Monday, October 10, 2011

Challenge: Walking

On the Weight Watchers website, there is a community area where you can interact with other members. One of my favorite aspects of the WW community is the challenges, where members challenge themselves and each other to meet certain goals by certain times. It could be running a half mile five days a week for a month, or crafting one inspiring item for every ten pounds lost. Whatever the challenge is, you join up and then report on your progress however often you want.

I've never joined a challenge, but I have spent a lot of time reading through them. There have been several I've considered joining, but with my hectic schedule and lifestyle, I've been nervous about achieving them. (Sometimes, just staying on the WW program and trying to get to the gym a few times a week is challenge enough!) However, I've decided that I am going to create a challenge.

I do not walk Piper nearly as much as I should. I admit, having a large backyard where she can run around has made me incredibly lazy when it comes to walks. It's also difficult in the summer because she gets overheated so easily with her thick, black coat. So this is my challenge: I am going to wake up 20 minutes early every day and take Piper for a 20 minute walk before work. It's not necessarily going to be a brisk power-walk either; I'm walking Piper, and she likes to sniff things, so it will be more of a casual walk. Basically, it's a challenge to benefit Piper just as much as me.

I'm going to start the challenge on Sunday, because (A) it's the start of a new week and (B) I don't have work, so it gives me a little more flexibility. (I do love to sleep!) I'm going to post the challenge on WW online and call it the "Dog Walk Challenge." If all goes well, maybe it can be a progressive challenge where, after a few weeks or so, it can grow into a 30 minute walk. But for now, just one step at a time. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Confused. Always.

I love to bake. I really do. But in this new venture, this baking-for-a-living thing, I'm not happy.

I mean really, what was I thinking? I know the current job isn't ideal. I'm not the type of person who likes to be by myself a lot, and at this job, I'm by myself all day long. But how did I actually think I would make money doing this? Sure, accomplished pastry chefs pull in over a 100 grand a year. But to get there, you have to work the endless low-paying, wake-up-at-2-in-the-morning jobs. And I've never been the type to sacrifice life for career. It just doesn't work that way for me, so this business? I don't think it's going to work.

Now, I don't really have to get into how much of a failure I feel like. Because boy, do I feel like a failure. I had a good (albeit low paying) job, with a flexible-ish schedule and some great coworkers. And I left that to go back to school and "follow my dream." Now I'm in debt and pretty much in the same mindset as I was before school, although with even less money. It's not good.

I miss writing. Last week I had an interview set up at a local magazine. It seemed like a great gig - assistant editor - and the salary was so, so much better than what I'm pulling in now. I was psyched. I tried not to get my hopes up, but I couldn't help it. I thought, "I'm a good person. I deserve good things. Finally, my luck is changing!" And then the interview was canceled because they "went in a different direction." And I admit, I was crushed.

In looking back over everything, I have to say I wish I stayed as an art education major. I would have made a great teacher, plus I know it would have made me happy. I switched because I was spending my summers working at a newspaper, and I felt it "made more sense." More sense than what, I don't really know. I am not going to get my teaching certification now; I just know I won't. But I wish I didn't change all those years ago. I wish someone said to me, "Hey. What are you doing? You'll make a great teacher! You'll regret this, you know!"

There's no real solution here. There's no real conclusion to this post. I wish I knew what to do or where I was going with all of this, but I suppose it's just venting. I'm confused, just like this post seems to be, just like I always seem to be nowadays.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Freezer Food

I want to stock my freezer.

I've been thinking about this for ages, but the farthest I've gotten is perhaps freezing a few loaves of homemade bread, or, in one ill-fated attempt, freezing homemade pizza dough. I want to have meals frozen and ready-to-serve, but not store-bought, fake-cheese pizzas and the like. I want to freeze things I've made - lasagna and chili and soup and casseroles.

I just can't ever get my act together enough to actually do it.

Well, my friends, that is about to change! I now have two (count 'em - TWO) days off of work a week. That means I have a whole other day to do all of the things I'm too tired to do after workdays. Like stock my freezer. (I'm wild and crazy, obviously.)

So, despite the fact that I've been cooking and baking since I was pint-sized and despite the fact that I went to culinary school, I've been compiling a little research on the stocked-freezer-plan. I turned to a few different food blogs, a Weight Watchers article and Martha (of course) to come up with my plan. And I think I'm set to get started!

Bread - Oh my, do I love homemade bread. I could sit and eat an entire crusty loaf on my own - especially if it's paired with some sharp cheese or garlic dipping oil. Anyway, I of course needed to have some bread in my freezer plan. I'm going to bake four medium loaves of Italian bread and a batch of all-purpose sandwich/burger rolls. I haven't had a lot of luck with freezing dough, so I'm going to freeze these breads after they're baked.

Entrees - The hardest part of planning my freezer food was trying not to go overboard with the calories. I am trying to follow a healthier diet now, after all, so I didn't want to get too carried away. On that note, I am going to make a spinach lasagna, tamale pie with lean turkey meat, and chicken tetrazzini. On the label, along with the name and date, I'm going to add portion size and Points Plus value.

Soup & Chili - You know that bread-love I was talking about? Well, slice me some bread with a bowl of hot soup and I can subsist on this through the entire fall and winter. Well okay... I'd need some chili, too. For the freezer, I'm planning pasta e fagioli, creamy tomato rice soup, white bean chicken chili, and my award-winning vegetarian chili. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it...

Cookies - I think it's always nice to have some fresh, hot-from-the-oven cookies if a friend is popping in for a visit. Of course, in busy day-to-day life, this isn't always a practical plan. But know what is? Making the cookie dough ahead of time, scooping it into portions and freezing the cookie dough balls. They can be baked straight from the freezer. So I'm going to whip up a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough and oatmeal raisin.

