Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cupcake Creation

I've been eating pretty healthy these days, but I do allow myself one small treat a day... a scoop of sorbet, a skinny cow ice cream, or a piece of chocolate. Today, I really wanted a cupcake. I found an easy cupcake and icing recipe from Cooking Light, and I was able to make cupcakes and icing with ingredients I had in the house in about 15 minutes. To be safe, I only made half of the recipe (6 cupcakes). I'll eat one or two, and I'm sure Brent will take care of the rest :-)

I followed the recipe, but I put a little twist in the icing. The other week at the grocery store I bought some crystallized ginger because it looked interesting. I have been thinking about what I should make with it, and I decided to make chocolate cupcakes with ginger cream cheese frosting - they were delicious! You can get crystallized ginger at the regular grocery store in the produce section in a little package. The recipe below is for the half batch, but you can double or triple if you're really hungry!

Chocolate Cupcakes (adapted from Cooking Light)
Yield: 6 cupcakes
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter
1 large egg
3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°.

To prepare cupcakes, place brown sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed 2 minutes or until well blended. Add egg, beating well. Add flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, mixing well. Mix in buttermilk. Stir in vanilla extract.

Spoon batter into 6 muffin cups lined with paper liners. Bake at 350° for 15 minutes or until cupcakes spring back when touched lightly in the center. Cool in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack; remove from pan. Cool completely on wire rack.

Ginger Cream Cheese Frosting
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup low fat tub-style cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger

To prepare frosting, combine powdered sugar, cream cheese, vanilla extract, and chopped ginger in a bowl, stirring until smooth. Spread frosting on each cupcake. Sprinkle with more chopped ginger, if desired.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010


A respite is "an interval of rest and relief". I have been grateful and blessed during these last few weeks which have served as a respite for me. I've had time to get lots done, but always in the comfort of my pajama pants with The Bachelorette on in the background. Every once in a while, I do venture out for taxing errands such as the grocery store, Hobby Lobby, or HomeGoods. It's a hard job, but somebody's got to do it. (Don't be too jealous, though... I work like crazy the rest of the year.) In the last two weeks, my wonderful husband has allowed me to decorate a room in our house that I have been DYING to decorate for a year now: our study. The study is a room with tons of potential: tall french doors, arched windows, and lots of space. However, it was totally under-utilized and just plain ugly (as you can see below).

Before, the room consisted of a desk and chair pushed up against one wall. The rest of the room was empty except for disorganized, teetering stacks of books and moving boxes full of office supplies and random junk. That's right.... moving boxes. Never unpacked. Brent would do work at the desk, and I couldn't be in there with him unless I sat on the floor and gazed at the mess. That didn't happen very often!
I think even Brent got a little tired of the disorganized mess, so he gave me the OK to start decorating. That was all I needed! Two weeks, approximately eight trips to HomeGoods, two visits to Hobby Lobby, the construction of two IKEA bookshelves, and a whole Saturday of arts & crafts later... we have a new, beautiful, USABLE study!! The study now provides respite for me... I am in love with reading in there and hanging out with Brent while he works.

Behold, the after:

This is the view of the study from the dining room. I sometimes look down the hall just to see this view because I love how it looks. Believe it or not, I found the chair at HomeGoods for a price WAY lower than any chairs at IKEA. I immediately loved the cute stripes and over-sized shape. It is so comfy! I also found the modern little table and blue lamp at HomeGoods. It kind of has an overall 'beachy' feel, and I have no idea where that came from since it's not usually my style, but I kind of like it for this room. I have been eying these cute framed letters at Hobby Lobby for a long time, and I finally found a place for them! Thanks to my wonderful hubby for constructing these IKEA bookshelves. Apparently I need more books to fill them up. (Never thought I'd say THAT!) Blazer enjoys his portion of the room as well.

