately looking for cool taco joints. I went to a few amazing ones in DC this fall. There’s one in Madison called Bel Air Cantina that we all love. I usually eat at Chipotle or Qdoba every single week on my big errand days. I recently bought a tortilla press and figured out how easy homemade corn tortillas are to make. I often whip up chicken tacos for my lunches multiple times a week. I even occasionally eat egg breakfast tacos – and I don’t normally like eggs! I try to make Taco Tuesday an actual thing and try different recipes every week. I have at least six different taco cookbooks. This is my most recent one and I love all the simple yet delicious ideas it has. Tacos are the one food I could never, ever live without. SO GOOD.

A Space of Your Own

I fell in love with our house because of this living room. And because the tv and video games and everything are in the family room at the back of the house, I’m the one who spends the most time in this pretty area (where my computer also is). I realize not everyone can basically claim a room mostly for themselves (and their dog!). But I think it’s so vitally important to try and carve out a little nook for doing whatever makes you happiest. When we lived at our apartment, that was my sewing area. And while I also have a great full sewing room at our house, my favorite area is my little book corner with the amazing gigantic chair Greg got me for my birthday. I try to spend at least a little time reading there every day. Sometimes I just sit and savor the comforting solitude. It’s awesome in December when I also get to take in all the Christmas decorations and candles. This is pretty much my favorite place in the world and I’m so lucky I get to spend my time in it every single day!

BOOKS

I’ve saved my ultimate favorite thing of all time for last – BOOKS. I absolutely adore, love, and lust after books almost every minute of every day. I’ve loved reading for always, but this year actual books in their physical form have become so beloved to me. Granted, I still really like reading on my kindle because it’s easier and more portable and can be done in the dark. But I love BOOKS so much. I want them all. I want to research them, look at them, hold them, shop for them, think about them, read them, share them, gift them. If all anybody ever gave me for the rest of my life was books I would be so very happy. My favorite of the year has been The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. I read it back in February, but I still think about it often. It was so fun and delightful and a delicious romance. I know it might not be for everyone, but I loved it soooo very much. I’m so excited for Thorne’s next book coming out in January!

I think that’s about it! I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things, but this is a pretty comprehensive list of everything I’ve been obsessed with this year! I would LOVE to hear about your favorite things!

November 2018 Reflections

Happy end of November!

I’m so behind in my posts, I decided to just go ahead and do my monthly recap instead of trying to remember what I did every day the last two weeks and just write about that. It feels a little irrelevant and boring at this point. Or maybe always?! 🙂

Looking back at my goals from the beginning of the month, I was planning for a slow November. It was far from slow! Something about this school year, or this fall, seems busier than it’s ever been. We’re constantly running around, seem to have things going on almost every night, and I am just crazy busy trying to balance everything during the day. It’s so exhausting. I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong or this is just the season of life we’re in right now and I need to learn to deal with it. I’m really hoping winter will finally quiet down. Because I’m terrified of walking on potentially slippery ground EVER AGAIN, I think winter will be quiet just because I’m going to flat out refuse to go anywhere!

Anyway, here’s a quick recap on the goals I was aiming for in November. I think I did a pretty great job this month!

1. Write EVERY DAY

Well, I gave up on this one in the middle of the month because it was stressing me out and putting too much pressure on my already overloaded mind. It’s funny how by giving myself permission to prioritize writing, I suddenly had very little interest in doing it. I’ve just been too busy to even want to stop and get my thoughts down. But…it’s okay. I guess this is why I’m not a career writer. Maybe that is never meant to be.

2. Stop eating fast food for the sake of having a fast meal

This has been really tough, guys. This whole weight loss journey I began about five weeks ago has been A STRUGGLE. So many emotional ups and downs. So many days of the scale going up and down. As of today, 34 days after I started, I’m down 8.4 pounds. Which is great, I think! My goal was to lose 10 pounds by the end of January, so I’m doing far better than I expected of myself. But most of the loss was in those first few weeks when I was using Noom and Lose It. I’m proud of myself for still going down now that I’m doing everything totally on my own without counting calories, but the changes day to day feel very insignificant. Anyway, I definitely have times of being totally hangry pretty much every day. I miss eating  what I want, when I want, and not thinking about portion size. I REALLY miss grabbing fast and easy food choices when I’m out running errands and feel like I’m starving. I realized that I just can’t have a full shopping day and expect myself to still come home and take the time to make a healthy late lunch for myself. So once a week I’ve been going to Qdoba or Chipotle which feels like a very worthy reward for being pretty good the rest of the week. And since errand days are always the days I get the most steps, I feel justified in splurging for the extra calories. As for actual fast (fried) food, I’ve only had it once. I planned it, which was within the rules I set for myself. I ordered a chicken and waffle sandwich from KFC. And it was SO not worth it. I’m going to stick with this goal for next month too. I just want to remember how crappy I feel after eating certain foods and drill it into my brain that it is not worth feeling like crap just for the convenience of something fast I can eat while I drive back home.

3. Finish 75% of my Christmas shopping

Okay, I’m not going to do the math, but I’d guess that I’m at least 90% done!! It’s been a pretty crazy two weeks of doing research on what to get everyone, finding the best deals, trying to take advantage of all the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. But with the exception of a few small filler gifts, I’m basically done. With everyone! I’ve been a bit overwhelmed, though, because when you do all your Christmas shopping for about 25 people – most of them needing multiple gifts – in a week and a half, all of those gifts start showing up at your door at the same time. Part of the reason I feel like I’m getting absolutely nothing done this week is that every single day a massive pile of boxes is delivered to my door and I need to figure out what to do with all of them. I did a round of wrapping earlier this week to try and further get ahead of everything, but it’s just A LOT to deal with. But when it’s all done, hopefully within the next week, I will be SO relieved to just sit back and relax and not have to worry about gift buying anymore in the month of December.