Other ideas for my freezer plan include some homemade marinara sauce, frozen meatballs and having a lot of fresh fruit for smoothies and juice. (This is another dream of mine - to be the type of person who makes smoothies and fresh juice. Sigh.) I think some type of pot pie would be great, too. And I wonder if a shepherd's pie would freeze well? Obviously, I am in super comfort food phase. I guess it's because fall is right around the corner.

Mission Stock the Freezer is set to begin this weekend. Before I get started, I just have to make sure my freezer is big enough to store all of these delicious foods!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Snapshot: Adam

Did I feel cool photographing concerts as a journalist? Why yes, I really did.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where I Was

On September 11, 2001, I was a senior in high school.

It was a beautiful day and an entirely normal morning until my calculus class. Since AP English was next door, I was usually one of the first to arrive to calc. Walking into that classroom is a snapshot forever etched into my memory. The radio was on and my teacher was sitting at her desk, tears on her face. Another teacher stood just behind her, his face solemn, his hand on Mrs. Padula's shoulder. I looked from them to the rest of the room, my friend Kier the only other student there.

He told me two planes had flown into the World Trade Center. Both buildings were on fire. His eyes were huge; his face was panic-stricken. "All of the people are out, right? They would have gotten everyone out?" He looked at me searchingly. I was confused. I was shocked. I remember shaking my head. "I don't know," I said, uncomprehending. "I don't know."

I remember my classmates simply taking their seats, some chatter and murmuring, but mostly everyone straining to hear the radio. One student tried to pull something up on the television. We tried to connect to the internet, too. The radio was the only thing that worked.

A plane hit the Pentagon in Washington. I thought of my dad; he was in Washington, but in my muddled state of mind I couldn't remember if he was in Washington state or the nation's capitol. He worked for the government. Would he be at the Pentagon? I leapt up and said I had to call home and, being a time before the wide-use of cell phones, I hurried to the main office. There was a short line of students waiting to use the phone, anxious to check on loved ones. (As it turned out, our school was lucky, with no one losing a parent or sibling.)

I called my house, and my Mema picked up immediately. As soon as I said hello, before I said another word, she said, "He's in Washington state." I'm not sure how she knew, but she did. I exhaled. Thank God.

Back in my calculus class all studies were long forgotten. The South Tower collapsed. When a plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania, the radio announcer said it seemed certain we were under a terrorist attack. Before class ended, the North Tower fell. I remember the announcer's voice cracking when he said this; I remember him saying the World Trade Center was gone.

When the bell rang, everyone was slow to move. What do you do? What do you say? I remember feeling like nothing would ever be the same again. And I don't think I ever before, or ever since, felt so utterly helpless, lost and scared.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Little Bit of Philly Magic

I don't get out nearly as much as I should, but on Columbus Day I'm happy to report that I spent some time on South Street with my college-era favorite friends as well as the lovely addition of Sarah Rose. Tanya, Jess and I caught the train into the city and met up with Ryan, Ian and Sarah before walking down to South Street.

It was Ry's idea to check out the Magic Gardens, a truly amazing and wonderful place that I had only peered at from the sidewalk before Monday. The incredible space showcases the work of mosaicist Isaiah Zagar and... I can't really put it into words.


And that's but a small fraction of the space. I can't imagine how long it took Zagar to finish this, and I also wonder what inspired him in the first place. According to the Magic Gardens website, Zagar and his wife have been working to beautify the South Street area since the 1960s. If that's the case, they have certainly contributed an immense amount of beauty with this half-city-block area of mosaic. It took Zagar 14 years to finish the Magic Gardens.

Something I found incredibly cool about this installation was the fact that many of the endless number of glass bottles cemented into place had little notes tucked inside. I don't remember who noticed this message-in-a-bottle phenomenon (I want to say it was either Ryan or Jess), but in any case, we pulled out the first note we found. The original message told he reader how the writer came to be in the Magic Gardens, with cities around the world he or she had lived in. Someone added their own journey to the back, and under that we had Sarah pen her travels, too. She tucked the note back inside the bottle, and from here we discovered most of the bottles had messages buried inside.

Naturally, we all wanted to add our own notes to the collection. Tanya passed around paper, I passed around pens and we all did just that. (Well all of us but Ian.) My note said: "You are beautiful. You are talented. You make a difference." I smile when I think about someone finding it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pumpkin Spice Latte is Back!

I have a confession. I am a pumpkin addict.

Once late August rolls around, the itch begins. That cannot-satisfy-my-hunger-for-pumpkin itch. And, oh no, I don’t just mean hunger as in filling up my stomach. Anything pumpkin can help feed the need.

I light pumpkin-scented candles in every room of the house. I pull boxes of pumpkin d├ęcor from the attic, adorning my little rancher with festive, bright orange gourds wherever space allows. I have wooden pumpkin stakes for the front lawn. I have dangly pumpkin earrings I wear with fervor – oh, and a matching necklace, too.

When it comes to pumpkin food, it is impossible to satiate my appetite. But if there is one thing that can help curb the craving, it would be my most favorite coffee drink in the entire universe - the Pumpkin Spice Latte!

I have two favorite Starbucks events. One is the debut of the festive red cups and accompanying holiday cheer every November. The other is the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. My little slice - or cup, if you will - of heaven returned to stores this week, and after a slight debut-day debacle, I fetched my first latte today with John.

See how happy it makes me?

And although he's not a fanatic like I am, it makes John pretty happy, too.

My first latte of the 2011 fall season was perfection, as expected. It just hits the perfect balance of spice-to-pumpkin ratio, and of course caffeine is always an added bonus in my book. (I have no idea what I'm going to do without coffee when I'm pregnant.)

