Score One for the Pie People – Freestylin’ with Jeni’s Raspberry Blueberry Oven-Baked Empanadas

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Dan and I got into a small debate last weekend with some friends as to whether cake is better than pie. Dan and I fall firmly down on the “pie” side, which might be one of the defining reasons for our eight years together. I’m sure other factors play a part, but they surely can’t be as important as pie.

Cupcakes, with their beneficial frosting-to-cake ratio were mentioned during this debate, and I countered this argument with the existence of hand pies. Or empanadas. Or turnovers. Or whatever you want to call these wonderful little single-serving treats that give you an amazing crust-to-filling ratio that blows a cupcake away.

People who grew up in New Orleans (like me) also grew up on Hubig’s Pies, these amazing deep fried sugar bombs that always made an appearance at every family function in my childhood. (I have an aunt who used to work in their corporate office, and it was always her potluck contribution to bring an entire case of assorted flavors.) Unfortunately, Hubig’s suffered a devastating fire in 2012, and the factory has yet to be restored. That leaves those of us firmly entrenched on the “pie” side without some of our favorite things.

How do we fix this problem? We make our own.

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We get out our new ice cream cookbook, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts, turn to the page with the recipe for Sweet Empanadas, and get to mixing up some dough.

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Jeni’s has been encouraging people to take the recipes in the cookbooks and run with them, putting their own spin on things or creating new flavors, something they’ve dubbed Freestylin’. #freestylin if we want to be super-cool.

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When I was asking Dan about what flavor of hand pie he’d like, he specified raspberry. I was in more of a blueberry mood. What to do, especially since we’re in freestylin’ mode? Mix them together.

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Raspberries and blueberries cooked down into a delicious syrup makes the most beautiful deep magenta that I’ve ever been able to produce in my kitchen.

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I cut my circles out of my dough, using a Hard Rock Cafe cocktail glass that I have never used once for alcohol, mostly because of its cartoonish shape.

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And because I didn’t have any troubles with the dough, I was bound to run into problems sooner or later. The recipe recommends 2-2 1/2 tablespoons of filling per pie, but I could barely fit in one without having problems sealing the dough.

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See those ones in the back spilling their purple guts already? I think that I might need to invest in an empanada press. Then, the oozing might not have been so…oozy.

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Because we were freestylin’ (and slightly because I am still moderately terrified of boiling oil), I decided to bake the pies instead of frying them. Everything got brushed with eggwash and sprinkled with some extra sugar. Then, they went into a preheated 375 degree oven for about 35 minutes, switching places and turning halfway through.

Even though oozing did occur, however, the pies stayed fairly plump and didn’t lose the majority of their fruity filling, so things worked out in the end.

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Especially when we scooped some vanilla bean ice cream (tragically not handmade) on top, as per Jeni’s suggestion.

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Look at that melty, fruity goodness. Yum.

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The pies have only been in existence for two days, and they are already more than halfway gone. I should have doubled things up, clearly. Or maybe we just need Hubig’s back ASAP. Either way would be a win for us “pie” people.

The Summer So Far? Ice Cream and Muffins!

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Hello there. It’s been a while. I’m afraid that I have been reveling a tiny bit too much in the fact that my semester ended and doing some things that I don’t get a lot of chances to do. Like what, you ask?

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Sitting near lakes during lovely sunsets.

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Having lunch dates with my love. (At Dat Dog, of course. Overloaded hot dogs and Barq’s in the bottle should be the opener for every summer vacation.)

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Knitting a little squirrel for Eddie Izzard. Like you do. (Pattern is the hilariously titled Knit One Squirrel Two, by Rabbit Hole Knits, a lovely little bit of knitting that turns out some very strangely shaped little items. Don’t those tiny squirrel leg/haunches look like drumsticks? And the squirrel body? I can’t even get into that.)

We’re going to see Mr. Izzard in Austin at the end of June as a special birthday treat from my brother and his fiancee. I’m still wondering exactly how I am going to manage to give him a squirrel as I do not have any idea as to whether he is into the whole autograph-and-shaking-hands-with-fans situation after his shows. Anyone have any ideas short of me going on Twitter and telling him that I really want him to have this tiny squirrel, no strings attached? I’m pretty sure that I will be sent to awkward-Twitter-stalker jail for that one.

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Eating frozen yogurt out of cups that depict some sort of crazy dystopian mountains-vomiting-rainbows insanity.

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Listening to the charming words of Mr. Kai Ryssdal, (in person!) everybody’s favorite sassy business radio host.

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Reading Infinite Jest and giggling when I see references to children’s pictures books and M*A*S*H throughout, although I don’t think David Foster Wallace much cared for the antics of Hawkeye and Trapper John (I almost wrote B.J., but I’m pretty sure he was only into the early seasons).

Playing this game with Trip almost every single morning. He crouches in the corner now and waits for me to wake up so that I can get that sunbeam-iPhone-reflection going for him.

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Watching awesome bands and eating crawfish with wonderful friends. (And the Ghostwood even has a new 7″ out called Empty Cosmic Gloom that you should purchase so that you can get your fix of New Orleans pop punk goodness.)

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Causing my right thumb to go numb by X-Acto-ing tiny stencils of popular movie symbology so that I could tattoo them on small children. I do weird things for work sometimes.

