Sunday, July 31, 2011

.sweet, sweet summer.

as a teacher, i never take for granted the beauty of these sweet summer months- just as i never forget the days where i'm at work and teaching before the sun is up to one hundred fifty of other people's children throughout the day, tutoring after school, then coaching and getting home past ten pm from those late night games. while i'm quite inept at climbing on soap boxes, today i shan't. instead, i'd like to focus on wishing my summer adieu.

when i reflect on my great adventures and distant cities seen, i come up empty. you see, this summer, i had quite the staycation. with my husband unable to get any time off from his externship and after a busy year of flying back and forth to florida for wedding events, i made the easy decision to call memphis my summer destination. although i worked at my fellowship in june, i still had all of july to play.

first, my niece came for a bit and we toured memphis like never before. i think i saw more while she was here of the city than i have my whole three years living in it. soon after her departure came my two friends' arrival. we partied like it was 1999 until one of them flew back home to her mama duties. that left my hpff here for another week where we got to do a lot of bonding. although, i'm not sure you can get much more bonded than a friendship as welded as ours. so, we just did what we normally do. we were.

with one last week before the alarm clock is reset, i spent most of my time at home nursing my sick precious doggie. let's not get choked up so i shall move on. back to saluting summer. often, i hold onto the last day of my break with nails clamped in tight to whatever piece of it i can hold onto, i don't really have that feeling this time. do i wish i had more time off, well that's obvious. however, i also know how blessed i truly am.

i have a job, no, a career. i have the opportunity to wake up every morning with a sense of purpose. i don't have the worry that many people have to suffer through in a bad economy or in a bad situation. every night, we eat and too much at that. every morning, we have running water and hot at that. every day, i have the unique opportunity to take the life and mind of an impressionable adolescent and demonstrate manners, a positive disposition and instill the beauty of learning. better yet, i am oftentimes gifted the chance to learn myself and laugh from what they give to my life.

do i spend many, many days complaining about the workload, the bureaucracy, the rudeness, and a dozen other things? yep, i sure do. i'm human. however, as i sit here about to embark on a fresh new year with one hundred fifty new teenagers either awaiting or dreading their new math class, i feel that my choice to embrace it makes me a truly lucky girl.

the words of one of my favorite songs by dashboard confessional comes to mind...'i stumbled upon you and gratefully basked in your rays, so long so long." with arms outstretched for the embrace of a lifetime, i wish you all the best sweet, sweet summer. let's do it again next year...

Friday, July 29, 2011

.if i were pulitzer, it'd be prized.

if you were stuck on a deserted island (wish it was desserted...yumm) and you could only bring three things with you, what would they be? we've all heard this question before and most of us have probably put at least a few minutes of thought into answering it. the point of the question if we are honest with ourselves is to see where our priorities lie. forgoing living creatures of any sort, just of mine would be my personal library.

what? the question didn't say the 'thing' had to be lightweight. if i have a good book, i wouldn't ever really be alone. i'm even one of those types that can re-read my favorites and get lost in the story as if it were the first time. one such book that promptly placed itself at the top of the 'books i love' hierarchy is 'the help.'

kathryn stockett's 'the help' was the type of story that had me turning pages with fingers that forgot they were attached to my hands. in fact, i'm not even sure how they were told to do so because i was not in my home or with my body, but in that book. it left me breathless from giggles and tears. in fact, i had a battle with myself at the end.

one half of me couldn't look away from those pages while the other half forced myself to put it down. you see, i have a quirky habit with books i truly love. i don't want them to end and so i rip through them in record time and then force myself to put them down during the last couple of chapters over a series of days in order to stretch out what time i have left with the story. it's an ugly battle with my own neurosis.

i want aibileen and minny at my thanksgiving table, just wouldn't let minny bake the pie. i want to name my future daughter skeeter, think my husband would go for that? i literally closed the last page of the book and held it against my chest in the hopes that somehow it would sink in and live right there in my heart forever. i loved it and i think you would too.