4. Write a Book Bonanza reading list

This is probably one of the easiest and most enjoyable things I’ve assigned myself, but I haven’t done it yet. There are maybe around 120ish authors who will be at Book Bonanza in August, and I’ve at most read books by 5-8 of them, I’m guessing. I’d really love to do a quick search on every author and find at least one book of theirs I’d like to read by the time I head to Texas in August to meet them. I suppose the month isn’t over yet, but I did buy my Book Bonanza ticket almost three months ago, so I really need to get going on this list!

5. Have a meaningful date with Caden

We did this! A few weeks ago we went to The Mineshaft and shared a huge pile of appetizers followed by games in the arcade. It was really nice! I want to make this a more regular part of our monthly routine.

Reflections on the last two weeks

Treat your delivery drivers

I heard about this idea last year from Jessica Turner at The Mom Creative. You fill up a box of treats (ideally food AND drinks, but the drinks are too risky in the below freezing temps most days around here) and leave it out for all your delivery drivers. I started a this a few weeks earlier than last year since all of my packages have already been rolling in. I also got a cover this year because last year the squirrels realized that box of snacks existed and raided it every single day, leaving food wrappers strewn around the neighborhood. Anyway, I think it’s just a really fun thing to do. Maybe they’ll take something, maybe they won’t, but at least the gesture means something. My dad has worked at FedEx my whole life and I know how insane this time of the year is for all delivery workers. I hope that getting a little treat when they stop by our house brings a joy to their day! And because I love variety, I have about ten different options in that box and try to switch things out every few days, taking note on what gets eaten the most (Little Debbies) and make sure things like that are in stock. 🙂

Pre-Thanksgiving date night

Exactly one month after I left DC, I saw Dianne and Jack again as they were in town visiting her dad for Thanksgiving. It’s nice that she can always kill two birds with one stone when she’s in the area and make some time to see me too! The four of us went out for Mexican the night before Thanksgiving. It was fun! I wish we could do couple dates more often.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving began the way every holiday begins – with a sick child. Caden, who rarely gets tummy sick, was rolling around with a bucket and moaning and groaning. He sort of spit up once and then laid in bed all morning, while we tried to decide what to do. Seeing as he seemed to be getting better, we continued on with our initial plans.

We always have Thanksgiving at Greg’s parents’ house and my parents come too, so we don’t have to eat two meals anymore. Shepard and I worked on this gingerbread turkey before the meal.

I was in charge of desserts, like I always am (and am thrilled about!). I always try to make my most unique things for Thanksgiving that still kind of fit the traditional offerings, but with a few twists. This was an apple gouda sage pie. The gouda was in the crust and I didn’t taste it at all. I only put in half the sage because I don’t like sage, but I couldn’t taste that either. But…it was a really good apple pie!

This was a triple cherry pie with a chocolate crust. My dad told me I ruined it with the chocolate crust and refused to even taste it, which is kind of a shame since I halfway made it for him because I know he loves cherry pies. But Greg also loves cherry pie and this was his request. Of course the recipe called for fresh cherries, which you will not find in November! I used frozen cherries, twice the amount called for, and it was kind of a juice explosion disaster. But if you only ate the top crust and a scoop of the filling it was delicious! And I normally don’t like cherry pie at all.

I only planned to make two pies since our group was pretty small this year, but I was so worried about the cherry pie being too juicy to eat that I stayed up late to make this black bottom peanut butter mousse pie. I added a bit of salt to each of the layers and it was PERFECTION. In retrospect, three pies for six eating adults (the boys didn’t have any) was definitely overkill. But as we’ve already established in this blog post, I love variety!

Shepard showing off the themed desserts he made on Wednesday night with my mom. He was very proud of them!

A moment of calm in the midst of a pretty trying day with a certain child. I know he wasn’t feeling the greatest, but he was also still being the way he is at basically every family gathering these days. It was rough. It’s ALWAYS rough.

And finishing the evening with some Thanksgiving Mad Libs and clay art projects with Shepard and the grandmas and me. I love how much of a kick he gets out those stories! Overall, it was a very nice Thanksgiving and I am forever thankful that I’m not responsible for the turkey or the sides!

Black Friday

I had big plans to work together to get the house fully decorated on Friday. But Thursday was so difficult with Caden that Greg decided to go into work so he didn’t have to spend the day with us. I still really wanted to get the tree up, but of course I had a few other things I really needed to do first (shopping!). Shepard was very impatient with me and started the tree on his own. He gave up right after I joined him and I ended up doing pretty much the entire thing myself. The boys spent the rest of the day playing with their friend while I decorated and cleaned.

After dinner we all went down the road to the Christmas parade! It’s really like the tiniest parade that has ever existed, but so many people show up and the atmosphere is festive and fun. Afterward Santa and a few people make a super long speech at the library that I have never been able to hear a single word of – I have NO CLUE what they talk about for so long every year. But then Santa lights the Christmas tree and everyone cheers.

Since everyone was actually in a good mood after the parade we powered through and finished decorating the tree. Greg and Shepard also put up the smaller tree in the family room and went crazy hanging twinkling white lights around the entire room. Our main tree shifts positions in the living room every year, but I really like this year’s placement. I have a perfect view from my big reading chair to the left.

Work Stuff

I spent a lot of time debating how to make sales over the Black Friday weekend. I decided to stay up late Thanksgiving night to finish these 12 ornament dolls. I offered one free with every order placed on Friday and Saturday. On Small Business Saturday I added an extra 15% off. I had exactly 12 sales on those two days so it worked out perfectly. On Cyber Monday I offered 25% off everything and made a giveaway doll that every sale for the day got entered in to win. Overall, it was very successful. I’ll probably do the same series of sales next year. There were a lot of people who wanted to just outright buy the ornament dolls, though, so this week I’ve been working on a batch of 24 of them to list for individual sale. I’ve just been so busy with other stuff I’m still not done with them.

McKenna’s Birthday Party

On Saturday night we went to my goddaughter McKenna’s 6th birthday party. It was also her sister Alaina’s 3rd birthday party – they have the same birthday. It was so fun to hang out with them! But also really sad that it’s been an entire year since I last saw her. This year just flew by.

Such a happy and fun little girl!