Speaking of…

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Dressing up as Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for our Summer Reading Kickoff party at work, where we all dressed as our favorite characters from novels (graphic novels included) that were later turned into films. Dan is responsible for the amazing goggles and war-hammer, and yes, you should be jealous of that fact. This was the first time where I ever got so into a costume that I would consider this ‘cosplaying,’ and it’s weird to think that my first time cosplaying happened on the clock at Barnes & Noble. I had some fairly extreme wig + goggles + tights + combat boots anxiety, but had an awesome time nonetheless. Especially after the event was over and I spent 3 hours at the information desk helping people, being the only person inexplicably in a costume in the entire store. I’m sure I confused some people. Except the people in the graphic novels aisle. I’m pretty sure that I delighted them.

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Making Jeni’s Roasted Strawberry & Buttermilk Ice Cream, from her amazing first book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home.

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I didn’t get to eat much of it, as it was contributed to a work potluck in the break room, but it was some delicious stuff.

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It was a reason to actually go out and buy buttermilk, something that I do not normally do, even if a recipe tells me to.

Now I am in the situation where I have an awful lot of buttermilk that is going to go bad soon if I don’t use it up (How can you tell if buttermilk has turned, by the way? This is an important question.), so some baking just had to be done. Loaves of banana bread were mixed up and baked, but I still had more left over, so I turned to another old favorite.

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Pinch My Salt‘s delicious Whole Wheat Orange Spice Muffins were a great way to get up early this morning to use up that buttermilk, plus make my whole house smell like oranges, which is always a plus.

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Just one swipe on that grater, and it’s all over for me. I love oranges. I need a more emphatic word than love, but my hands still smell like oranges, and I’m too distracted and enchanted too care.

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Just lovely.

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The oranges are zested and juiced, and then combined with whole wheat flour, flaxseed meal, and some wonderful warm spices.

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I always like this moment right before I whisk together my dry ingredients, when you can see all the different colors and textures. It’s like sand art, in the best sense of the word.

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The wet ingredients are not nearly so attractive unmixed. Or mixed, frankly.

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But chunks of walnut make an appearance as well. I like to keep the chunks fairly large just to make these muffins as rustic and homey as possible.

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I’m going to pretend that that’s also the reason why I don’t smooth out the tops of my muffins, but laziness is probably also a factor in that.

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But look at that gorgeous cracked top! It’s so worth it. The tops of these muffins are sweet and have just the right amount of crunch. The bottoms are moist and orangey and buttery and full of whole wheatiness.

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You can even pretend that they’re still healthy when you dump a bunch of butter on them and enjoy them with some tea on a Friday morning. I have made these muffins countless times, but this is probably the first time with actual honest-to-goodness buttermilk, not fakey whole milk and vinegar kitchen hacks.

There’s only one problem. Even with all of this hearty buttermilk-based baking, I still somehow have buttermilk in my refrigerator. Apparently in Louisiana people must be drinking this stuff, because I can’t think of any reason why I had to buy a whole liter of this stuff. What on Earth am I going to do?

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Oh dear. Summer has only just begun. Someone ask me to make them an ice cream cake, quick.

Unexpected Comfort – Banana Bread and ASMR

We all find comfort in different places.

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Sometimes these places are easy to find. Sometimes all it takes is pulling out some frozen bananas that you have cleverly hoarded for this very occasion…

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…and letting them sit on your kitchen counter until they look really, really disgusting.

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Yep, totally gross. Ready to go.

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Still gross.

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Now we’re getting somewhere. You mash up those bananas and mix them up with various other kitchen items like butter and sugar…

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…eggs (to make it totally awesome and neon yellow)

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…vanilla and buttermilk…

(And let’s be honest, no one ever has buttermilk in their house. Just mix up a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with whole milk and pretend that you are on top of your life enough to have fresh buttermilk at all times.)

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…flour (both all-purpose and whole wheat, just so we can pretend it’s healthy), baking soda, and a little bit of salt.

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Grease up two loaf pans, and be pleased with just how clever you are by saving all of your butter wrappers for this specific purpose.

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And then realize that your house might have a bit of a butter problem, because this box of butter wrappers isn’t running out any time soon.

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Sprinkle those future banana breads with some oats, just so that we can pretend that they are healthy some more. Stick them in the oven and let that banana scent reassure you that the comfort is coming soon, especially on a rainy and cold day in the middle of April in New Orleans, which makes absolutely no sense at all.

Now, while that bakes, we’re going to take a little break to talk about comfort coming from totally unexpected places. About a year ago, I was listening to This American Life in my car, and I had a moment of such surreality that I had to pull over to finish listening to the show. It was an episode called “Tribes” (you can listen to it here), and the segment named “A Tribe Called Rest” pulled me out of my usual passive listening state and blew my damn mind.

Done listening to it yet? Good. As a middle-schooler, I loved watching painting shows on PBS more than anything else in the world. Bob Ross was an utter joy for me. His calm and lovely demeanor, combined with the scratchy sounds his paintbrushes made when he was tapping out some happy clouds, would give me the chills every single time. I would feel tingles run down the base of my skull into my neck, and for some reason in the backs of my knees, just hearing him talk. There was another woman I used to love as well, who wore lots of turquoise rings and painted her acrylics with lots of different weird mediums mixed in, like sand and other crazy textures. The sound of her palette knife scratching in those artfully rendered sand dunes, and her rings clicking together…I have the feeling that if you would’ve have walked by my room when I was watching this, you would have seen tiny-Jinger, sitting completely still on the very edge of her bed, eyes tilted up to the screen and glazed over with quiet joy. I was so into this that when I went to high school and the times for these shows changed, I set up my VCR to record them for me while I was at school, so that I didn’t have to miss them and their head-tingling goodness.

It’s probably getting a little awkward in here, so let’s check on that banana bread.

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Looking good. Right on track.