i'm hopping back in forth between thrilled and anxious about the movie release of 'the help' next month. while i'll be one of the first ones in line to see it, i just hope it doesn't destroy the beauty of the story. more to come on that...

in the meantime, make your deserted island list, read the help or bake a pie. surely one of the three will make your heart happy.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

.our guest tree.

planning our wedding was no easy undertaking and not for the normal reasons you may be thinking. sure, weddings are a lot of pressure, but when you're as neurotic as i am about details and uniqueness, they're even more complex. luckily, we had a long engagement that allowed me to indulge in many diy projects.

while we decided to skip some of the traditional parts of the wedding, we kept others. then, there were those traditional parts that we just made more 'us.' one such thing was the guest book. usually, a guest book is, well, a book. it allows all of a couple's wedding attendants to sign to live forever in wedding legacy. raise your hand if you own such a book and get it out ever to read through the names.

i'm willing to bet there weren't a lot of hands raised out there. with this in mind, i wanted our guests, the most important people in our lives, to be remembered in a special way. and in enters the wedding guest tree concept.

growing up in an oak hammock, a neighborhood with other children was only a concept on sitcom tv. my neighbors had their arms outstretched not too far from the sky with a sturdiness perfect for whenever i needed to lean upon them. with my roots planted firmly amidst all those trees, my fondness towards them has traveled with me throughout my life.

so, it was a perfect pairing for one of our wedding elements to include a tree. we incorporated the longstanding concept of a family tree into our guest book because our guests were the people we wanted in our lives forever.

by grabbing a blank canvas and some paint, i figured i'd automatically become an artist. although my mother is one, i never inherited her talents. so, when i began tracing out an embarrassing halloween-looking tree upon my coarse gold background, my frustrations started kicking in. in my mind, i knew exactly what i wanted, but was unable to translate that to the canvas. so, my hubby-to-be stepped in to help.

together, we created our tree. and isn't that how it should have been? here we are on the verge of creating this ever after life together. a tree symbolizes life and it's roots, blossoms, extensions and making that together only brought us closer. although neither of us are joining the art world any time soon, the outcome was the concept we were going for.

for the wedding itself, i had picked out two different green inks for our guests to 'leaf' their fingerprint. with their signature underneath in fine point sharpie, they'd forever be part of our home. dustin and i added our prints and names first to have our friends and family branch out from there. i thought it was sweet when my new niece put hers right next to mine.

now that we're married, this meaningful piece sits in our living room atop our bookshelf. it, like all the wonderful memories from our wedding day, will be with us forever.

*all photos, except the last one, by swept away studios

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

.eggs overly easy.

don't put it past me to host a brunch with enough sugary confections that my friends will be begging for a spoonful of salt. however, as much as i love sweets, i also have a soft spot for all that is savory. to represent the br in brunch, i whipped up this egg dish.

melinda's egg lovin' muffin...

start by getting some little round ramekins that are just right for individual servings. spray your ramekins so your lovin' muffin doesn't stick to the glass. then, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. each ramekin will hold approximately 1.5 eggs. stop rolling your eyes. it's basically three eggs per two ramekins. just make even amounts of these, ok?

you can make these as simple or as complex as your taste buds desire. for my people, here's what i did...i whisked the eggs as if making scrambled eggs while adding salt, pepper and about a tablespoon of milk. from there, i added the jazzings. cheddar cheese. fresh, chopped cherry tomatoes from my garden (better known as the plant in front of my house). and chopped deli ham. (skip the ham for me, thank you very much)

to add a little something, something , i topped each off with an additional sprinkling of cheddar cheese. once you're satisfied with your creation, pop them in the oven and watch. probably, i should have an exact time for you, but i don't. it took mine somewhere between 13-18 minutes to finish. here's how you'll know when they're done. once you see them puffing up to form a dome without a lot of wiggling, they should be ready. you can always poke your fork in to make sure you don't pull out any moist egg.