If you haven't gotten your first 2011 Pumpkin Spice Latte yet, I highly recommend you head on over to your local Starbucks and order one. Nothing will get you more ready for beautiful, wonderful fall. Personally, I can't wait for my next Pumpkin Spice!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Where Everybody Knows My Name

I miss Ocean City.

This isn't exactly a recent revelation. I've missed Ocean City pretty much ever since I left.

At first, I was loving the prospect of living somewhere where I could go to the grocery store without bumping into a million familiar faces or swinging by the library without an endless stream of small talk. If an ice cream craving struck at 1 in the morning, I liked the idea that I could zip to the Wawa in pajama pants without the fear of running into someone (or a lot of someones) I knew.

It was all very appealing.

Then, I moved away in the summer of 2010, leaving behind all of the familiar built up over more than two decades. I could go to the grocery store and do my shopping in peace. The library didn't come along with a single conversation. And while my 1 in the morning treks to Wawa don't occur nearly as often in my married life, I'm pretty sure I would be safe if I wore pajama pants. Life, I suppose, is more private. More quiet. And, well... I kind of hate it.

I know it will take time before I find my niche in my new locale. At some point, I'll find a few familiar faces in the crowd once in a while. The thing is, my new area is not like Ocean City. In fact, very few places are like Ocean City. That "everybody knows your name" Cheers kind of thing that Ocean City has? I don't think you're going to find that in too many places.

It's hard to move away from everything you've ever known, and this is all the more true when you worked in an industry like newspapers, where it was your job to be in the know. I knew who owned what business and lived in what house. I knew the gossip - good and bad - and I knew the history. I took it for granted then, but now I've come to realize how much I enjoyed being in the know.

Around here, I get lost if I try to take a shortcut to the mall. Back at my old home, I knew all of the shortcuts. I still haven't found a perfect coffee shop in my new hometown. Back in Ocean City? I knew of one - and plenty of close seconds. I had favorite restaurants and favorite walking paths, favorite quiet places to reflect and pretty routes for when I just needed to get out and drive.

It takes time to fall in love with a new hometown. I've already fallen in love with some aspects. I absolutely love my house. There are some great restaurants. I'm a short train ride away from Philadelphia. I'm slowly coming around, but some days are harder than others.

Because, as it turns out, I left my heart in Ocean City. And wherever my life leads me, a part of me will always miss it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Weathering the Storms

First, an earthquake in New Jersey. No kidding.

At work on Tuesday I had just finished the dishes and sat down to eat lunch and read. The first thing I noticed was the chimes on the front door going crazy, and then everything - EVERYTHING - was shaking like mad. My first thought was that our gas line was about to explode. I dashed outside, still holding my book and cell phone, completely and utterly freaked out.

Now, this was not a major earthquake. In fact, the epicenter was in Virginia, no where near South Jersey, so there wasn't even any damage around here. (And very little in Virginia.) However, having never experienced an earthquake before, I was sufficiently spooked. And to make matters worse, my husband and good friend were both down south in Maryland and Virginia, respectively.

Since us east coasters are new to the earthquake phenomenon, we naturally all turned to our cell phones to check on loved ones. And because of this, no one could get through with the overworked lines. I couldn't get John, no answer from Jess and I couldn't even check in with my mom and or mother-in-law, who are both in-state. After a bit I was able to confirm everyone's safety, but man... it was scary!

So that was Tuesday. And now, Thursday night, the state is preparing for the onslaught that is Hurricane Irene, set to hit New Jersey early Sunday morning. Cape May County (my old stomping grounds) is under a mandatory evacuation beginning tomorrow at 8 a.m. The whole state is under emergency, and basically... it's terrifying. I'm so worried about those who live at the shore, both for their safety and the safety of their homes, businesses, etc.

And while I sit and listen to intense thunderstorms right now (completely unrelated to the hurricane), all I can keep thinking is that I hope Irene goes off track and heads back to sea, dissipates and, at worse, sends some rain and a little wind our way. Some rain and wind - maybe even some minor flood - I can deal with.

Total devastation? I can't deal with that.

Edited to add: Everything turned out okay!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Snapshot: Autumn

This was the backyard last autumn. It's my favorite season - I can't wait!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Over the past couple of months, I've lost 16.2 pounds.

The main reason behind my weight loss is Weight Watchers. I had been planning to rejoin for months, and finally I just bit the bullet. My dear friend, Renee, has lost over 100 pounds on Weight Watchers and by becoming a Zumba fanatic, and she's a huge inspiration to me. In fact, she's my Weight Watchers leader now. (She's also my Zumba teacher, but that's a post for another day.)

I've also curbed a lot of my unhealthy behaviors. For instance, instead of laying on the couch day after day, I'm going to the gym or taking Zumba several days a week. I try to play with Piper more, although our walks have been limited because of the heat. Instead of snacking, I try to focus on something else, like reading, crafting or even cooking a healthy and elaborate meal that will take a while and keep my mind away from chocolate chip cookies.

Now, don't get me wrong - I certainly indulge. I'm just trying to be smarter about it. And I've come up with quite a few tricks of my own to help me along.

For instance, John and I love water ice. At Rita's, there is usually a small selection of their sugar-free variety. It is just as delicious as the regular water ice, save for the fact that there aren't as many flavors. Luckily, they always have sugar-free cherry, and cherry is my favorite, anyway. I get a kid's size cup - a feat in and of itself, because I was never a small-portion girl - and I also eat it with a sample spoon. Aside from the fact that the employee serving me usually thinks this is weird, I love doing this - it makes me eat the water ice so much slower and savor it, and by the time John is finished his regular size cup, I'm just about finishing my kid's cup.