House Stuff

One of my totally random purchases in the last few weeks were new shades for our living room. Before we had a pretty translucent white curtain that was broken and couldn’t properly be opened (See tree pic a few paragraphs earlier.). It definitely looked a little bare at first, but I LOVE this new upgrade. I got the light filtering shades so it’s still pretty bright in here even when they’re closed. But I also feel like we finally have a lot more privacy in this room in the evenings, which makes me really happy. Unfortunately, that big curtain was also hiding a bunch of paint that peeled away when we put those plastic window sheets on our first winter here. I was really hoping to immediately patch all that up this week, but again – NO TIME. I’m hoping in the next year or two we can replace all the regular blinds that are left in the house with shades like this. They just look so much nicer.

Other Decorating

It’s taking me so much longer than I’d like, but I am very slowly making sure the rest of the house is decorated and ready for Christmas! One of my completely unplanned for Black Friday purchases was this little Christmas tree for our room. I love it so much! This is the first tree that I was ever able to pick out – not a hand me down or one we got on super clearance because it was the only one available. Putting this tree up inspired me to finally clean up our dresser top and reorganize my whole makeup area. Our room is looking very spiffy right now!

Edible Slime

Shepard saw a video the other day of people making edible slime and insisted he had to do it too. I bought the ingredients he told me to (gummy bears, cornstarch, sugar) and he and Greg made it. It looked so gross!

I’m not sure I’d call it a successful experiment, but they certainly had a lot of fun doing it! What a sticky mess, though!

End of the Month, by the Numbers

  • I worked about 61 hours this week over 21 days. Most days just 2-4 hours which is pretty realistic for what I can fit into my schedule right now. I’m still hoping to someday just have a normal work at home DAY and not work on nights or weekends at all. But I haven’t figured out how to do that yet!
  • I took Annie to the dog park 13 times. Our number is going up because I’ve been driving the boys to school more often with the cold or snow or their inability to get ready on time. If I’m already in my car with Annie it just makes more sense to get a little dog park time in!
  • I ate at restaurants 9 times this month. Better than last month’s 15, but still feels like a lot. At least I know my choices this month were a lot healthier.
  • I know they were healthier because I concluded that I “felt good” 22 days of the month. In October I only felt good in my body 9 days of the month. That’s a lot of progress!
  • I felt like I did some sort of nourishing self care 13 days of the month. Not so great. I’m hoping that number will jump significantly in December and I stop letting my to do list stress me out and rule my life and happiness so often.
  • I had a pretty even amount of quality time with Greg, Caden, and Shepard this month. I had 3 days of friend quality time.
  • My average happiness rating for the month was 6.7, only a tiny bit higher than October’s. I’m not very generous in my rating system – I’ve never given myself a 10/10 day. But I did have a lot of 7-9’s this month.

And that’s it for November! Happy December!!

 

Halloween Festivities

Happy Halloween! Okay, I know Halloween is still a couple of days away, but the past few days have been packed full of festive activities and my kids don’t have any more public opportunities to wear their costumes, so it’s basically over around here! It’s been a lot of fun, though.

I wasn’t in the mood to buy costumes this year. On one hand, I’m totally all for buying costumes if it makes your life easier. We’ve gone the store bought route for the last four or five years. But this year it just felt like a waste of money, plus the boys never even care what they dress up as. Why spend the money if it means nothing to them? So I basically put it on Greg to figure out what kind of handmade thing they could come up with while I was on my trip. I think his mom is the one who really put it all together with some of their old costumes, but it turned out great! Shepard was originally going to be a Minecraft youtuber that nobody would have recognized or heard of. But when shown a PURPLE wizard costume that Greg wore in sixth grade, he went that route instead. Of course second grade Shepard is drastically smaller than sixth grade Greg was, so I had to alter it quite a bit. Hopefully nobody bigger ever wants to wear this costume again!! Caden wore part of some Star Wars costume one of his aunts wore at some point – turned into a Harry Potter type of cloak with his sorting hat and some black glasses. It worked, it didn’t cost any money, and they thought they looked pretty cool! Greg liked it so much he decided we need to do handmade costumes every year now…

Anyway, we went to SpookFest on Thursday night, something the schools put on for grades K-5 every year. Caden had no interest in going (shocker), but we lasted about half an hour. Shepard had a good time running around with his friends, until he decided he wanted a soda, we said no, and massive seven year old on the floor kicking and crying tantrums ensued. Oh well.

After dinner on Friday we carved our pumpkins. Greg and I did most of the work, but Shepard was very excited about it. I washed all the seeds and made my three usual flavor combinations. I was pretty exhausted, but also had a fairly rough day (more on that in my next post today!), so I decided to try and gather everyone to go to the community bonfire for some cheer. The boys didn’t want to go – until their friend Leverett got permission to come with us. Then we ran into Greg and Annie who were already on a pokewalk and all of us walked over to the park for the fire.

It was a lot of fun! It was just cold enough to enjoy the fire, but not so cold we were miserable, like last year. There weren’t a ton of people there, but enough that it felt special and fun. There was a group of kids that the boys joined with and had a BLAST dancing by the DJ. Some of my friends were there, so it was fun to chat with everyone. And Annie just loved being out and about.

We stayed for an hour and a half and then had to drag the boys home because I was just so exhausted. It was a really great night, though! It’s so rare to have Caden raving about how excited he is to be somewhere. It was like the best night of his life running around with friends in the dark with good dance music on!

I spent all of Saturday getting ready for our annual Halloween party. It was extra special this year because Timmy, Brittany, and Hudson were coming, plus all the parents/grandparents, and my brother Tyler – for a full celebration. We were also sort of celebrating fall birthdays for me, Brittany, and Tyler. I tried to keep the food festive and easy to prepare with a good mix of healthy and treats. I love the simplicity of these clementine and celery pumpkins!

Monster mouths! I only had teeny apples, so not quite as effective, but definitely yummy.

White cheddar cheeto bones.

Flamin’ hot cheeto bones.

Our pumpkin seeds – dill, salt, and chex mix flavors.

These were all supposed to be different kinds of bugs.