i was most nervous about serving these to my hpff who is super-picky in the savory department. they were so delicious that even she wanted the recipe. i call that an eggsellent (please forgive me) success.

try these out for yourself. if you serve them up for friends or family, you'll be a hero.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

.have s'more brownies.

one of my sweetest friends from back home in florida was all set to come visit us for the first time. being a bit, ok a great deal, of a planner had me wracking my brain for just the right things to do and places to see during her long weekend in memphis. with almost every restaurant, nightlife spot and tourist stop planned out, there was only one thing left to do before her arrival.

ask her what her favorite dessert-like-treat was.

now, i know she's always liked chocolate and i've never seen her pass up a strawberry, but sometimes those favorite things aren't what people end up choosing when i ask. in my friend's case, she immediately responded with chocolate chip cookies or brownies. neither one of these choices surprised me because they fit her so well. she's the uncomplicated, trustworthy, dependable type with a true sweetness that is immediately apparent as soon as you meet her. just like some of those classic desserts we all love.

after teetering back and forth, i decided to go for the brownie. much unlike my dear friend, i am complicated, difficult and challenging. so, i couldn't just make a simple brownie and instead opted to go for a s'mores brownie recipe i found on foodnetwork. you can make it yourself with the recipe all the way at the bottom.

this delicious creation started with a layer of graham cracker crust. this wasn't just crushed up crackers, oh no, this was buttery and sugary and probably pretty darn good without the brownies resting on top even. however, i didn't just stop there. whipping up a brownie batter and pouring it on top of this crust felt seriously sinful.

after reading many reviews of this decadent dessert, i tweaked the recipe a little. not that it was probably necessary, but i added some chocolate chips in the batter for a little more decadent pizazz.

because the crust had to cook separately first, it gave me time to mix up all the components for the actual brownie portion and then that part went into the oven atop the partially cooked bottom layer of graham heaven.

once both the bottom and middle layers were baked as best i could, it was time to really doll it up with the essence of any s'mores creation- the marshmallows. floating on top of the brownie like clouds over a chocolate wonka river, this would surely please the taste buds. the recipe calls for whole marshmallows. to avoid an ooey gooey mess, i opted to cut the marshmallows in half and line them up across the top of the brownie. setting the oven's broiler on 'low,' i stayed nearby.

using the broiler can sometimes be a little heated and especially with marshmallows, i wanted to make sure they didn't catch on fire. it truly was approximately two minutes and they were really dark on top- it happened quickly.

after pulling what looked like thanksgiving's sweet potato souffle out of the heatbox, i carefully removed the whole thing in foil from the glass dish. pulling the foil away from the marshmallow sides had to be done carefully and of course there was some stickiness to deal with. after these babies cooled completely, i used a big knife to cut them. the key to not making a terrible, sticky mess was for me to continually re-wet my knife as i sliced.

not to break any of my own patterns, i had to do an immediate taste test. i'm trying to avoid using a ridiculous amount of exclamation marks in expressing to you how completely wonderful these tasted. my husband isn't a big chocolate lover, but even he couldn't get enough of these. they were beyond your wildest dreams. ok, maybe i'm getting carried away, but man are they good! (just one)

.go ahead, take a bite.

before my inspiration for these s'mores brownies even arrived in town, i forced us to put the plate away before we made too big of a dent. luckily, there was enough to share with some other girlfriends and my sweetest friend. if you feel like you deserve some chocolate chugging, make these.

s'more brownies recipe

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups crushed graham cracker crumbs
2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch fine salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
4 large cold eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups large marshmallows

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat oven to 325 degrees F. Line an 8 by-8-inch square baking pan with foil so it hangs over the edges by about 1 inch.