Another thing I've been trying to do is just not keep my weaknesses in the house. And if I'm baking something, I give away any leftovers or make sure John eats them pronto. I have willpower (I suppose that's obvious), but I don't always have that much willpower. If the temptation isn't there, I'm much better off. This goes for mealtimes, too. If I'm making dinner for John and I, I have usually not been making enough for leftovers because I will undoubtedly end up eating much more than I should for one meal. In this way, I portion out my plate and John's plate, and there is nothing left for me to eat afterwards.

Of course, I love to cook, and honestly this makes things so, so much easier. I can't imagine how difficult it is to eat healthy if you hate the kitchen. I've been trying to incorporate a lot of vegetarian dishes into my weekly meals, too, like the above veggie wraps. (So delicious, and only 10 points for both - and they were large.) And since I like to cook and am halfway decent at it, I am finding creative ways to adapt tasty recipes to a lower cal version.

It's not always easy, and I've still got a long way to go. It's a rewarding experience, though. I feel better overall - not just in the I'm-fitting-in-my-clothes kind of way, but in the all around healthier, happier and more alert kind of way. My skin has been better, my headaches have curbed... I love junk food. I always will love junk food. But knowing how much better I feel without all that stuff in my system, it's certainly enough to keep me motivated.

I will reach goal and I will maintain my goal.

Well, at least until I get pregnant.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Guest Room

John and I finally got around to finishing the guest room, at least to the point that we can actually host guests in it. We purchased a new comforter set and a basic bed frame, but as far as the more fun things - painting the room, getting artwork and window treatments and a cool bed frame - all of that is going to have to wait.

Of course, even though we have to wait, it's still fun to plan!

First off, this is the comforter set we went with:

I really enjoy the red accents with the overall neutral palette - it will be easy to work with. I don't think it's overly feminine or masculine, either, which was what we were aiming for.

Now, artwork. I'd love, love, love to get this right here, from Etsy seller birdAve. John loves the Philadelphia skyline, and I think this print is super fun but sophisticated, too. Maybe a red background would work better - or even blue.

It would actually be neat to do a series - maybe of cities John and/or I have visited, or just cool cities we'd like to visit. (Portland, anyone?) birdAve has a ton to choose from. Okay, and if we wanted to stick with just a Philadelphia theme, we would have to get this print, too...

The Philadelphia Destination Print is by 7thHouse on Etsy. (I could probably decorate my entire house with Etsy finds, honestly.) This print is pretty large, at 12x36 inches, so it would be a nice statement piece. As I write this, I'm liking the Philly idea more and more!

I love this new trend of wall decals, like these by LanaKole, another Etsy artist. I think they look adorable in the photo, although since our guest room is a bit small, I'd probably break them apart, putting a few here and there between furniture. It would be a nice little surprise addition for our visitors.

I'm pretty much obsessed with this lamp:

Although I've got to admit, I'm not sure it would go with the bedding. I'm an adequate decorator, but I don't think I've perfected the way to tie odds and ends together when they're so different. Of course, this point is moot because I won't be spending $175 on a lamp anytime in the near future, anyway.

But again... it's still fun to plan.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Quick! Like a Bunny!

I saved a baby bunny on Saturday. That's not him above, though. I didn't get a picture because I was too busy with the life saving, however he looked an awful lot like this little guy. He was younger though - too young to have left his nest and mama - hence the saving.

It went something like this...

My lovely mother-in-law, Arlene, has been out for the count because of a twice-broken ankle, so I've been helping her with John and Kim (the lovely sister-in-law). On Saturday, I took Chipper (the mother-in-law's feisty pooch) outside in the backyard, and two bunnies high-tailed it out of his way. He went on to do his business, but I noticed a teeny, tiny ball of brown fuzz popping out of the grass near the tool shed.

"Baby bunny?" I thought. My suspicions were quickly confirmed, and I went inside with Chipper and told Arlene about it. She's an animal lover like me (she spent weeks covering a bunny nest in her lawn with a trash can lid every time she brought Chipper outside earlier this year). Needless to say, we were sad for the little bunny. It was a rainy day, getting colder as night approached, and I didn't think the little guy was old enough to be out of his nest.

This suspicion was also quickly confirmed after a Google search. He was too little. Worried, I went outside to check him out. He was hunkered down in wide-open space, his teeny eyes squeezed shut, shivering. When he saw me, he started to hop towards me - or sort of hop. He hadn't gotten the hopping thing down yet.

If he was coming towards a predator, I knew he'd be a goner before long.

At this point it was 8 p.m., but I decided to try to call the Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge for some advice. Luckily someone picked up, and she asked if I knew where a bunny nest was nearby. I did - only a few yards away in the neighbor's lawn. She then told me to check to see if there were live bunnies in the nest. There were - same size as the lone baby. The woman then said to just put the baby back - it was a myth that a mother will abandon her nest if a human bothers with it.

"Easy enough!" I thought, borrowing Arlene's garden gloves. John was over at this point, so he came outside to watch. I picked up the little bunny (cutest thing in the whole world, by the way) and walked into the neighbor's lawn. I put him down towards the nest and covered him with some of the grass and rabbit fur. Job well done!


Turns out, the little guy must have liked me (or more accurately was probably freezing and liked my warmth), because every time I tried to leave him in the nest, he'd jump out and follow me through the yard! This was endearing, I have to admit, but also worrisome because I had no idea what to do.

This went on for a while, and just as John was resigning himself to the fact that we would have to bring this baby bunny home for the night, I tried one last time, quickly running from the nest so the little guy couldn't follow me. He sat there for a minute, and then must have figured a warm nest with his brothers and sisters was better than nothing, because he finally crawled in!

Since then, the mama bunny has been back to take of her babies, so all is well. They'll probably be leaving the nest on their own within a week or so. I wonder if the baby I saved will remember me?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Of Love and Beauty

Roses have long been symbols of love and beauty.