I started watching QVC and HSN soon after that, rigging up my old push-button TV with the UHF dial to catch the jewelry shows whenever I could. There was just something about the quiet reverence with which these people displayed and measured earrings with their tiny rulers that would keep me entranced for hours. My favorite memories of summer camp involve sitting in a circle and playing tracing games (where another person traces words on your back or sings a little song that involves tickling and trying to give the other person the chills…you ladies know exactly what I talking about) or braiding each other’s hair. I love going to get my hair cut, not because I care anything about the state of my hair usually, but because the tiny scissor sounds and personal attention give me tingles the entire time. I’m always a little let down when it’s over. My favorite movie scenes involve those of quiet intensity, where the person on screen is performing some sort of delicate or complicated task, and we get to watch it quietly.

Need examples?

 

 

Confused yet? If you didn’t listen to the episode, you might not realize that my life almost exactly parallels the one of the producer, Andrea Seigel, author and screenwriter and general all-around interesting lady. She too was entranced by painting shows and the Home Shopping Network, and goes in pursuit of attaining more “triggers” via YouTube, finding out that she loves watching makeup tutorials. I did the same exact thing. She had no idea that there was a whole community of people dedicated to this phenomenon, and neither did I. Turns out, it has a name. ASMR. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. And it’s simultaneously awesome and really, really weird.

Immediately upon getting home that day from listening to that This American Life episode, I went in search of these ASMR videos and fell down a crazy YouTube rabbit hole (like everyone does) of people just like me. People speaking quietly and intently while folding napkins. Or leafing through books. Or practicing calligraphy. Or decoupaging coasters. Or pretty much anything else that you can think of. I discovered that, while I do not like going to the dentist in general, I absolutely cannot get enough of someone pretending to be my dental hygienist, speaking to me quietly and executing a complex series of maneuvers to make it sound like they are realistically cleaning my teeth. It sounds bizarre, I know, but these videos bring me comfort in a way that very other few things do.

I have always had an overactive brain. I would never claim that it was out of control in any way, but I have a very difficult time not hearing and internally commenting on everything that is going on around me. At night, I usually have to make myself fall asleep (I have come to think of it as “turning off my brain”) by reading until I find myself asleep with my face in my book somehow. I have a never-ending string of useless trivia winding itself around at all times of day, and most people have no idea unless they try to tell me something that I just know is incorrect, and it takes more self-awareness than I usually have to keep my mouth shut.

I tend to do everything fast. I tend to speed-read, not the skimming of information just to get the gist of something, but just reading incredibly fast, so much that I cannot share reading materials. I type fairly fast. I work out math in my head quickly. I usually only have to hear something once to remember it for far longer than I ever will need to. This type of ridiculous way of thinking usually doesn’t do much harm except in making me look like a smart-ass, but I really can’t help it. Baking and knitting are seriously some of the only things that I can do at a reasonable speed (and some people who watch me knit even accuse me of stitching too quickly), and they tend to bring me comfort in that fact that they remind me that I am physically capable of slowing down sometimes, and that when I do, good things usually happen.

Speaking of baking…

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Done! Let’s let them cool down a bit before we slice them up.

Even though I am not the type of person who dives obsessively into fandoms (yet), I have found another tremendous source of comfort in this community and this (it sounds weird to say it) way of life. ASMR is not just about sitting in front of the computer, listening to people make clicking noises (although, let’s be honest, that’s a lot of it). It’s also about slowing down and appreciating simple activities. It’s about finding pleasure in small things. It’s about breaking down a task that brings you joy and making it last as long as possible. It’s about treating yourself delicately and kindly. It’s about taking care of your brain.

Let me let Heather Feather, one of the greatest people making these videos, break it down for you:

That video right there has helped me to…not to fall asleep really, but to turn off the part of my brain that keeps me from relaxing like a normal person on more than one occasion. It’s fairly goofy, but it’s also kind and sweet and full of amazing creativity. Just like the rest of the ASMR community.

I didn’t think that I would ever post about this, or really ever tell anyone other than Dan, but last week, one of my clinical instructors apparently listened to the same episode of This American Life that I did and came away with a slightly different opinion on the matter. I’m not saying that what she said was…insulting, but she told our clinical group about ASMR in a way that started with something like, “You wouldn’t believe what some people do for stress relief. I heard something on the radio the other day about this weird thing where people like to listen to clicking sounds and people talking quietly on the computer, and that’s how they relax. Isn’t that bizarre?” Not exactly the most ringing endorsement. I took a cue from my totally amazing friends, both online and in real life, and decided to take control of the situation and love the things that I love out loud and not feel weird or shamed by it. I said, “Yeah, that’s ASMR, and I have it.” And I proceeded to relate much of what I have already typed to 7 pairs of very bewildered eyes. And it felt great. Not just owning up to it and defending something I love, but how I surprised myself in disclosing such information to a group of people that I have not known for very long.

Let’s slice up that bread, okay? It’s waited long enough.

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Want the recipe? Here we go.

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Simple Comfort Banana Bread
adapted from Ms. Betty‘s recipe, of course

Ingredients:
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup butter, softened (plus, don’t forget those butter wrappers for greasing up your loaf pans!)
4 large eggs
3 cups mashed overripe bananas (about 6 from the freezer, where everyone who can’t eat a whole bunch of bananas before they turn brown should be throwing them, right?)
1 cup buttermilk (again, who are we kidding with this? 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar plus enough whole milk to equal 1 cup works just fine)
2 tsp. vanilla
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. salt
old-fashioned oats, for sprinkling

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Make sure that the oven rack is positioned so that the tops of the loaves are around the center of the oven, to ensure even heat distribution. Grease up your two loaf pans with your butter wrappers.