For the crust: Lightly butter the foil with some of the melted butter. Stir the rest of the butter together with the crumbs, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Press the crumb mixture evenly over the bottom of the pan. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the brownie. Put the butter and chocolate in a medium microwave safe bowl. Melt in the microwave on 75 percent power for 2 minutes. Stir, and microwave again until completely melted, about 2 minutes more. Alternatively, put the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Bring a saucepan filled with 1 inch or so of water to a very slow simmer; set the bowl on the pan without touching the water. Stir occasionally until melted. Stir the light brown and white sugars, vanilla and salt into the melted chocolate. Add the eggs and beat vigorously to make a thick and glossy batter. Add the flour and stir until just incorporated.

Pour batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the top is crispy and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out mostly clean, with a few crumbs, about 40 to 45 minutes.

Remove from the oven and carefully position a rack about 6 inches from the broiler and preheat on low. Layer marshmallows across the top and toast under the broiler until golden, (keep an eye on it, it can go quick), about 2 minutes. Cool on a rack, gently removing the brownies from the pan using the aluminum flaps. Carefully separate any marshmallow from the foil and fold away. Cut into 12 (2-inch) squares.

Friday, July 22, 2011

.shot o' cheesecake.

hosting a petite brunch for a few friends sounds simple enough and that's why i decided to do it. two of my florida gals were on their way up and several of my memphis gals were looking forward to mingling with them. so, i put on my apron and my party planning hat and got to work. while thinking of what would satisfy our collective sweet tooth, i came across a recipe from half baked which you can find by scrolling to the bottom.

i'm not sure if you noticed, but there's a whole bunch of cream cheese in cheesecake shots. that makes sense, right? with a little added sweetness in the form of vanilla, sugar and cool whip, the cheesecake filling itself really takes plain ol' cream cheese into something worthy of the name 'cake.'

in order to mock the crust of an actual cheesecake, i needed crushed up graham crackers. you may be thinking to yourself that throwing some graham crackers in a plastic bag and smashing them to pieces sounds like a piece of (cheese)cake. if you indeed thought that, you were indeed wrong. before i come across as judgmental, please know i thought the same thing before i actually started trying to make these crumbs.

my original strategy was to consider the cracker-smashing with my fist a great exercise in stress relief. i pictured the innocent grahams as my current frustrations and went to pounding away. after about two point five minutes, my focused frustrations did actually dissipate but were quickly replaced by how un-fun crushing crackers turned out to be. ah, newer frustrations.

once my two parts cake and crust were all ready to be eaten, i had to cute them up.

i loaded the cheese cake goodness into a piping bag and piped it into a shot glass about half way up.

then, i added the crust portion and finished off by filling the remainder of the glass with cheesecake piped in. to top it off, i added a raspberry to each.

these dessert shooters are fun for parties. (and fun for sitting on the sofa days after the party double fisting them too.)

cheesecake shots
– 4 pkg. (8 oz. each) cream cheese, softened
– 1/3 cup + 1T sugar
– 1/2 tsp. vanilla
– 1 tub (8 oz.) Cool Whip, thawed
– 8 – 10 graham crackers
– Fresh Berries
– Finely crush graham crackers
Beat cream cheese, sugar and vanilla in large bowl with mixer until smooth. Gently stir in cool whip until well blended.
Fill individual glasses half way with cream cheese mixture, either using a spoon or a piping bag fitted with a large round tip for a more polished presentation. Top with 1 tsp graham cracker crumbs. Shake glass to level crumbs. Fill to the top with more of the cream cheese mixture. Lightly sprinkle with additional graham cracker crumbs and top with berries.
Refrigerate 4 hours or until firm. Serve chilled. Makes roughly 16 mini servings, depending on the size of your shot glass.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

.funny name, serious cookie.

as soon as one of my good friends here in memphis told me she was hosting a girls only party at her house, my first instinct was to start thinking about what i wanted to bake. for many of the same reasons i've mentioned in other baking ventures, i needed something portable. no one wants to walk around a party with a crumbly pie and fork. ok, i would, but still.

what's that i hear? cookies are a great baked good that are also good on the go? well, i couldn't agree more. there's a certain cookie that has always intrigued me by it's name alone. the snickerdoodle. i've ordered it many times before at a bakery here or there and somehow, my word-magnetized brain expects to bite into something snickery. while in fact, they are nothing at all like snickers candy bars.