Just before taking these photos Wednesday evening, I breathed a sigh of relief when my mom called and assured me that, while she was not out of the woods yet, the outlook for a dear family friend rushed to the hospital earlier in the day was bright. It was promising, the doctors said.

To calm down, I went out front to take photos of the multitude of beautiful roses blooming in the yard. As I took these photos, breathing in the beauty of the day's end, that same dear family friend slowly slipped away. Not fifteen minutes after the reassuring phone call, my mom called back. "She's not going to make it," she said, her voice cracking. I hung up the phone and wept.

Liz was the nicest person I ever met.

Roses hold a special place in my heart because of my grandparents. I can't see a rose without thinking of Mema and Poppy. Poppy planted rose bushes - gold and red and pink - in my parents' yard. One gold bush remains, and on the night that Mema passed away in late October 2003, the dormant bush bloomed one last golden rose in the middle of the night. It was gone within a couple of days, but the memory of that rose stayed with me.

For this reason, roses have always been a sort of comfort for me, despite never having been a favorite flower or a bouquet I would bring home for the kitchen table. I wasn't surprised when John and I moved into this house and the front yard was bursting with a dozen or so rose bushes. I kind of feel like it was a little hello from my grandparents; a sign they still watch over me.

I also don't think it was a coincidence I took these photos when such an amazing person passed away. They are symbols of beauty and love, after all, and these are two things easily associated with Liz. She was wonderful. She was caring and kind and compassionate. She adored animals. She was the most loving mother. She was the most steadfast friend. I think my mom's friend said it perfectly when she told me the other night, "Liz was everything I aspire to be."

Liz was an amazing, kind-hearted and beautiful woman whose memory will live on in all of the goodness she brought to this world. And, for me, every time I see a rose, her memory will also live on in that simple love and beauty.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Spruce Street Espresso

The first stop on our 2011 Philly Coffee Tour was Spruce Street Espresso, a shop on the corner of 11th and Spruce in Philadelphia's Gayborhood. Spruce Street is a cozy little spot with a bit of indoor seating, plenty of outdoor seating and a cheerful crew of baristas serving up top notch coffee.

When Sarah, Ryan and I walked in, we were quickly greeted with a smile - a huge plus in my book. I explained to the barista my whole touring-the-Philly-coffee-shops expedition, and then asked what she would recommend from Spruce Street's menu. She said simple is better to really showcase the shop's coffee, and cappuccino was one of the few drinks she recommended. I've had some pretty rotten cappuccinos in my day, so I thought it would be an adventurous way to go - in my opinion, it's very easy to screw up a cappuccino.

Luckily, Spruce Street Espresso takes its coffee very seriously.

My cappuccino was perfect - smooth and delicious with just the right amount of foam. They made a cute little design on top, too, which was a nice bonus. Sarah went for an iced coffee (strong without being overpowering, she said) and a squash blossom muffin. I don't really know where the squash blossom came into play here (they're rather tasteless, although pretty), but the muffin was pretty delicious. I described it as "autumn in your mouth." Sarah called it warm. In any case - tasty! I got a peach bar to go with my coffee, and it was great, although I could have gone for a little more crunch in the topping.

Ryan's not a coffee drinker, but also not one to skip a fun outing. She came along for the first stop on our tour and went for a Coke (in a glass bottle!) and an organic brownie. She said the brownie was good and "tasted organic" - hopefully that's a good sign.

I'd say pricing here was pretty typical for an independent coffee shop. I shelled out $3.50 for my cappuccino. The iced coffee was $3. The desserts ranged from $2.50 to $3.50 - those I would say were the steepest considering the sizes of the desserts.

Overall, I loved Spruce Street Espresso. It's got a great feel, awesome outdoor seating and a super friendly staff to boot. We would all definitely go back. I mean, if three out of three guests were happy with their order, then Spruce Street must be doing something right.

Monday, May 23, 2011

'Friends' is my favorite

Some people quote poetry. Others like famous quotations, maybe by presidents or authors. Lots of people like to quote musical lyrics, too.

Me? I quote "Friends."

I don't actually remember when I became a "Friends" fan or how it really happened. What I do know is I own all ten seasons and managed to get all of my college roommates hooked to the show, too. (Two of them now own the entire series as well!) At my wedding last year, our wedding party walked into the reception to "I'll Be There For You" by The Rembrandts - or the "Friends" theme song, for those of you who aren't fans. I could watch the same episode over and over and I would never get tired of it. I don't know what it is about that show, but it endlessly entertains me.

Something I've been trying to do for a long, long time is rank my top five favorite "Friends" episodes - a nearly impossible task, because every time I think I've got it figured out, I run into another episode that's just got to be one of my favorites.* In any case, these are my current faves - in no particular order.

1) The One Where No One's Ready: No matter when I'm thinking about my favorite episodes, this one always makes the list. This is during the third season of "Friends," when Ross and Rachel are dating and everyone is going to an event at Ross' museum. Obviously, no one is ready to go on time, and Ross freaks out. Hilarity ensues! My favorite part is when Joey walks into the apartment wearing all of Chandler's clothes, which leads to my favorite quote of the episode: "Look at me! I'm Chandler! Could I BE wearing any more clothes?!"

2) The One Where Everybody Finds Out: The reason season five of "Friends" is my favorite season is solely because of Chandler and Monica hiding their relationship from everyone. It lends itself to a lot of funny moments, but hands down this episode is the best! It's also when Chandler says he loves Monica for the first time (or the first time that counts, I suppose, because he really said it first in the Thanksgiving episode of the same season). Favorite quote is Chandler, when Monica says Phoebe knows about their relationship - "Okay... but what about my pinchable butt and bulging biceps --- SHE KNOWS!"