The flourless chocolate cake Brittany requested for her birthday dessert. With a spiderweb on top to go with the theme. My mom also brought her famous kit kat bars for my birthday dessert, but I never got a picture of them.

Jalapeno popper mummies. I usually do hot dog mummies, but nobody really eats them, so I gave this a shot this year. I didn’t like them much because they were missing that salty component I’m so used to when I make jalapeno popper dip and eat it with chips. But they looked cute!

The famous pizza snake that makes an appearance every Halloween party. I thought this year’s tasted especially good because I made the effort to cut all the inside toppings into the tiniest possible pieces so it all blended together better.

I never decided if this is supposed to look like blood and guts, or brains. Maybe it looks more brainy with the raspberry seeds. With mini candied pecan brains?

And “monster fingers.” Basically just enormous beef sticks I got at Costco that nobody in my family liked, so I needed to set them out to get rid of them!

Cindy and Shepard put together a veggie skeleton for the centerpiece of it all. Very cool! Shepard loved his broccoli hair.

Hudson was getting over a bunch of illness, but he was in high spirits! It was so cute how proud of himself he looked every time anyone would laugh at something he did. In this instance he was hitting Shepard with a hammer because he kept whining. Probably shouldn’t encourage that, but it was pretty hilarious.

A tricky selfie snuck in only because we were standing at the window and he was smiling at Daddy.

The only picture I got of our finished pumpkins. Sometimes Shepard seems so big and sometimes he still seems so tiny.

I was hoping for a nice trick or treating picture of the cousins all together, but my boys couldn’t be bothered to even be in our yard at the same time and Hudson just wanted to be cuddled with Mom because he didn’t like wearing his costume very much. But we tried!

Steve stayed home to hand out candy and the rest of us set off to trick or treat. Caden and Shepard immediately ran to Leverett’s house right as he was coming outside, so they just rushed ahead with him. The rest of us stayed back with Hudson, but he was just very confused about what was happening. We only lasted about two blocks before it started sprinkling and we realized we’d never keep up with the older boys, so we all went back home. I’m kind of annoyed my kids couldn’t even stay with our group for five minutes. Or even a single house. But…they’re getting older, I guess. This is what happens. Caden’s almost never happy anymore unless a friend is involved in whatever he’s doing.

But back at the house we still had some fun with Hudson and Annie. He realized how exciting it was to hand Annie all of his food. Everyone stayed for awhile longer and then Greg took over handing out candy the last half an hour. I probably bought at least 500 pieces of candy and we went through all of it. Plus a big bowl of goldfish crackers for little kids and a bowl of dog treats. We live on quite the popular street!

Overall – great party! It was a lot of fun! Now all that’s left is actual Halloween, but the boys have dentist appointments after school that day, so really not the best of days! But maybe I can throw together one more festive meal. We shall see.

Happy Halloween!

My All Time Favorite Cookbooks: The Best Cookbooks to Amplify Your Meals and Treats

cookbook pinterest photo

I adore cookbooks. I’m a little bit obsessed with them. Though I have to admit that I’m not all that great about going to them when I’m in need of a quick meal idea. Pinterest is usually my greatest friend. But I do have a few cookbooks that I go to again and again because there are certain recipes I just love so, so much. I hope to eventually have that kind of relationship with all of my cookbooks. But for now, I’d like to tell you about the seven I use the most. These would be awesome to add to your own shelves, or would also make super Christmas gifts!

Joy the Baker Cookbook

1. Joy the Baker Cookbook

I would say this is my most used cookbook for the last four or five years. All of the recipes are simple and delicious. There are photos for every recipe, which is pretty much an absolute must for me in terms of a great cookbook. The majority of the book covers breakfasts and sweets. She is a baker, after all. But there are occasional sprinklings of savory dishes as well. There are a handful of recipes I go to again and again and again. I love this cookbook!

My Favorites:

  • Baked Chili Cheese Fries – These are to die for. They’re the only way I’ve ever made and pretty much every will make, baked french fries. They’re spicy, salty, cheesey, gooey – perfection.
  • The Best Chocolate Buttercream Frosting – You CANNOT live without this recipe. I’m not much of a frosting lover. Or a cake lover. But this frosting? I will literally eat an entire bowl of it, by itself. I’ve used it every single time I’ve needed chocolate frosting since I’ve gotten this book.
  • Chocolate and Salty Peanut Butter Ice Cream – Need I say more? My favorite chocolate and peanut butter ice cream recipe. So good.
  • Browned Butter Peanut Butter Crispy Rice Treats – This is the recipe that inspired my neighbor boy to build me a four foot tall trophy for “best rice krispy treat maker.” I’ve probably made this recipe fifty times. It’s a million times better than your regular rice krispy treat.

Joy the Baker has come out with two other cookbooks after this one, both of which I own. Homemade Decadence, which is full of desserts and treats, and Over Easy, which is mostly breakfast and brunch. I haven’t had as much time to try out recipes from these cookbooks, but they look just as fantastic.

The Cookies and Cups Cookbook

2. The Cookies & Cups Cookbook

If it’s not already obvious by book two on my list, I’ve always been much more into baking than cooking. I’m most drawn to cookbooks full of sweet and salty treats that I can make to satisfy my own cravings, and use to show off to my friends and family. This is another great book full of tasty goodness. There are also lovely photographs with each recipe.

My Favorites:

  • Salty Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies – I love browned butter. I love salty sweets. (Love passionately – much to Greg’s dismay because he hates salty sweets – loathes them.) I’m always up for trying new chocolate chip cookie recipes because they never seem to work out the way I want them to. But this one is great!
  • Salted Caramel Apple Butter Bars – (I might have a problem.) This is a really delicious and easy treat to make to share with a group.
  • Salty Caramel Corn – (Yes, a problem.) I’ve never liked caramel corn until I tried this recipe. It’s amazing. AMAZING. I’ve made it many, many times in the year since I bought this book.