i'm not sure why i continued to believe something more indulgent would come from a bite of this cookie, but i somehow disappointed myself every time. once i finally resolved that this cookie is nothing like its name insinuates, i was able to focus on what it really was.

an airy, buttery sugar cookie with a cinnamon coated twist. really, snickerdoodles have more syllables in the name than it does taste elements. hm, this makes me sound like i don't enjoy these. i do, really. they're mild, cinnamony, and soft if baked just right.

i found this classic recipe on the classic martha's website.

snickerdoodle cookies
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup pure vegetable shortening
1 3/4 cups sugar, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon, plus more if needed
2 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, with one rack in top third and one rack in bottom third of oven. Line baking sheets with Silpat baking mats or parchment paper; set aside.

Sift together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine butter, shortening, and 1 1/2 cups sugar. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add eggs, and beat to combine. Add dry ingredients, and beat to combine.

In a small bowl, combine remaining 1/4 cup sugar and the ground cinnamon. Use a small (1 1/4-ounce) ice-cream scoop to form balls of the dough, and roll in cinnamon sugar. Place about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake until the cookies are set in center and begin to crack (they will not brown), about 10 minutes, rotating the baking sheets after 5 minutes. Transfer the sheets to a wire rack to cool about 5 minutes before transferring the cookies to the rack. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.

when making these, it could be really easy to have the bottom of these cookies a little more crisp (burnt) than the top. it is very important, to trade the pans positions from top to bottom so that the entire snickerdoodle is evenly baked on all sides. i wouldn't know this from personal experience or anything.

here were the best parts of making these snickerdoodles for me:
a.) i ended up with extra cinnamon sugar to use on toast the next morning for breakfast
b.) they are REALLY delicious dipped in ice cold milk and according to my friend, with a mug of hot coffee for breakfast too
c.) baking these babies granted me the opportunity to say snickerdoodle a whole bunch and come on- that's a fun word.

Monday, July 11, 2011

.i'm (not) planning on it.

i can't believe that i'm about to say this because it is a complete contradiction to who i am. let me back up and explain who i am.

they make mechanical pencils with my name on them just so i can make lists and mark through completed items. adhesive note pads have always been better than candy in my stocking. in short, i'm a type A planner extraordinaire. i already have events planned six months away and it's not even our wedding anymore. there's usually multiple events in my evite account at any given time and this is what keeps me sane.

most weekends, much like this past one and the one before and the one coming up, i have plans. i actually found it 'cute' when my husband and a friend of ours communicated recently without the women folk involved to make plans for all of us. that never happens and ok, i'll admit, it was hard for me to keep my nose out of it. planning, organizing and planning some more keeps me afloat.

now that you have an idea of who i am, you'll know why this statement i'm about to make (i really am this time) disaffirms how i just described myself. some of the best times in my life have been unplanned. yes, i admit it.

now, before anyone out there who might be having a self-righteous, coulda told ya so moment, gets too excited, i'm still an advocate of planning. but, after having the type of evening that had me laughing so much that even my freckles were sore come about from a seemingly 'got nothing going on' kinda day, i have to give an appreciative nod to the unplanned life.

my hpff always swears that the best nights are those with no expectations and she's right about this. amidst all my summer plans, i recently had an uneventful weekday turn into a lazy afternoon watching tv at a friend's turn into dinner with our hubbies turn into a night at a local dive turn into so much fun with no effort at all. it was perfect.

maybe i'll plan on less planning for me from now on. maybe.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

.red, white and blue (berry) pops.

on the morning of independence day, i couldn't think of anything more all-american in the kitchen than homemade pie. with plans to go to friends' for bbq and then to a fireworks event, i figured that a full-on pie would be messy to make mobile. i've had in my mental back pocket a while the desire to make pie pops and this, my friends, was the perfect excuse.