We put the desk at an angle looking out into the room, which I love. I learned that by looking at model homes when we were house-hunting. I think model homes always have a desk at an angle for some reason. Then I found that adorable lamp (at HomeGoods, where else?). The framed bulletin boards are from Hobby Lobby. The computer is off to the side of the desk so I can bring my laptop in there and work on the desk, too! Of course anytime I do a new room, I get the urge to paint something, so I bought four canvasses and painted the art you see here. I tried to mimic the coral pattern from the lamp, and then I found a cool graphic design that I copied from some pillows on the internet for the other two canvasses. Although they probably wouldn't sell for thousands at an art show, I like them and they cost less than $25 total.

Here's a parting view for you. I'm typing this from the comfy chair and have no intentions of getting up anytime soon!


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Perfect Pizza

I like pizza - I really do. The only problem is that I really don't like most pizza. I'm not a fan of cheap, mass produced pizza that is delivered to your home lukewarm or comes out of the freezer. Since I work at a school, I see my fair share of sub-par pizza. The kids eat it all the time. Also, when my work tells us they are "providing lunch" or "providing dinner", nine times out of ten, that means they are ordering pizza, so I bring my own food. I do, however, like high-quality, interesting pizza that you might get at a gourmet pizzaria. I know you're thinking that I'm a snob... and you're right. I am. I'm well aware of my issues. However, I still believe that life's too short to waste calories on bad food. And I'm sticking to it.

Because of my high standards, I don't eat much pizza. I haven't attempted to make pizza at home in about four years because the last time I tried it, it was a goopy, soggy mess - no better than takeout. I took a long break after that. However, last week I got inspired to give it another go. My main inspiration was a new pre-made pizza crust I found while shopping: a THIN crust from Pillsbury!
So I did my best, said a pizza prayer, and it turned out AMAZING!!!! Brent liked the homemade pizza better than his usual Papa John's. It was high quality and as healthy as a pizza can be. To make it healthy, I used lowfat cheese, turkey sausage, and veggies. I am in love with Jennie-O turkey. I use it for everything from pasta to tacos.
While making my pizza, I discovered two tricks that I think will make your homemade pizza better. I know everyone likes their pizza a certain way, but this is how I like mine :-)

Trick #1: Make all toppings extra thin. I started with a thin layer of store-bought marinara sauce. Then I sprinkled a thin layer of cheese. You don't want goop. Next, I cut paper-thin slices of roma tomatoes and completely covered the pizza with the slices. They added a wonderful tomato taste, but they didn't make the pizza soggy because they were so thin. I also cut my mushrooms thin and put a single layer over the pizza. Finally, I topped the pizza with browned sausage and a final sprinkle of cheese to hold it all together. Here is what the pizza looked like before going in the oven.

Trick #2: Cook pizza until crispy. I do NOT like greasy or soggy pizza. So crispy is key for me. I started by pre-baking the crust for about 8 minutes (3 minutes more than the packaged called for). Then, I baked the entire pizza at 410 degrees for maybe 12 minutes - I made sure the mushrooms were cooked. Then, I put the broiler on HIGH for about 4 minutes. This made the cheese deliciously crispy and browned the sausage nicely. I think the broiling step is the final touch. Here's what the pizza looked like before we devoured it!

So don't be scared, and for heaven's sake please stop eating delivery pizza or frozen hockey pucks. Make your own! It's easy and delicious, and you can make it exactly how you want. Being a snob has its perks.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dear Ina Garten

Dear Ina,

You are Ina. And you are fabulous. Your fabulosity radiates from the TV into my living room and, if I'm lucky, into my kitchen and onto my plate.

We don't really know what "Barefoot Contessa" means, but we don't really care. We don't ask questions. We just watch and do as you say.
You live a life of luxury in the Hamptons that most of us could never even dream of, but we are glad for you and love you anyway. Though maybe we could visit....?

Giada De Laurentiis is great, but you... you don't mess around with fancy. And it's OK with us.

You can make something out of nothing. You can whip up a party out of thin air. You have more friends in real life than I have on Facebook. You can entertain 100 people without breaking a sweat with just one quick trip to the local market.

Your husband likes EVERYTHING you make. You never serve raw chicken, overcook the pasta, or burn the garlic in the pan and have to start all over. (Not like I do either, of course, I'm just saying...)

You say things like, "Oh... give me just a moment... I'm going to go snip some fresh hydrangeas from my garden." Um... yeah, Ina...me too.