3) The One with the Holiday Armadillo: It's a holiday armadillo. Do I really need to explain further? Fave quote goes to Phoebe - "I understand why Superman is here, but why is there a porcupine at the Easter Bunny's funeral?"

4) The One with the Routine: I love the sibling relationship between Ross and Monica. It's one of my favorite parts of the entire series - I just think they play brother and sister so well. They are competitive and always embarrassing each other with personal info... Ha, it's great. This episode showcases a routine they did in grade school and resurrect on a taping of "Dick Clark's New Years Rockin' Eve." I also like the subplot in this episode with Rachel and Phoebe trying to find where Monica hid their Christmas presents. Favorite quote is really an exchange between Ross and Monica - Ross: "We got honorable mention in the brother/sister dance category. Look, it's almost fake midnight. Do we really have any other choice?" Monica: "Okay, let's do it. Mom and dad are going to be so faced!"

5) The One with Phoebe's Wedding: Let me preface this with saying I've had a crush on Paul Rudd since he was on "Clueless" in 1995. When he debuted on "Friends" as Mike in "The One with the Pediatrician" (oh my, another great episode!), I was psyched. Then he and Phoebe started dating, were moving into together and - BAM! - they broke up. I was devastated, and despite the fact that my husband wanted to see Phoebe end up with the scientist guy David, I was thrilled when Mike reappeared and proposed. So there's the back story to why I love this episode. The things that put it over the top were the snowstorm (turning the wedding into the prettiest ever), crazy Monica and the competition with the guys to be involved in the wedding party. And just because it's a wedding episode, I'll give the favorite quotes to Phoebe and Mike's vows - Phoebe: "When I was growing up, I didn't have a normal mom and dad, or a regular family like everybody else. And I always knew that something was missing. But now I'm standing here today, knowing that I have everything I'm ever going to need. You are my family." Mike: "Phoebe, you're so beautiful. You're so kind, so generous, so wonderfully weird. Everyday with you is an adventure. I can't believe how lucky I am, and I can't wait to share my life with you forever."

* This really is impossible, because in talking to Ryan about this post the other day, we brought up about a dozen more classic episodes that should be in the top five, like "The One with the Nap Partners" and "The One Where Chandler Takes a Bath." So um. Take this with a grain of salt.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Baked by the Beach

I love to write. I love to bake. So, a baking column? It was bound to happen sometime.

My column, Baked by the Beach, debuted in this month's issue of Ocean City Magazine. Citrus Cookie Sandwiches with a Coconut Filling is the first recipe - a basic short dough formula made up a bit fancy.

I'm not going to post the recipe here because I'd really you rather pick up a copy of Ocean City Magazine. It's a great overall read, first of all, and second of all, it is the creation of one of my closest friends. Better than a single issue, get a full year subscription - all the contact info is on the website.

I've already submitted my June column (want to know what it is? get a subscription!) and have been working on my July recipe this week. Here's a hint - it will have something to do with pies. The Fourth of July is the month's biggest holiday, after all, and what's more American than pie?

I'm having a lot of fun with this column. Honestly, I was nervous to write it. After all, what makes me a pro in the kitchen? Turns out a lifetime of practice and a bit of culinary school under my belt isn't so bad. I've gotten some good feedback on the first column, and I'm hoping that will keep up. The second column is even better (in my opinion), and I think the July one is going to be the most delicious of them all!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cupcakes, Coffee & Carrots

Work has been keeping me insanely busy. Sixty-hour work weeks? Let's just say I'm glad I drink coffee.

I love my job. I get to bake cupcakes all day and deal with (almost exclusively) pleasant customers. I mean, who wouldn't be happy walking into a cupcake bakery? Our flavors change with every batch (so it keeps things interesting) and my boss encourages me to experiment, which is awesome. She has a lot of faith in me, especially considering I've only worked there for a couple of months. In all, it's a good gig. I can't wait until we start selling our vegan and sugar-free cupcakes - oh, and of course our dog cupcakes, too!

My favorite flavors so far? It's got to be the Peanut Butter Honey or Pineapple. The PBH is vanilla batter baked with honey, which soaks through the batter and makes the entire cupcake super moist. It's filled with a peanut butter filling and topped with peanut butter buttercream and oh. my. god. It's the best thing ever. (Although you've got to love peanut butter!) The Pineapple tastes almost like a pineapple upside down cake, but without the gooey crust the cake has. It's excellent. Of course, I try not to eat too many of the cupcakes because they're certainly not going to help with my lose-weight plan. But man... they're tasty.

Back to that coffee. New York Times' T Magazine did a profile of Philadelphia coffee shops. I know, I know - Philly, the cheesesteak king (or queen?), getting a write-up for coffee? But seriously, they did, and if the New York Times did it? It's warranted. I already informed Sarah (the ballooner extraordinaire, Ryan-and-Sarah Sarah) that we must get on this list pronto. I'd love to check out the different spots and pick a favorite. The only independent coffee shop I've been to near me has a really cool vibe, but I can't say much for their coffee. So this will be interesting!

Ah. And Carrots. John is insistent that I plant carrots in my garden, despite the fact that I ended up planning a much smaller plot than previously. (It was not a matter of space or commitment so much so as a matter of money.) I told him I would, however, so I think the plan is I'll do two plantings so we have two small crops of carrots. They only need two-inch spacing, I think, so I guess I can get a fair amount into the little garden. Now it's just down to deciding what other veggie I'll be sacrificing for their space, which is not a fun task. I'm definitely doing a few different types of tomatoes (tomato salad, anyone?) and at least two eggplant and zucchini plants. I really want to do peppers, too. But with the herbs I already planted, I don't think I'll have the space...