here's what you need:
pie crust
2.5 cups flour
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 sticks of cold butter
4-6 tbs ice cold water

blueberry filling
1.5 pints fresh blueberries
2 tsp cornstarch
pinch of black pepper
1/4 tsp finely chopped lemon zest
1/2 cup sugar

start with the pie crust because it will need some time to nap in the fridge after it is made. mix your flour, sugar and salt together. the next move would probably be much easier with a pastry cutter, but being that i don't own one, i used a whisk and so can you. with a metal whisk, blend in your cold butter cut into slivers.

you should end up with a coarse, crumbly batter and possibly a really sore forearm. at this point, you'll think to yourself that there's no way this will become a pie crust, but you're about to add in the magical ingredient. ice cold water.

get ready to really dig in; so, remove any jewelry you may have on so you don't end up with a (pie) crusty ring. pour in the four tablespoons of your chilly water and begin kneading, squeezing and working the dough. your end result should be a well formed blob with no dry pieces. i had to add an additional 1.5 tbs of water to get mine to this desired consistency.

from there, split the dough in half so you can easily roll it out flat. feel free to work it with your hands and a rolling pin or whatever works best for you. it helps to keep your hands and pin well-floured so they don't stick to your dough.

once you have half of your dough rolled out, wrap it in plastic wrap and set aside. now, just repeat this process with your other half. once both halves are all flattened out and wrapped, place them in the fridge to rest for about an hour. if you have a huge work surface and a jumbo roll of wrap, you don't have to separate the dough into two pieces. i worked in normal kitchen land and had to make mine two pieces for working ease.

after doing some dishes and various chores, i set about making the filling. here's how.
take the pint and a half of blueberries in a medium sized bowl and add the cornstarch, sugar, and pepper (yes, pepper).

with a grater or zester, prepare just a quarter tsp of lemon zest to also add to your bowl.

as you begin to mix and stir these ingredients, smoosh some of the berries (about thirty percent of them) to have some liquid to mix with the cornstarch and other ingredients. once you've combined the filling ingredients well, you are ready to get your pie on.

pull your refrigerated dough out and decide what shape you will use for your pie pops. i used a tried and true circle for my pie pops so they'd resemble mini-classic pies. push the cookie cutter into the dough and lay them on a floured baking sheet. leave some space for your lollipop sticks as you're placing them on the sheet.

once you have your bottom pieces laid out, stick one stick about two-thirds of the way up your shape and gently press it into your bottom pie crust.

now, take your delicious blueberry filling and scoop out with a teaspoon onto the center of each sticked-pie-half. you might have some blue juices easing out and making a mess. you have two choices. 1) be a perfectionist and wipe up the spillage and try to be super neat on the next one. or 2) be like me and have blue goo everywhere and while it may not be the prettiest, realize it still tastes great.

once you have all the pies 'filled,' you'll want to put a top on these babies. so, take the same cookie cutter you used for the bottom piece and put its twin crust on top. you'll have to work it a little with your hands to make sure it fits over your mound of filling. pinch the sides closed. you can use a lollipop stick to press in cute little design marks around the edges or use your fingers to pinch in the same manner. the choice is yours of course.

take a toothpick and poke out a few breathing holes on top so your blueberries don't suffocate in there while they're in the oven cooking away. set your oven on 375 degrees and place your cuties in there. the cook time varies. while you don't want them to burn, you also don't want them to be doughy. you're basically waiting for a golden crust; as on a regular ol' pie. this will be between 13-17 minutes. just keep an eye on them. no napping during this step.

once they're all golden and delicious looking, pull them out and allow to rest on the pan for a few minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. repeat the process with the rest of your dough. keep re-rolling your dough until you've used it all up.

try not to be impatient like me and begin dressing them up with little bows and stuff before they're completely cooled. they could fall apart if you're like me. for the pops i was patient with, i was able to get them all dolled up for their presentation later that day. these little goodies are absolutely pie-licious! i was tickled red, white and blue at how they turned out.

now go on, see for yourself.