You can pop the collar of a button down denim shirt and still look classy.

How do you do it, Ina? We'll never know, but we're glad that you do.

With admiration,
Ina Garten taught us once and for all how to make steak. We will never ever make it differently.
Steakhouse Steaks

2 (10-ounce) filet mignon
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon coarsely cracked black peppercorns
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, optional

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Heat a large, well-seasoned cast iron skillet over high heat until very hot, 5 to 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, pat the steaks dry with a paper towel and brush them lightly with vegetable oil. Combine the kosher salt and cracked pepper on a plate and roll the steaks in the mixture, pressing lightly to evenly coat all sides.

When the skillet is ready, add the steaks and sear them evenly on all sides for about 2 minutes per side, for a total of 10 minutes.

Top each steak with a tablespoon of butter, if using, and place the skillet in the oven. Cook the steaks until they reach 120 degrees F for rare or 125 degrees F for medium-rare on an instant-read thermometer. (To test the steaks, insert the thermometer sideways to be sure you're actually testing the middle of the steak.)

Remove the steaks to a serving platter, cover tightly with aluminum foil and allow to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes.
This was a featured recipe on Ina's "Back to Basics" series. It is so simple and utterly DELICIOUS. I now make this once a week.

Lemon Pasta With Roasted Shrimp

2 pounds (17 to 21 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined
Good olive oil
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and crushed red pepper
1 pound angel hair pasta
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Zest and juice of 2 lemons

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the shrimp on a sheet pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.Toss well, spread them in one layer and roast for 6 to 8 minutes, just until they're pink and cooked through.

Meanwhile, boil a large pot of salted water. Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente, about 4 minutes. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Quickly toss the spaghetti with the melted butter, 1/4 cup olive oil, the lemon zest, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, and about 1/2 cup of the reserved cooking liquid. Add a generous handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Add the shrimp and serve hot.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Never Too Old For Summer Reading

I must have been destined to be a reading teacher from the start because I have always loved reading. I didn't get the name "Nerdwood" for nothing. I still remember many, many sweltering summer afternoons in Dallas where my sister and I would do nothing but read. We went to the public library several times a week to check out a new stack of books. I think I've mentioned it before, but in my family, going to the library was a reward. If you were bad, you didn't get to go to the library. (Maybe you can tell that my mom is a teacher too.) Every summer, we would participate in the summer reading program at the library. I don't know what was so alluring about it, but I seriously LOVED to track my minutes, put my name up on the library window, and get little slips of paper for free meals at Chick-fil-a.

Even though I'm no longer eligible for the summer reading program at the library, I still get excited about summer reading. I have a stack of books that I'm just waiting to read. In honor of summer reading, I thought I'd share the best books I've read lately. You may notice that most of these are for young adults. I teach seventh grade, so it's kind of my job to know about the hottest titles. However, if you haven't tried young adult literature, what are you waiting for? Take Twilight for example. You know you read it, and you liked it. Admit it. Young adult literature is fun to read and can be very well written with some fantastic messages. Many of the books below are PERFECT beach or vacation reads. If you have any children or young audits in your life, you could also recommend these great summer reads. So get reading! Here are my top ten summer reading picks.

What's on your summer reading list?

This is one of the best books I've ever read. It was nominated for a Newberry Award this year, and it certainly deserved it. This is a simple, yet beautifully complex story about a girl named Harper and her little brother Hemingway who live in a motel with their mom who works three jobs to keep the family afloat. Their alcoholic father has long since left the family leaving far-reaching scars. He tells Harper, an aspiring young writer, that her writing is garbage. Guess who comes to the rescue... a teacher!! The characters and setting in this story are wonderfully realistic. When I finished this book, I cried. It was the most satisfying "book cry" I've had in a long while. SO GOOD!
I read "Heist Society" cover to cover one day on my lounge chair in Hawaii. For some reason, I LOVE heist stories. I've always enjoyed "Oceans 11" and movies like that. This book is a clever twist on a heist story. Young Katarina, the daughter of a professional thief, wants to get away from the family business, but she gets sucked back in for the most dangerous heist yet. This book was fast paced and exciting - pure fun.