Mix softened butter and sugar together until well-mixed and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and blend until well-mixed. Add the bananas, vanilla, and buttermilk all at once and mix until smooth. Then dump in both flours, the baking soda, and the salt and mix until just moistened.

Divide the batter evenly into your two loaf pans, and then sprinkle the tops with the oats. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Allow the loaves to cool on a wire rack for about 30 minutes to an hour before attempting to take them out of the pans. Run a butterknife along the outer edges first to ensure that the loaves are sufficiently loosened from the pan before flipping them out. Then, wait until they are fully cooled, at least 2 more hours, before slicing them up.

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You will make a mess.

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I usually slice these up into 12 pieces each, wrap them up in aluminum foil, and put them in the freezer so that they are ready for breakfast and lunch emergencies whenever.

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If you take one out of the freezer before you drive to school, it will be defrosted and perfect when you pull it out of your bag for lunch. It will make everyone jealous.

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So, why combine ASMR and banana bread?

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Maybe it’s just that I’m constantly reminded how much I need to slow down and enjoy life. That the best things in this world are the ones that we take the time to craft for ourselves and truly appreciate. That we all need to take a break and relax, and whether that involves sitting down to enjoy a slice of banana bread with a cup of tea or putting on your headphones to enjoy the fact that someone cared so much about you and your weird loves that they pretended to be your dentist or your spa technician or your travel agent or whatever…it’s your thing.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that it’s dumb. It’s totally awesome, and so are you.

If Life Gives You Lemons, Make Arnold Palmers

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As soon as the weather starts to seem even the slightest bit warmer, my thoughts tend to drift to lemons.

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(Want to know the best part about using your phone to take kitchen pictures because your boyfriend left the camera in his truck and then left for work? You have no idea how out-of-focus they are until you are all done! Hooray! Sorry, guys.)

When I was a child, I hated anything lemon-flavored. Lemon bars? Lemonade? I wanted nothing to do with it. Yellow candies of all kinds were not to be trusted (I’m looking at you, yellow Starburst).

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I was obviously deranged. Now, in my dotage, I have realized that lemons are the most delicious things that you can get from a tree. You can dress them up and make them super sweet and fancy when you add butter and sugar, or you can leave them in their tangy, sour perfection with just the addition of some black iced tea. That’s right! We’re making lemon cookies and Arnold Palmers today because the heater hasn’t had to come on in at least two weeks, and it’s going to be such a fabulous lemony kick to the face that you will definitely be thanking me later.

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The lemon cookie recipe comes courtesy of the always-delightful Jeannette at everybody likes sandwiches. I remember reading it when it first was published in 2007 and heading out to the store to buy lemons that very moment. Since then, I have made them more times than I can count, even once sending them cross-country to sit in for me during a game of D&D.

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See? Hipster food-blog-follower cred! I seriously wrote it down on an index card (!), back when her blog was still at BlogSpot. How very quaint of me and my purple Sharpie. This was before Pinterest, people, when I wrote everything down or spent long hours with my printer and bookmarks, making huge Word documents of dessert recipes that needed printing. Want to see the rest? Here you go.

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These cookies are obviously something special, otherwise that little index card would not still be in my recipe binder. When you make them, they are little balls of bright, tangy dough, rolled in sugar.

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Just look at how cute that is! They taste buttery and lemony and almost floral, without feeling like you’re eating a plant. They are crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, absolute perfection with a quick dip in some cold milk.

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Yum.

Now, what if we want something that preserves more of that natural lemon essence? That super tart feeling that you’re getting in your mouth right now just thinking about lemons? We make Arnold Palmers!

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I’m aware that most people refer to this as Lemonade Iced Tea, but once I learned that a professional golfer claimed that he invented the concoction, I just can’t bring myself to call it anything else. First, we brew up the tea.

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Then we get mesmerized by the process of tea steeping. Don’t pretend it isn’t interesting to watch. (I even made a little video of it, if you can ignore the sweet strains of Despicable Me playing in the background.) Oh, heat conduction. You make pretty things happen in water.

While we wait for our tea to cool, we have to juice up some lemons. We’re looking for 1 1/4 cups of delicious lemon juice, which is about 6-7 lemons usually, depending on how large they are.

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Close enough.

Then we make simple syrup, which is essentially just combining equal parts of sugar and water together over heat.

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Until it’s super clear and bubbly.

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All of these things get dumped together into the appropriate receptacles and topped off with enough ice to make yourself about 2 gallons of sweet, tangy, summery deliciousness. And when I say ‘tangy,’ I mean it. That first sip is a game-changer. Feel free to add a little more sugar if you don’t roll that way.

Arnold Palmers
or just Lemonade Iced Tea, if you aren’t whimsical enough

Ingredients:
4 bags of black tea
6-7 lemons (enough to make about 1 1/4 cups of juice)
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
lots of ice

Directions:
Steep 4 bags of black tea in approximately 2 liters of boiling water. Don’t worry if you end up staring at it for a little while. It’s totally normal.

Juice your lemons and set the juice aside. Prepare simple syrup by combining sugar and water over medium-high heat until the sugar has completely dissolved, and the mixture is clear and starting to boil. Discard the tea bags, and combine the tea, lemon juice, and simple syrup together in a heatproof 2-gallon (or two 1-gallon) beverage container(s). Things will be super hot and boiling, so be careful. Top off the mixture with plenty of ice in order to get it up to the 2-gallon mark. Enjoy the cracking sounds that ice makes when it hits all that super hot tea. I know that I do.  Stick that stuff in the refrigerator until you’re ready.