The Everything Pizza Cookbook

3. The Everything Pizza Cookbook

We have pizza night every Friday. Even though Caden doesn’t eat pizza, Greg and Shepard practically live for Friday nights. I mostly just love knowing what we’re going to be eating one day a week, week after week. I have a handful of pizza cookbooks (the others are much prettier!), but this is the one I go back to again and again. I mostly use it for the crust recipes, though when I’m feeling more experimental (which doesn’t go over so well with the other pizza eaters in my house), I like to flip through the suggestions.

My Favorites:

  • Classic Crust – This is the recipe I use 90% of the time. Every few months I change things up with recipes from other places, but this is always my go to. It’s the crust that other people always rave about. It’s a good one!
  • Smoked Gouda Pizza – On the pepper crust recipe. Delish!

Eat Delicious

4. Eat Delicious by Dennis the Prescott

This one came out earlier this year and I bought it on a whim at Target in September. The photos are what will get your attention first – they are incredible. Every recipe looks like the best food you’ll ever eat. To be fair, I’ve only made two recipes in this book so far – tonight. The general steak cooking guidelines and the Hasselback Potatoes. But I can guarantee this book is going to be a favorite. Other than the seafood chapter, because none of us like seafood, I know I’ll be picking this one up over and over again. Everything looks SO GOOD. This particular cookbook would make a lovely Christmas gift for anyone on your list. Also, be sure to follow @dennistheprescott on instagram. You’re welcome.

My Favorites:

  • Maple-Bacon Scones – Flipping through this book again, I forgot that I did make this recipe! And it was fantastic!!
  • Ancho-Rubbed Steak Tacos with Pineapple-Avocado Salsa
  • Buttermilk Fried Chicken Burgers
  • Sriracha-Roasted Cauliflower
  • Brown Sugar Bourbon and Candied Pecan Ice Cream
  • Salted Caramel Apple Parfaits

Half Baked Harvest Cookbook

5. Half Baked Harvest Cookbook by Tieghan Gerard

The Half Baked Harvest blog is my all time favorite food blog. Every recipe I have ever made from Tieghan has been of the most delightful and flavor bursting sensational food produced in my kitchen. Her Korean Fried Chicken Tacos are my favorite food of all time. Her Thai Pomegranate Enchiladas rock my world. Her Cuban Chicken Quinoa Bowls have some of the most uniquely flavored chicken I’ve ever eaten. Suffice it to say, Tieghan was bound to create an incredibly first cookbook. I pre-ordered the day it was announced and anxiously waited the six months it took to be released. And it does not disappoint! All of the photographs are so beautiful. A photo per recipe, of course. I’d say the only downside is that many recipes do require an awful lot of ingredients. They’re not usually last minute quickly prepared meals. But if you have the time and buy all the ingredients, it’ll be so worth it. Trust me. And full disclosure, I haven’t had a chance to make many recipes from the cookbook yet. But I plan to rectify that very soon!

My Favorites:

  • Nonnie’s Dutch Baby – I love Dutch Babies for weekend breakfasts. So fast and delicious.
  • Salted Brioche Cinnamon Rolls
  • Apple Ricotta Pancakes with Bacon Butter
  • Crunchy Roasted Broccoli with Toasted Bread Crumbs
  • Fig and Cider Pork Chops – I made this last month with the apple instead of fig substitution and my family went nuts over it. I very rarely make pork, but this was a keeper!
  • Apple and Brie Soup with Bacon and Pumpkin Seed Granola
  • Salted Treacle Butter Apple Pie

First Prize Pies

6. First Prize Pies by Allison Kave

If you like to eat pie, make pie, read about pie, or know anyone else who does – this is the cookbook for you. First of all, it’s gorgeous. A perfect gifting book! Unfortunately there is not a photo with every recipe, but there are plenty. The cookbook is organized by season so you can always search for a pie that would be perfect for whatever season you’re making it in. It guarantees the freshest pie for that time of year. Every pie I’ve made from this cookbook has been a hit!

My Favorites:

  • Samantha Bee’s Salty Caramel Pie – Perhaps I should rename this post to my favorite salty sweet cookbooks! This one is easy and delicious!
  • Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie
  • Trifecta Pie (Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel)
  • Ginger Peach Pie – I don’t even like the taste of ginger, but this is one of my all time favorite pie recipes. It’s amazing.

Simply Scones

7. Simply Scones by Leslie Weiner and Barbara Albright

This is probably the oldest cookbook in my collection. It’s a cookbook my mom used and I later bought a copy for myself. The cookbook itself is tiny and not much to look at. But the recipes are really great. I love making scones, especially for company or get togethers. They’re a treat that not many people actually make, despite how easy they are! They also taste wonderful.

My Favorites:

  • Banana Chip Scones – Like banana bread, but better!
  • Blueberry Coffee Cake Scones – Very messy, but very delicious!
  • Brownie Scones
  • Buttermilk Scones
  • Chocolate Stuffed Peanut Butter Scones
  • “Classic” Cream Scones
  • Gingerbread Scones

And that’s it for my all time favorite cookbooks! I have many, many more on my shelves, so I’m hoping with a little more intentional cooking, in the future I’ll have more cookbooks to share. Let me know your favorites!

Magical Butterscotch Sauce

sauce and cake

If you are ever in need of a dessert sauce for absolutely any purpose – I have the one for you! This butterscotch sauce is incredible. Put it on ice cream! Cake! Cookies! Brownies! Or just eat it straight from a bowl, like I did this afternoon!

I found this recipe for homemade butterscotch sauce at the end of the book Food Anatomy, which definitely is not a cookbook, but does have a few sporadic recipes sprinkled throughout. I finished the book a few days before Shepard’s parties last weekend, so it seemed like the perfect addition to his sundae bar. I’m SO glad I made it. I’ll be making this sauce forever. 🙂

recipe

I’ve made my own salted caramel sauces in the past. Many, many times because I needed to perfect it for my caramel apple cheesecake I entered in the Midwest Cheesecake Competition. I love salted caramel. But I think I love this more. It’s super easy, only has four ingredients, and can be made in ten minutes or less.