This is advertised as a young adult book, but it's definitely high school/adult. If you read ONE series this summer, I would highly recommend The Luxe. These are the ultimate vacation books. (Think "Gossip Girl") I am OBSESSED with them. To be honest, the covers lured me in initially, but the stories are pure gossip-y goodness. The books are about high society and aristocracy in Manhattan in the late 1800s. There is plenty of drama - love triangles, faked deaths, rich benefactors, swanky parties, and maybe a love child or two. There are currently 4 books in the series: Luxe, Rumors, Envy, and Splendor. I have devoured them all and am desperately hoping she's working on a fifth.

This is a heartwarming new book by famed young adult author, Sharon Draper. This book tells the story of Melanie, a young girl with cerebral palsy. She is in a wheelchair and can not move or speak. She is in "special" classes at school where they teach her the alphabet year after year. However, Melanie is trapped inside her own mind because she is actually a genius, but has no way of telling anyone or showing it. When she gets a new communication device, she finally earns her way onto the school quiz bowl team, only to be devastated by a heartbreaking series of events. Very interesting window into the world of a child with a disability.

You may have heard some buzz about this book lately. Lots of adults are picking it up right now! This science fiction thriller tells the story of a world far into the future where the Earth is divided up into "districts" and the corrupt, bloodthirsty government intentionally starves its people to keep them under control. Each year, two "tributes" from every district must participate in "The Hunger Games": A fight to the death. The last person alive wins food and fame for their district. The whole world watches (reality TV style) as the tributes murder each other in a man-made arena full of deathly obstacles. This intense and gripping story contains very sophisticated themes of power, corruption, and friendship and serves as a warning for what could happen in our future.
Paper Towns is a sophisticated high school / adult level book. This is a twisted tale that I can best describe as "weird". But I loved it. It was voted as the "best high school book of the year". High school student Quentin gets re-acquainted with his childhood friend, Margo, just weeks before their graduation. Margo is a free spirit and does a lot of crazy things. One day Margo disappears and leaves what seems to be a trail of clues for only Quentin to follow. He goes on a quest to find her, and believes she may have committed suicide. The story weaves in the concept of "paper towns" fake towns that map makers sometimes include on maps - towns that exist only on paper. This was different from any book I've read. Very intriguing with an interesting message.
This is a fun, quick read about Frankie Landau-Banks, a young rich girl who attends a swanky, elite boarding school. However, she is not your typical prep school girl. She wants to hang out with the boys. When she finds herself the girlfriend of the most popular senior on campus, she decides she wants to be in his all-male secret society, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. When she is denied entrance, she begins to enact a series of pranks aimed at making the boys in the society do her bidding.
In this sci-fi/medical thriller, a young girl, Jenna Fox, is critically injured in a horrific car accident. Her doting/obsessive parents, in a desperate act to save her live, replace her body with space age material and replace her brain with a computer that they slowly upload with memories from her past. The story tells Jenna's journey to find out what really happened to her as she discovers what her parents have done and how it will affect the rest of her life.

This book is probably the most popular book of all time with my middle school boys. I loved it too! Skeleton Creek is the brainchild of a very creative author - Patrick Carman - who wanted to think of a way to get reluctant boys to love reading. He created a new genre - a multimedia book. This is a combination book/movie. You'll notice that the book is packaged in a DVD cover. So smart. The book is written as a journal. Every chapter or so, you'll come to a page with a website and a password. Readers are instructed to log into a special website where you can view a creepy "Blair Witch"-like video that goes with the book. I had boys finish this book in one day and literally grab it out of my hands. I myself watched the videos late at night (mistake) and they scared the heck out of me. It's awesome.

This beautiful short novel by Kate DiCamillo is a fantastically complicated woven tale of fantasy involving an elephant, a magician, an old soldier, an orphan, and a separated family. It is just pure joy to read. Beautiful prose and sweet, sweet ending.
So what are you waiting for? Head to the library or the bookstore and hit the pool chair! You can even treat yourself to a Chick-fil-a after you've read a few books. :-) Happy reading!


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