Regardless, I need to get on this carrot business stat. The first crop should have been planted last month. I was never good at the carrot gardening as a kid - I was always so anxious for the carrots to be ready that I would end up pulling a bunch of babies out of the ground too early. Ah, the patience of a child. Let's hope I'm better this time around.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Back in Business!

Oh my. That whole I-swear-I'm-going-to-blog-regularly thing? Apparently I was a little ahead of myself. See, I had every intention of blogging regularly. And then I had to wake up at 5 a.m. for my job, and go to school and not get home until 6:30 p.m. Then I would try to go to the gym with John and shower and get my homework finished... and then the cycle would start all over again.

So, you see? I was just in a little over my head. But I have good news. Lots of great news, in fact.

School's finished! I got a job at a bakery! I have more time to blog! (I'd also love an exclamation about spring arriving, but it snowed here this morning, sooo... maybe not quite yet.)

Culinary school was crazy. I don't know if it's because I hadn't been in school in four years, or maybe the fact that the last time I did the whole college thing I was only babysitting a few days a week, but man... the workload! The classes grew progressively more demanding (which makes sense), and it got to the point that I was having hysterical, crying melt-downs over marzipan grapes or gumpaste flowers. (These meltdowns naturally occurred at home in front of poor John, who I don't think really knew what to do. Piper, per usual, couldn't care less.) Anyway, I finally made it through. Wedding Cake Design was the last one and...let's just say I hope I never, ever have to make a croquembouche ever again. What a disastrous creation.

After class ended Wednesday, I found myself with totally free time until Monday - time to sleep in, relax, read, clean the house, decorate for Easter... This upcoming week is my last at the 5 a.m. job, and I'm also starting the new bakery job on Monday. It's a new little cupcake bakery in a nearby adorable town, and I'm super excited about it! The pay isn't tremendous, but the experience is going to make it totally worth it. I get to be involved with a brand new business as it finds its footing, learns what works and what doesn't - all things that are going to help me when I open up my own bakery one day. I can't wait to get started.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An Elaborate Pick-Me-Up

When I was younger, I intensely disliked tiramisu. I have a few theories behind this tiramisu scorn, the most reasonable being that the one time I tasted the rich Italian dessert, it was saturated in coffee and liquor. This is how it should be, of course, but those are two flavors I didn't develop a taste for until much later in life.

My anti-tiramisu feelings were so strong that I went for years without another taste, much to the chagrin of many friends and family members who were shocked to learn of my tiramisu troubles. Can you imagine? Twenty-seven years of life with only a single bite of tiramisu under my belt.

Until today.

And boy, was I missing out or what?

I'm in my second semester of culinary school, currently taking Advanced Pastry, and part of today's class was finishing our tiramisu tortes. They consisted of a thin bottom layer of chocolate cake, soaked in a Khalua simple syrup, covered with soaked pieces of ladyfingers, with the tiramisu filling spread on top. Whipped cream coated the torte, with chocolate-dipped ladyfingers lining the side, cinnamon and cocoa sprinkled on top and handmade coffee cup runouts to finish it all off.

Beautiful? You bet. Rich? Definitely. Delicious? No question.

I'm still not a huge liquor fan, but coffee I can do. So naturally coffee-flavored liquors (Khalua, Bailey's Irish Cream) aren't bad, especially when it comes to baking. I knew I wanted to buy my tiramisu when I was about halfway through decorating (it was too pretty - oh and yes, we do have to purchase what we bake). But would I like it? I wasn't sure, but I was ready to try.

Prior to today, I don't know that I gave much thought to what was in tiramisu. I just knew I about retched the first time I tried it, so it was added to the do-not-eat list. But once we were making it in class, the above realization hit me - coffee and liquor? No wonder 10-year-old Kristen wasn't a fan.

It is awesome, and I'm so glad I brought home an entire cake so I can freeze the pieces and indulge for a longer period of time. The marscapone filling was fluffy and filling. The soaked ladyfingers added a nice texture, as did the slight crunch of the chocolate-dipped variety. The slight tang of the cinnamon was a perfect complement, and the coffee cup runouts on top? Just too adorable.

And you know what?

I love tiramisu.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Planning My Garden

I love to garden.

I love creating a little plot for my plants to call home, and I love tending to these little plants, watching them grow healthy and strong and knowing it was me who got them there. I love enjoying vegetables and herbs from my own garden - cooking them, eating them and giving them away to friends.

All in all, I just feel so accomplished with a garden. It's a great feeling.

Last year, I picked up "Grow Great Grub" by Gayla Trail, although I knew I had to forgo my garden in 2010 because of my impending move and marriage. The book is chalk full of amazing information, and I couldn't wait to put this knowledge to use at my new house. (On a side note, when it looked like John and I wouldn't be able to buy a home right away and would need to rent, one of the things that bummed me out the most was knowing I wouldn't have a large garden - not that there's anything wrong with small ones!)

In Ocean City, I had a garden two years ago. It was teeny tiny, in a little bed I prepped along the side of our building. As anyone who has visited Ocean City knows, land is at a minimum, so I worked with what I had. It was probably a 2-foot wide space, and about 8 feet long. I grew plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, as well as a myriad of herbs - rosemary, garlic chives, parsley and thyme among them. I loved my little garden, and it impressed passersby, who would remark on its abundance while they walked to and from the beach (or to and from the ice cream shop up the street).

Now, with my own backyard and ample space, I'm planning much more extravagant living quarters for my veggies and herbs. The vegetable garden will be at the back corner of the yard. The herb garden is going to run alongside the back of the house.