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Drink up a big tall glass and eat yourself some lemon cookies. You’re almost done with February. You deserve it.

Friendship + Apples + Almost Famous = Love

I had a test yesterday, but it was hard to concentrate because all I could think about was getting home so that I could make pie.

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After submitting my last answer, I got in the car and flew to the grocery store, where they rewarded me with a free flower and a smile. Hooray for Valentine’s Day!

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Trip doesn’t understand yet that flowers are not to be eaten.

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Dan and I have a bit of a running joke in our house, where if I ever express uncertainty as to what to make, or claim that I am bored during the day, he tells me to make an apple pie for him. No matter what day it is or what occasion might be coming up, you can be sure that Dan wants apple pie. What better day than Valentine’s Day to finally indulge him and make him up a pie? Betty helped out.

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Also, what better day than to hang out with your totally awesome friend Bailee, who will take awesome action shots of the whole pie-making process? None.

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Action!

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(Oh, Bailee, please forgive me for posting this picture, but you cannot possibly understand how much I love it.)

Not only did we make pie, but we also completely embraced our Palentine’s Day, watching Attack the Block, my new favorite British sci-fi action movie (not a packed genre, I know), eating carrots and hummus in an attempt to be healthy before the rest of the day’s festivities, and laughing more than seems healthy at my failed attempts at crust.

Yep, you read that right. There was some spectacular crust failure going on, either from too warm temperatures or too much shortening. Knowing me, probably both. The poor crust was somehow both sticky and crumbly, and just would not get off the countertop and into a pie plate without me losing my mind. Solution?

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Hearts! We broke out the cookie cutters and got to improvising. My original idea was for them to turn out something like this, but we all know that Pinterest can be a real danger zone when it comes to overestimating your own abilities. That said, I think that things looked pretty cute once we got rolling.

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Cute!

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We attracted some attention.

If you noticed earlier, there were two apple pies on my counter. One of these was going to one of Dan’s coworkers, a super nice man named Mike who unfortunately lost his wife this past fall. We wanted to brighten his day by including him in our baked goods rotation for Valentine’s Day, but I wasn’t too sure about the hearts. Solution #2?

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Stars!

Can you tell that Bailee is ridiculously taller than me? It makes these shots that I normally have to stand on a chair to get seem super simple. Anyone else think that she should come and do blog photos all the time? Me too.

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Super messy doughy countertop.

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But look at those pies! Everything got a light eggwash and a sprinkling of sugar before going into the oven.

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The shapes kind of…melted into the apples a bit, so they lost their definition, but I still think that they came out really festive.

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And then you don’t need to say that love is the secret ingredient, because it’s right there on the top, in full view. Love in sugary buttered form.

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I’m sure that no one will be shocked to hear that Dan and I each ate a piece of it before going out for Valentine’s Day dinner.

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It just seemed like the right thing to do.  Even with all the crust failure, it still tasted amazing.  Warm and cinnamon-y and perfect.

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Gifts were exchanged. I got Dan the adorable Zombie in Love, illustrated by one of Dan’s favorite artists, Scott Campbell. He got me one of the original double-sided placards from when Almost Famous came out in theaters.

This is more than just a poster, really. I don’t believe that I have ever told this story before on the blog, so let me tell you about the day that Dan and I met. In 2006, I used to play D&D with a couple of people that Dan lived with. One day, we decided to go over to their house to play a minifigure-type game, and Dan was there, getting ready to watch a movie. He put in Almost Famous, which I had also never seen, and I asked if I could watch it with him. He said that would be great and asked me if I wanted a drink. For the next two hours, he kept asking me questions about the movie and the music, so much that I originally thought that he wasn’t really paying much attention to the movie for some reason. He later told me that he was doing this intentionally to get me to talk to him.

Cue the “awwww.”

About a week later, he showed up at a piano bar when my friends and I went out, and we spent our time together making origami napkin animals and flowers at the end of the table. We started dating a week later and have been inseparable ever since. Ever since that night, Almost Famous has been our movie. We even plan to name our first child (if FutureBaby ever becomes a reality) William, because William Miller is the name of the main character. Yes, we are dorks. But it means a lot. Hearing that Philip Seymour Hoffman died a few weeks ago really hit me where it hurts because he is responsible for one of the most wonderful moments in that movie. In movies period, really.

Sigh. I’m getting sad about it again just writing about it. Let’s look at a picture of a tiny owl instead.

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He also got me a tiny owl. It’s pretty great.

After the pie, we got ourselves all fancied up…

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…and went to one of my favorite places.

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Tujague’s is a New Orleans institution. It’s super old, and super dedicated to doing things the way they’ve always done them. An oak bar that’s over a hundred years old with cloudy glass, cracked terrazzo tile, white tablecloths, and prix fixe. It’s one of my favorite places.

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Then there was a lovely walk in the French Quarter, just to round out the evening. There would have been coffee at Café du Monde, if we felt as though there was any more rooms in our stomachs, thanks to crawfish gnocchi, corn and crab chowder, amazing steak and shrimp, and caramel cheesecake. And the apple pie we ate before we left, of course.

But, hey! It was Valentine’s Day! We’re allowed to be ridiculous and share our love of food along with our love of each other, right?

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Thanks so much to Bailee for her awesome pictures and fabulous company on this very lovely of Pal/Valentine’s days! I hope that all of you had a wonderful time yourselves and got to spend some quality time with the people and things that you love, like I did.

Oh, and I love you guys, too. Don’t forget that.