We ate the butterscotch sauce last weekend with a skillet cookie and/or ice cream. I ate it all week with leftover cookie or ice cream. Tonight I’m serving it with Molly Wizenberg’s chocolate cake recipe. It’s almost a flourless chocolate, but with the addition of 1 tbs of flour it somehow gives the cake top the texture and taste of a meringue cookie. I’ll have to share that recipe another day. And the skillet cookie recipe. That was good. But anything can be better with sauce on it. Words to live by!

sauce

Homemade Butterscotch Sauce

  • 4 tbs butter
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 tsp salt (I used a full teaspoon)
  1. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it starts to soften, add the sugar and stir until moistened.
  2. Cook the mixture, stirring occasionally until it begins to thicken, just a few minutes.
  3. Whisk in the cream and bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is thick and glossy.
  4. Whisk in salt, adding more to taste. Let cool and refrigerate for up to two weeks.

I’ve only made this twice, but I think it’s pretty much fool proof. It’s not fussy the way caramel is. So no excuses – go make it right now!!

Pizza Night

IMG_0439 pizza

Friday nights are a huge deal in our house. Because: PIZZA. I think we might have started having homemade pizza every Friday night as far back as four or five years ago. And now everyone is so highly invested in the tradition that I’m never allowed to deviate from it. Unless on the very rare occasion we’re not home on a Friday night. Then pizza is required to happen on Saturday nights. Greg and Shepard LOVE pizza. I like pizza, but I love knowing what I’m going to make every Friday for dinner. It’s amazing how much pressure it takes off me even having that one night’s meal planned every single week.

IMG_0380 dough

The majority of the time I use a crust recipe from The Everything Pizza Cookbook. There’s a basic crust recipe and then a bunch of variations. Each crust is supposed to make four pizzas, though I always divide it into three. Most of the time I use the basic crust recipe and add a tablespoon of some sort of Italian seasoning to give it a little extra flavor. Sometimes I add a lot of black pepper, or a cup of shredded cheese, or some fresh garlic. The possibilities are endless and it always turns out great. The dough is basically fool proof and can be ready in as little as an hour if I happen to forget to make it earlier in the day. But I have a pretty set schedule of making a new batch every three weeks and freezing the dough for weeks in between.

IMG_0382 olive oil

I think the most important necessity for making a good homemade pizza is having a pizza stone, pizza peel, and making sure the oven is hot enough to cook it properly. I set my oven at 475 and try to have it (with the pizza stone) heating up for at least half an hour before the pizza goes in. A few weeks ago we had a disaster when I wasn’t feeling well and took a late nap and then Shepard woke me up demanding pizza NOW. Even though I knew better, I put the pizza in way too early and ended up losing half of it when the uncooked dough flopped off the stone. It was not a good night!

IMG_0387 olive oil painting

While the oven is heating up, we roll the dough as big as we can possibly make it while still keeping it on the peel. This is usually Greg’s job. Then Shepard does his favorite task of brushing olive oil all over the crust.

IMG_0394 heavy handed cheese

We always line the edges of the crust with garlic salt and shredded parmesan cheese. Shepard doesn’t usually do this and has way too heavy of a hand with the cheese! Which of course he thought was hilarious.

IMG_0396 cheesy

That’s a lot of crust cheese.

IMG_0400 sauce dancing

I used to experiment with a lot of different sauces and toppings. I have at least three pizza cookbooks with many, many options! One time I made a pizza that had broccoli on it and Greg freaked out. And he loves broccoli. So in the last year we’ve kept a pretty strict rotation between Buffalo Bacon, BBQ Bacon, and Pepperoni. Except recently Shepard decided he no longer likes pepperoni, or any traditionally sauced pizza, which has limited us even more. I fear his wrath over not having one of his favorite pizzas more than I want to risk trying something different.

But for a couple of other ideas, one of my all time favorites is really simple: olive oil, mozzarella, fresh garlic, and honey. It’s not quite substantial enough to be a complete meal, but it’s so delicious. I’ve also tried white pizzas with an olive oil base, riccota, and a bunch of other white cheeses – also delish. Thai pizzas are one of my favorites, but Greg doesn’t like peanut sauce, so it’s something I’ve only made for myself at lunch. Peanut sauce base, cheeses, chilies, sriracha, and maybe a little fresh cabbage salad and peanuts to top it off – yum. I think maybe it’s time to dig through the cookbooks and try to switch things up every once in awhile. I’m getting pretty sick of our standards.

IMG_0410 sauce tasting

But back to tonight’s pizza and the one we make most often. Buffalo Bacon. I realize most people make Buffalo CHICKEN pizza, but having already made chicken to add to the pizza was an extra step I got really sick of doing. So bacon it is. We always use Shur-Fine buffalo wing sauce. Which costs about $1.30 at Woodman’s. I practically buy it in bulk because Shepard uses it on everything. I’m not generally a buffalo sauce fan, but it is good with pizza!

IMG_0418 bacon breaking

Since I can’t vary the actual pizza itself that much, I do a lot of experimenting with different cheeses. A lot of the time I do just use a mix of store bought shredded mozzarella, monterey jack, and occasionally provolone. Greg and I aren’t really fans of cheddar, so we steer clear of traditional pizza cheese mixes. I love adding fresh mozzarella, but I’m the only one that really likes it. I like shredding my own cheese so I have more options and less of that chalky stuff that comes on pre-shredded cheese. One of my favorites to add to buffalo pizza is buffalo jack cheese. I’ve also used buffalo flavored cheese curds. Tonight we used a mix of home grated mozzarella and jalapeno munster.

IMG_0420 testing the bacon

And we can’t forget the bacon! I try to remember to cook up a batch of bacon in the oven every Thursday or Friday during the day. You really can’t beat real bacon. But I always have a bag of store bought bacon bits in the fridge to use in a pinch. There’s one brand that makes peppered bacon bits that are especially tasty.

IMG_0434 thumbs up

The final step is a sprinkling of cilantro. Tonight we just used dried, which basically has no flavor. But for awhile there I was using a fancy container of already chopped and half dried – yet still super fresh and green – cilantro that I found also at Woodman’s. I should really buy another one because the flavor is there without needing to buy fresh cilantro every week.