If you want to try to grow your own seedlings, January is the time to start prepping. I am in the process of gathering containers for my little baby plants - toilet paper rolls, tins, etc. (I'm trying to stay away from plastics, although I think soda bottles are made with an okay grade.) The toilet paper rolls are great for plants that don't want to be disturbed during transplanting, like beans and sunflowers. You simply peel off all but one layer of cardboard, and pop the whole thing in the ground. Tins work fine with holes poked through for drainage. Soda bottles can be self-watered if you slice off the top and invert it into the bottom.

I'm just learning so much from Gayla!

I have to order my seeds, too. Or just buy them. I've found some awesome ones at a few websites, but I have two reservations. One, although they are cheap at a couple bucks per pack, I want a huge variety, and that still adds up. Two, what will I do with all of those seeds? You only plant one or two, and then who have about a bajillion left. I could try to store them, I imagine, but I don't exactly have a year-round "cool, dark place." So now, in an effort to avoid two much money and shipping costs, I think I may just buy some locally. It is my first go at this, after all, so perhaps it's best not to sink too much money into the whole thing.

Regardless of any concerns and worries I have (Will my plants grow? Will they bear fruit and veggies? Will I horribly fail?!), I can't wait to get started. I have this fantasy of turning into an awesome gardener like Gayla, one who really knows her stuff and turns her property into an amazing haven for plants of all kinds.

For the moment, though, I'll just work on collecting some more toilet paper rolls.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cinnamon Raisin Bread

Snowed in again today!

Well, that's not technically true. I could have gone out if I wanted to. But who wants to drive around on dangerous roads if they can just stay home and bake bread?

I'd been meaning to bake some Italian bread all week, but since I had some extra time on my hands today I decided to bake the Italian bread and something else. That something else turned out to be wonderfully delicious cinnamon raisin bread, a credit both to Annie's Eats and to Martha Stewart, where Annie originally snagged the recipe.

Like any yeast bread, this cinnamon raisin bread was a time-consuming affair, although it had little hands-on time. Mostly, I was just waiting around for it to rise...and rise again...and rise a third time. I think because of how cold it was today, and the fact that I stupidly forgot to take my flour out of the freezer, the bread took quite a while to rise the first go 'round. However, once it doubled in size, it was an amazing dough and finished up much more quickly.

Have you ever handled a live, wonderful bread dough? If you haven't, you're going to think I'm strange by saying this. If you have, you'll totally understand... because this dough was just awesome. It was sooo full of life and supple and smooth. Really great to work with - and so easy!

I only had a couple minor problems. One, my filling came out way more fluid than Annie's did on her post. Her directions said to "sprinkle" it over the rolled out dough. I had to slather mine on. This made it a bit of a challenge to roll up, and in the oven the syrup bubbled over the sides. (Don't worry - I put down foil so it didn't devastate the oven.) Next time, I will probably use one tablespoon of water instead of two.

The second problem (if you can even call it that) is, I don't know if it's because I stretched the dough (I tried not to), but it kind of exploded a bit in the oven. So the loaf itself came out a bit wonky-looking , but I don't think it looks so bad.

Especially when it tastes. so. darn. good.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Wonderful Engagement...

...between two wonderful people!

Breakfast and board games on Christmas Eve morning turned into a proposal for my dear friend, Jess! And naturally, with such a great guy as Matt doing the asking, she said yes. When I received the news via a (very) excited text message, my first thought was somewhere within the realm of "Ohmigosh! Engagement! Jess and Matt! Ohmigosh!" (Which, I believe, was kind of what I uttered to my mother-in-law, who I was sitting with.)

My second thought was, "I should bake them something!"

That something turned into engagement cupcakes - a natural choice for me, as I love baking cupcakes and don't care how many people tell me they're too trendy. They are trendy because they are adorable, delicious and endless in possibility! And for the record, I'm a longtime lover of cupcakes, before the trend took over the baking world.

So, back to those engagement cupcakes! I wanted them to have the essence of an engagement ring, all sparkly shiny, but I didn't want to decorate with anything inedible, as is my mantra. I started by melting some white chocolate and piping out "Congratulations Jess & Matt" in script, along with a dozen or so little rings. After it hardened, I used silver luster dust to give the chocolate an iridescent shine. The cupcakes themselves are the Best Birthday Cupcakes from "Cupcakes: From the Cake Mix Doctor" by Anne Byrn. The icing is my standby simple buttercream. I coated the bottom of the icing in metallic sprinkles before standing up the rings and words. After the icing firmed up a bit, I used more luster dust to add an overall shine.

Jess and Matt loved them, but honestly I don't think the pictures do them justice. You really can't get the whole sparkly shiny thing that was going on. Just trust me that the luster dust on the icing actually shined, very unlike it appears in these photos.

Jess and I met freshman year of college at Arcadia University, living one floor apart in our dorm. We lived together for the next three years, and now we can call ourselves neighbors (sort of), as we only live about 10 minutes away. She was a bridesmaid in my wedding last August, and to make her engagement even more exciting (for me), she asked me to be a bridesmaid, too!

And in case you couldn't tell, I'm pretty excited about it all.

Happy Engagement, Jess and Matt!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year!

Seeing as I don't need a fresh start (really, I took care of that about five months ago), I didn't make any resolutions this year. Typically, my resolutions are of the "eat healthier, exercise more" variety, anyway, and at this point in my life that's more of an ongoing hope than anything else.

However, I do always make some wishes in the new year.

I wish for peace and happiness all around, and health and good fortune among all my loved ones. I wish for a productive, fruitful and wonderful coming year. And I wish for a little luck in life, too, because while I am always hardworking, a little luck can never hurt.

In 2010 I married the most wonderful guy. I moved into my first house. I started culinary school. And of course in between all of these huge things, there were endless wonderful little moments and events that shaped the year, too. It was a great year - not without any hardships, of course, but overall it was a blast.

Here's to hoping that 2011 brings just as many crazy adventures and creates just as many amazing memories!