Chocolate and Orange, Together Forever – Doctored Up Chocolate Orange Bundt Cake

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Beautiful chocolate and orange above the fold? Do I have your attention? Good.

There is a well-established precedent here on this blog that I believe that chocolate + orange = holidays. Therefore, Christmas dinner this year required for me to get up early to make a decadent chocolate and orange treat for everyone to enjoy after the long day’s festivities.

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Cue Joy the Baker‘s Chocolate Orange Bundt Cake. (By the by, the photos here were taken by multiple people, none of which were me, on various phones and cameras whilst I flitted about the kitchen wearing an owl apron and a super serious face.)

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This cake, by itself, is pretty damn delicious, but this was Christmas, dammit. Game had to be stepped up. First addition? I poked holes all over the beautiful finished and cooled cake and brushed fresh squeezed orange juice (from the lonely little orange that you zest and then ignore to make the cake) all over the cake, letting it soak in.

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See? Super serious business here.

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If you’ve got tiny bits of orange pulp all over the outside of your cake, you’re doing everything right. In life and in baking.

Second addition? Get out your favorite chocolate ganache recipe. Don’t have one? Betty does, and it’s pretty great.

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Pour it all over that cooled orange-drenched cake (with aluminum foil cake stand protectors, of course), and then admire it for a second.

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Then spread things out a bit with a spatula. Did you start to smile? Stop that. Baking is a serious business.

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Lovely.

Now, we haven’t even eaten dinner yet, so we can’t dig into this cake. Besides, ganache (which WordPress doesn’t believe is a real word, by the way) needs to set, which is a cruel, but necessary, step. What do we do while we’re in that weird between-time when we can’t eat dinner or dessert yet?

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Well, in my family, you make more dessert, apparently.

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Super basic roll-out sugar cookies, again from Lady Betty.  Cookie cutters from my awesome friends Brittany and Michele made their inaugural sugar cookie appearance.

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You may think that bunnies don’t belong on a Christmas cookie plate. You are wrong.

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I don’t know why I wanted to include this one, but I really like this picture somehow. I feel as though those cookies are cowering in fear from my threatening cookie-eating presence. They are right to fear.

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After dinner, all kinds of royal icing happened.

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Again, no smiling allowed. Decorating sugar cookies with icing, candies, and sprinkles requires extreme concentration from all involved.

We made approximately 800,000 cookies. Here are a few highlights.

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The kitchen counter got a little crowded.

After all that hard work decorating, it was time for cake!

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It was worth the wait.

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I feel like this would be even better in mini-Bundt size, where you can get an even more favorable ganache-to-cake ratio. It’s all about the balance between the floral, tangy orange and the creamy semisweet chocolate. And then overloading it with a whole bunch more chocolate.

Year-end roundup is not over yet! Remember when I said something about bunnies being involved? Those cookie cutters didn’t count. We’ve got way more bunny goodness coming up. I am still excited about it, and it’s already over. That’s saying something.

Thankful for Pie – Extended Metaphor 2013 Edition

Sometimes life is a big mess.

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And it takes a little bit of elbow grease to make things come together.

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Sometimes things just seem like they just don’t go together.

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But even if it seems like something’s not quite right…

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…it all works out.

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Sometimes things just look gross.

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And then they become beautiful.

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And tangy!

Sometimes you just have to get that butter worked into that brown sugar, so you throw aside the pastry blender…

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And get your hands dirty.

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And then you run out of metaphor.

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But you have streusel topping, so it’s all good.

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And brown sugar whipped cream, too, which is a miracle unto itself.

The point is…no matter what life throws at you, if you have pie (and homemade cranberry sauce), you can handle it, rest assured.

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This particular one is an adapted version of Pillsbury’s Maple-Walnut Pumpkin Pie (that I got off of a calendar!), made with Joy the Baker’s Easy No-Roll Pie Crust (of course) and pecans substituted for walnuts, because Louisiana, dammit.

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When you’ve got pie, you’ve got smiles. You’ve got people gathering together to chat about nothing in particular. You’ve got warm, pumpkin custard goodness and buttery crust to share with those you love.

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And we all know how we feel about crust. It could solve all the problems of the world, that crust.

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I hope that everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving, full of cranberries, pie, parades, love, laughter, and warmth.

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And an extra dollop of whipped cream. That just goes without saying.

Why didn’t anybody tell me pumpkin seeds were so good?

If you read that title in your best Mel-Brooks-in-Spaceballs-voice in your head, we should be friends.

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I have only ever carved a pumpkin once before in my life. And I have only ever attempted to roast pumpkin seeds once before in my life. These were two separate occasions, however. The pumpkin carving occurred during high school, where I chose a very tall and slender pumpkin during a pumpkin patch trip, and I carved a cartoon bunny face into it. Looking back, this choice does not make much sense. Roasting pumpkin seeds was similarly nonsensical. I attempted to make pumpkin pie from scratch (instead of from my beloved can of Libby’s), and I ended up with strangely stringy pumpkin pie and a kitchen that smelled like burning because just throwing pumpkin seeds in the oven until I thought they might be “done” was apparently not the greatest idea.

I might not be so great at Halloween, you guys.

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When Dan brought home two huge pumpkins after work one day, I was determined to up my Halloween cred and give both a second try. I went and bought a cheapy pumpkin carving kit, got a suitably spooky idea in my head, and we got to work.

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Someone thinks that he is my muse.

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The first hole! Is it lame to say that I was intimidated? Or just my use of the word lame?

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The first cuts weren’t so bad, plus they lead the way to the glorious bounty inside.