IMG_0437 spice shelf

I carefully slide the pizza in the oven and then madly spend the next 8-10 minutes getting everything else on the table and finally thinking about what to give Caden, who won’t eat pizza. The pizza is done in 8 minutes if the oven was hot enough, 10 if it wasn’t. As you can see, we’re very dedicated pizza eaters because we have an entire shelf of spicy toppings. I really just like crushed red pepper. Greg usually has grated parmesan cheese and “Pizza” (found at Target). Shepard likes to experiment with everything.

IMG_0438 pbj

Caden used to love pizza and then a couple of years ago he decided he hates cheese. Unless it’s pepperjack… So no pizza for him. Or grilled cheese. Or cheesy garlic bread. He’s otherwise an extremely good eater, so we don’t really put up a fight about the cheese issue. As far as Greg’s concerned, that’s one less person we have to share the pizza with! Caden usually has peanut butter and jelly on Fridays.

IMG_0439 pizza

And there’s our pizza! It had a lot of bubbles tonight, which does not usually happen. But still good. 🙂 Hopefully this post satisfies the people who wanted to know more about our pizza tradition. In much less rambling detail, the crust recipe is below. Enjoy!

Basic Pizza Crust (Slightly adapted from The Everything Pizza Cookbook)

  • 4 1/2 (or two packages) tbs. active dry yeast
  • 2 cups of warm water
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 6 cups bread flour
  • 2 tbs. olive oil
  1. In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in 1 1/2 cups of warm water. Let stand for 5 minutes. Combine all remaining ingredients. Use a standing mixer with a dough attachment, but if you don’t have one you’ll have to knead by hand.
  2. Continue to knead bread for 5 minutes until the dough is slightly shiny and not very sticky. If you’re using a mixer it should come together as a ball, pulling all the remaining dough from the edges. Add extra water if it doesn’t seem to be mixing well enough. If it becomes too sticky, add more flour.
  3. Place dough ball into a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise 1-2 hours.
  4. Pre-heat oven with pizza stone to 475 degrees. Divide dough into three portions. Roll out one section of dough onto a cornmeal dusted pizza peel or pan. Top with ingredients.
  5. Let oven heat 20-30 minutes. Slide pizza in and let it cook 8-10 minutes, keeping an eye on it at the end. Pizza is done when the cheese is browning and bubbling. Enjoy!

Raspberry Chocolate Tart

I started celebrating Pi Day in high school. In one of my math classes we found every excuse imaginable to bring food in so we could have potlucks instead of actually work on math. Pi Day was a big one, where everybody brought in a homemade pie. I’ve always enjoyed celebrating little holidays in special ways too and because Greg is kind of a math nerd, I kept the tradition up of making a pie every year on this day. We both like pie, so why not?

I was thinking ahead this year and after much debate decided on a fresh peach pie this year. I actually made it on Wednesday, taking step by step pictures, so I could post something right away Thursday morning. But. The peach pie did not turn out. It looked perfect on the outside, but something went horribly wrong on the inside. At that point I really wasn’t in the mood to put together another fruit pie, so I went with a chocolate raspberry tart instead. It’s easy, pretty, and delicious!

  
Side note here – in the last few weeks I’ve started teaching myself the manual settings on my camera. It was about time I learned after owning a DSLR for four years now! Notice the difference in photo quality on that first picture compared to the second two, which I did on auto. It’s so exciting to finally learn how to do this AND see results! 
Another side note. If you’ve been wondering where I’m getting such beautiful raspberries in March in Wisconsin, the answer is Costco! I’m seriously thinking my membership is entirely worth it just to pick up some amazing produce every week. I love these raspberries!
As long as I started on this side note thing, I have one more – these Chili Cheese Fries from my incredible Joy the Baker Cookbook are to die for! This was actually my entire dinner on Wednesday night. Which I wouldn’t really recommend doing. But they’re seriously amazing. I LOVE them dipped in sriracha mayo. I’ll post the recipe for these soon.

Back to the tart! I just used a simple shortbread tart crust, a chocolate ganache filling, and fresh raspberries on top. You can alter this to make it as simple or as complicated as you want. It tastes really good with just the crust and chocolate too.

Despite my first failure, Pi Day was saved by this tart! And the homemade pepperoni pizza we ate first. Gotta love pie!

Raspberry Chocolate Tart

Crust:
1 egg yolk
2 tbs very cold water
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/4 cup flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into cubes

Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk, water, and vanilla. In a food processor add remaining ingredients and pulse until crumbs form. Add wet ingredients and pulse until dough forms. If the dough looks too dry, add another teaspoon of cold water. Press into tart pan and bake for 20-25 minutes.

Chocolate Ganache Filling
12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 tbs butter
2 tsp light corn syrup

Add all ingredients to a microwave safe bowl and microwave in thirty second increments, stirring in between. When the chocolate is smooth pour into crust. Let sit for 1-2 hours and then top with fresh raspberries. Enjoy!

Gooey Dessert Popcorn with Sea Salt

Two weekends ago I took a little weekend vacation by myself to Galena, Illinois. I might write more about that trip sometime, but the important thing to know right now is that on that trip I was introduced (belatedly, I’m sure) to the amazingness of flavored popcorn. I’ve never been a huge popcorn eater. Actually, I take that back. A few years ago we got an air popper and ate popcorn smothered in butter and various seasonings WAY too often and I’ve never really felt a need for popcorn since that season.

Anyway, back to my story. In Galena there’s a popcorn store called The Great American Popcorn Company. I went in and was really surprised by just how many popcorn flavors they had. I still didn’t pay much attention because the majority of it was some variety of caramel corn, which I’ve never liked. At all. Some of the spicy flavors looked interesting, but they didn’t have any descriptions and I didn’t want to buy an $8 bag of popcorn, not knowing just how spicy it was going to be. Anyway, I walked out without buying anything and then kept thinking about it. Mostly because it seemed like a good treat to bring back to the boys. So I went back and bought a bag of jalapeno cheddar (safe bet) for myself and hot cinnamon for Greg and the boys because they love cinnamon things.