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Ew. I don’t know if I’ve explained this before on the blog, but I have a real problem with my hands being dirty for an extended length of time. Especially sticky-type dirty. Which you’d think would not be an issue for someone who bakes all the time and regularly sticks her hands into glue and paint and various craft supplies. There’s a big difference, let me tell you.

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Crafting and baking usually involve a very limited amount of wet hands time, and if your hands need to be dirtied while painting and drawing, chances are it’s dry stuff and smudges. No big deal. Plus, my mom got me some fun cinnamon-scented scrubby handwash for the kitchen that takes butter off your hands like it’s going out of style, and that makes baking messes infinitely more tolerable. Pumpkin carving is a whole different ball game. Cutting into that pumpkin ensures you at least 45 minutes to an hour of sticky scraping and grabbing slippery pumpkin seeds and guts, and frankly, typing about it now is still giving me the heebie-jeebies.

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Let’s just say that I am proud of myself. And that I made a big awesome sticky mess, and I was totally okay with it.

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Now with the carving. I followed all the directions as well as I could (and are we really that surprised?). I taped on my drawing.

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I pounced.

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This was so much harder than I thought it would be. I felt like I was going to break that tiny plastic wheel with the fierceness of my determination. I can’t imagine what this is like with a design with lots of tiny curved lines. Do those talented people just freehand it onto the pumpkin instead? Inquiring minds need to know.

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I carved extremely slowly with a very tiny delicate saw.

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I watched the pumpkin bucket fill up with alarming amounts of seeds and guts and realized that I should have kept the seeds separate.

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I watched Dan, with his typical ease, freehand and attack his pumpkin with gusto while I flitted around trying to make things “correctly.” He definitely had the right idea.

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I was rewarded! Look at that little cat!

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Spooky cat. Our crazy tiny cat, Trip, has been immortalized. Sort of.

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Dan’s scary pumpkin face. The man definitely has me beat, Halloween-wise.

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We kept them lit on the kitchen table and enjoyed them while the cats inspected them and decided that they smelled funny and were scary. Here comes the slightly sad part. During the weekend that we displayed these on our porch, our slightly cool weather heated up again. Now I know from experience that carved pumpkins are not meant to survive in 80 degree weather. They melted themselves into a weird orange pile of goo within 4 days. Sadness all around.

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At least we got good pictures.

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But we’re not done yet! I had another Halloween hurdle to clear, and this one was much more successful. I spent an agonizingly long amount of time getting all of the pumpkin gunk off of those precious seeds and got to work.

The perfect pumpkin seeds recipe from Oh She Glows came in handy in showing this wayward pumpkin seed roaster the way. First things first, I refrigerated the pumpkin seeds for a day, mostly because I had no time to bake that particular night, but also because it helped those last little bits of pumpkin goop to fall away as I was getting prepared.

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The seeds were boiled up in some salty water, to increase potential crispiness.

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Then they got mixed up in some olive oil, sea salt, and paprika.

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And now, since nothing really ever works properly around here, was where the trouble came. For some reason, my pumpkin seeds took forever attain their perfect roasted crunchiness. In the original recipe, things seem to take only about 20 minutes, but mine took maybe twice as long, even though I followed all of the other instructions to the letter. Perhaps my oven’s temperature is not terribly accurate. Perhaps the moon was full. Perhaps my seeds were not dry enough. Who knows?

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What I do know is that we ate them up so quickly is that there was no time to get a suitable picture. I brought them to school and work, and the friends who sampled them gave them rave reviews. I had never eaten a proper roasted pumpkin seed before, but now I might be hooked. They tasted like something between popcorn and the really delicious brown chewy bits of a fried egg. They were delicious, and now they are gone.

And now I need to somehow get some more without having to scrape out another pumpkin.

Is my Halloween reputation redeemed?

Shelter in Place – Chocolate Pumpkin Swirl Pie

About a week ago, people were telling us that we were about to get hit by a tropical storm.

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Her name was Karen, she was headed right for us…and she was no big deal.

This is nothing new. If you’re from New Orleans, as I am, you learn that you don’t even start thinking about hurricane plans until you get up to a Category 2. Tropical storms don’t faze us one bit. Chances are the fall weekend will be even more beautiful than you could have even imagined if the Weather Channel is freaking out and telling you to buy a bunch of bottled water, batteries, and candles in preparation for the tropical storm ahead. This case was no exception.

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We did our duty and filled up the gas tanks and bought some bottled water and made sure that the flashlights were ready to go, and then we went about our business as usual. I had children’s faces to paint during Star Wars Day at work, dammit. Karen wasn’t going to bring us down.

The very idea of staying home during a potential hurricane situation (even one that turns out to be a whole bunch of nothing) makes a lot of people shake their heads in disbelief, I’m sure, but we have a lovely term for it that makes it seem both homey and logical (two of my favorite things)…Shelter in Place.

What sheltering in place means to me is that you have to have board games and playing cards ready. You need candles and books and ridiculously large bags of gummy candy to share with your potential shelter-mates. You need to move your mattresses downstairs and have a slumber party amidst the couches. You need to call all your friends and family and make sure they’re either safe or right in front of you. You need to pet the cats more because they can always tell that something’s up.

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And perhaps more than anything else, you need to have some pie on-hand.

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Since a large amount of hurricane season takes place in what the rest of the country experiences as fall, variations on pumpkin pie are always welcome and encouraged. This time around, I went with a little experiment in chocolate and pumpkin swirled together to keep us satisfied in the case of potential storms. Luckily, none of that happened, so we just stuffed our faces with chocolate and pumpkin and made plans for what pie to make next time.