On my way home from Galena – a day early because of an incoming snowstorm – I took a detour and stopped at another popcorn place in Monfort, Wisconsin called Rural Route 1 Popcorn. I didn’t go there for the popcorn; I went for their retail store that has a lot of awesome gift and kitchen things. On my walk through the store I took a sample of something amazing – the S.S. Dunkle popcorn. It was caramel corn, covered in dark chocolate, sprinkled with sea salt. It was incredible. I can no longer say I don’t eat caramel corn because that was delicious. I bought a small bag and ate it in the car on the way home. It was my lunch.

For the past week and a half, whenever I’m hungry, I have been able to think of little else except flavored popcorn. I was really wishing I tried that jalapeno cheddar popcorn while I was still in Galena because it was awesome. I’m also wishing I had paid more attention to the other flavors because now I’d really REALLY like to try their peanut butter cup flavor. I’ve also been dreaming of the S.S. Dunkle. I’ve found myself on their website multiple times in the last week contemplating ordering some more for myself. Unlike all my other favorite gourmet dessert treats, shipping for Rural Route 1 Popcorn is very cheap!

On Saturday my mom said that she and my dad might be driving by the store on Monday and would pick me some up. So of course I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And then they didn’t end up going. What a tease! After I knew I wasn’t going to have any in my immediate future I decided this afternoon it was time to do something about it. I mean, come on – how hard could it be to make my own? And so I did.

The only thing I changed about this flavor is adding peanut butter. To make it better, of course. To make real caramel corn you should probably use an air popper or the stove top method to get un-buttered and unsalted popcorn. I, however, have a gigantic box of Boy Scout popcorn in my pantry, which we never eat, so I decided to put it to good use. I popped four bags, making sure to remove all the kernels. While those were popping I melted brown sugar, corn syrup, and butter on the stove. I let it boil for three minutes and then mixed in peanut butter and vanilla. Then I baked it at 250 degrees for 45 minutes, stirring every 15. At that point I added about one bag of chocolate chips, stirring it as it melted. I popped it back in the oven, stirring every few minutes, until all the popcorn was well covered. Then I took it out, sprinkled with sea salt, stirred, sprinkled with more sea salt, stirred again. I am obsessed with sea salt on chocolate. That is definitely not an exaggeration.

Overall I think it turned out quite well! The only thing I might have done differently is used milk chocolate instead of semi-sweet. I’m not really a semi-sweet kind of girl. But it’s still delicious! And I didn’t have to wait more than an hour for it to reach my tummy!

Gooey Dessert Popcorn with Sea Salt

4 bags of popped popcorn, kernels removed
2/3 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup light corn syrup
3 tbs butter
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp sea salt
1 bag chocolate chips

Pop four bags of popcorn. Remove kernels and place popcorn in a large oven safe container.

Combine sugar, corn syrup, and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook for three minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and add peanut butter and vanilla. Pour over popcorn and gently stir together, coating all the popcorn.

Heat oven to 250 degrees. Bake popcorn mixture for 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. Add chocolate chips and stir while they melt. Put container back in the oven, stirring every few minutes, until chocolate is completely melted. Take out of the oven and sprinkle and stir in sea salt. Enjoy!

Zippy Pig and Stink Dip

It was a very long and tension filled day, but I made it through the Cream Cheese Competition with a few awards this year! Out of twenty-three “New Cream Cheese Recipe” entries, my It’s a Mouthful cake won runner up. And out of seventeen cheesecakes entered, my Raspberry Truffle Cheesecake also won runner up. I’m proud of myself, but a little disappointed too. This probably sounds stupid, but I really wanted to win some prize money to justify buying myself the really nice camera bag I’ve been coveting for a very long time.  So winning two runner up positions – with no prize money – feels kind of like a big joke on me. I did a good job, but just not good enough to buy that camera bag. It upsets me a lot more than it probably should. At least I won something. I’m happy about that.

Anyway! I’m sharing my dip recipe today – the one that DIDN’T win an award. I still think it’s pretty delicious, though, and I don’t normally eat onions. I could probably eat a whole bowl of this. Also, I should mention to my facebook friends that helped me come up with a name, that the emcee was completely in love with the “Pig and Stink” title. I was worried it might be offensive, but I liked it too much to change it.

Okay, back to the dip. The first thing you need to do is bake an entire package of bacon in a 375 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, or until crisp. Reserve three of those pieces and fry them in a skillet. After the bacon is cooked you caramelize two diced onions with a mixture of salt, thyme, and cayenne pepper. Before making this dip for the first time a few weeks ago, I had never caramelized onions before. I was shocked at how long it took me (over an hour). I still have no idea what I did wrong that first time, but it went a little faster the second time and turned out a lot better. The onions got darker and seemed to be infused with a lot more flavor.

After the bacon and onions are cooled a bit you just mix it all together with the cream cheese, sour cream, Worcestershire sauce, honey, and crushed peppercorns. It ends up being a slightly spicy blend of pepper, onion, and bacon that tastes (in my opinion) amazing. I hope you enjoy it too!

Zippy Pig and Stink Dip
Ingredients:
  • 1 package of bacon
  • 2 large onions, peeled and diced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
Directions:
  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil. Lay out bacon slices on sheets, reserving three slices for the next step. Bake for 15-20 minutes until crisp and set aside.
  2. Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Place remaining three bacon slices in skillet and fry until crisp. Remove and set aside. Add the diced onions, thyme, salt, and cayenne pepper to the skillet and saute for 20-30 minutes until darkened, but not burned. Remove from heat and let cool.
  3. In a large mixing bowl combine cream cheese and sour cream until light and fluffy. Add Worcestershire sauce, honey, and black pepper and mix until smooth.
  4. Crumble all the bacon into small pieces. Reserve about two tablespoons for topping. Add remaining bacon and onions to dip mixture and blend until combined. Top with reserved bacon and eat with chips or vegetables.