Shelter in Place Pie
Chocolate Pumpkin Swirl – with assistance from Libby’s

Ingredients:
Chocolate & Graham Cinnamon Crust:
1 1/2 cups finely crushed chocolate and regular graham crackers (I used 12 chocolate crackers and 6 regular graham crackers to get a nice mix here)
1/3 cup butter or margarine, melted
3 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon

Chocolate Pumpkin Swirl Filling:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
2 large eggs
1 can (15 oz.) pumpkin puree (goddammit, I love me some Libby’s, but if you want to go for the real thing, go right ahead)
1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa

Directions:
Crust:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir all crust ingredients together in a medium bowl until well-incorporated.

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Press mixture firmly against the bottom and sides of a 9″ deep-dish pie pan.

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Bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool completely before filling.

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Hell yeah, crust. Check that action out.

Filling:
Now, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves in a small bowl.

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Beat eggs in a separate large bowl. Stir in the pumpkin, and then the sugar and spice mixture. Gradually stir in evaporated milk.

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I like to really get in there with a whisk to make sure all the lumps are out and that filling is as velvety as possible.

Divide the pumpkin batter roughly in half between the two bowls. Mix the unsweetened cocoa into one of the bowls, and really get your wrist into this because that cocoa will be resistant. Make it bend to your will.

Take your cooled graham cracker crust and get it placed before you with your two different batters. Now take a scoop or ladle of some kind that holds about 1/4-1/3 cup of batter and scoop up some plain pumpkin batter and pour that into that crust. Scoop up some chocolate batter and layer it on top. Repeat until it’s all gone.

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Pumpkin pie batter is super fluid and runny, so don’t get upset if it doesn’t layer and swirl as beautifully as you want it to. Just pour gently and give it some time, and everything will be beautiful.

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Kind of. Trust me, it looks better after it’s baked.

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See?

Bake in 425 degree oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake for approximately 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center of the pie comes out clean.

Now, here’s the real hard part that Dan and I can never manage to do. Allow the pie to cool fully before cutting it up and shoving it in your mouth. Don’t get me wrong, this pie was insanely delicious while still carrying a tinge of warmth from the oven, but the flavors had truly melded into something amazing the next day after everything was allowed to rest and come together. It’s even still pretty awesome chilled.

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The whole thing tastes like dark chocolate Oreos and sweet spicy pumpkin at the same time. Cinnamon and ginger and cloves warm your nose while chocolate melts on your tongue. If Halloween Oreos actually had pumpkin-flavored filling instead of just orange food coloring, you’d start to get the idea.

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It’s even irresistible to tiny cats! So whether there’s a big storm coming or not, take this some time weekend to mix up some chocolate and pumpkin and your loved ones and shelter in place. You don’t need a better excuse.

Eat It by the Handful – Orange Cranberry Granola

Granola is a big deal in my house.

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Whenever granola gets made, granola gets eaten at alarming rates, usually just in handfuls while standing in the kitchen when deciding what else to eat.

I started musing out loud about different kinds of granola to make, and Dan only made the specification of “no chocolate,” so the granola world was my oyster. What says summertime? What says sweet and tart and midday snacks?

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Orange and cranberry? I think so, too!

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This one starts out fairly similarly to my Orange Chocolate Granola, heaping together all kinds of oats, nuts, and orange zest, plus the addition of fresh-squeezed-orange-juice-soaked dried cranberries.

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Hot damn.

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Doesn’t that look like something delicious you’d find professionally available for sale in a Whole Foods bulk bin? Is that weird that that’s my basis for pride?

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Resist the urge to shove your face into the hot melted butter-sugar-honey goodness. It’ll be delicious, but extremely burn-y.

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Bake it up and feel proud of yourself.

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Orange Cranberry Granola

Ingredients:
4 cups oats
1 cup whole raw almonds
1 cup sliced raw almonds
1/2 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
zest from 2 large oranges (approx. 2 tbsp.)

juice from 1 large orange
1/2 cup dried cranberries

2 1/2 tbsp. butter
scant 1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Zest both oranges, and set zest aside. Juice one orange (and save the other orange in the refrigerator for a refreshingly cold summer snack later after you come in from the garden). Place the dried cranberries in a small bowl with the orange juice (so that the berries are completely covered with delicious juice), and allow the cranberries to soak for 20-30 minutes while you combine the other ingredients.

Put all ingredients from oats to orange zest in a large bowl. Drain the cranberries and add to the bowl. Mix thoroughly and make sure that everything is well-distributed.

Heat the butter, vegetable oil, honey, and brown sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat until melted. Allow mixture to briefly come to a boil and then remove from heat. We want to make sure that everything’s slightly caramel-y so that our granola isn’t too soft from the orange oil. Add the vanilla extract after you’re done with the heat and mix well.

Pour the butter and sugar mixture over the oats and mix well with a rubber spatula, making sure to get everything completely covered with sugar.

Spread the mixture evenly in a thin layer over both cookie sheets. Place in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, stirring twice during baking time to prevent scorching.

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Allow granola to cool completely on the cookie sheets and then break apart. Put in an airtight container with a lid that allows for easy snacking during your kitchen indecisiveness time. It’s awesome.

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Soaking the cranberries not only prevents them from scorching in the oven, but also gives it that super orange zesty kick every time you come upon one of those delicious tarty morsels. It’s like eating an orange cranberry muffin, but super toasty and crunchy. I had some for breakfast this morning with some vanilla yogurt, and I think that if you do the same, you’ll be a happy, satisfied person for at least 20 minutes, I promise you. Possibly for the entire morning. And then the whole rest of the day. It’s highly likely.