Lumps of Coal & A Giveaway!

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I’m ridiculously excited about this week’s posts. As you guys may already know, I’m a big fan of the holiday season. One of my favorite things to do during the holidays is to DIY some of the gifts, and this week is going to be all about homemade holiday gifts that you can easily make from the kitchen. So, everyday this week (with the exception of Thanksgiving), I’ll be featuring a fun homemade holiday gift idea, along with a giveaway from some very generous companies whose products I love to use!

Today, I wanted to share with you guys how easy it is to make these adorable “lumps of coal”.

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Red Stick Spice Company & A Giveaway!

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Up until a few years ago, I really had no idea what a difference good, quality spices make in cooking/baking. I’ll be honest…back in the hot dog/blue box macaroni cooking days, I thought that spices never expired! I also thought that you could get away with purchasing the cheapest spices in the store, and you’d still get the same result. However, I learned that spices usually have a shelf life of a couple of years, and it’s always smart to purchase good quality spices.

I remember going to a specialty spice store for the first time when I went to Houston with my husband, and we really stocked up, since we knew that Baton Rouge had nothing like this. It was a bummer, since Louisiana is such a food-centric state…why wouldn’t we have more stores like this? However, a couple of years ago, I first heard of this business called Red Stick Spice Company (in case you didn’t know Baton Rouge is French for Red Stick). I looked up their website, and decided that the first free weekend I had, I had to visit this business and see what they were all about!

Let’s just say I was hooked. I’m pretty sure I purchased 1/2 cup of cinnamon for my holiday baking when I went for my first visit, as well as some other hard-to-find spices that I wanted to use for some recipes. I didn’t shop there very often, because let’s face it, how often do you need to replenish spices? However, they were my go-to when I had a big spice related purchase to make! At some point, the owners decided to sell this business, and I’ll be honest…I was worried about what would happen to this spice store that I’ve just fallen in love with. Well y’all…GREAT things have happened since the new owner, Anne Milneck, took over!

I went to the store for the first time since the new owner took over a few weeks ago, and it was awesome! I’m a sucker for great logos/branding, as well as a store with lovely displays, and this store definitely has all of that!

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A Bunch of Randoms

1. This past weekend, my husband and I had the opportunity to attend the naming ceremony for the Carnival Sunshine. The Sunshine is a ship that had a multi-million dollar renovation, and it was making it’s US debut in New Orleans this past week. This is the first time we’ve ever attended something like this, and we had a wonderful time! As many of you may remember, we went on a cruise last year with Carnival and we had a blast. We enjoyed it so much that we’re going on a cruise on the Sunshine as well, and we cannot wait! We could use a vacation after the year we had. :-\

They also had the Saints game on the big screen….now THAT is the way to watch a game (along with a punchy rum drink with a cute umbrella). :-)

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Oh, and do you want to know how to gain a ridiculous amount of weight in a day? Run 5 miles, and then eat a dinner like this. Whew…I wanted to eat nothing but carrots the next day!

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2. If you’re from the New Orleans area, you probably nodded your head so many times while reading this that you now have a headache. Am I right?

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3. This was a whole handle of vodka. Well, it was a whole handle of vanilla extract. It took me two years to use it…..you think I have a baking hobby? Maybe a tad… Another handle of vodka is being made into extract at the moment, and it should be ready any day now. I couldn’t have planned that better if I tried. Ah, holiday baking!

4. Do you LOVE holiday movies/shows as much as I do? I don’t know about y’all, but this Holiday TV Guide is going to be printed and take permanent residence on our table next to the sofa.

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5. That rope toy? I’m pretty sure that’s something dogs dream about. I wonder how our dog, Millie would react….hmm…maybe Santa will leave this for her since she’s such a sweet girl. :-P

Disclosure: My husband and I attended the Carnival Sunshine naming ceremony at no cost to us. There was no blog post required, but we had such a great time, I thought I’d just share how it went!

The Time You Save & A Calphalon Giveaway

With the holiday season just around the corner, time with family and friends is so important. The holidays can be very hectic, between the shopping and party planning, but if you can save some time on the day to day tasks (like cooking for your family/cleaning up afterwards), you can definitely etch out some time with your loved ones.

Calphalon recently relaunched their popular Contemporary Nonstick line, and is all about helping families save time with “The Time You Save” campaign. One of the key new perks about the cookware is that it’s now dishwasher safe! So, you can make your quick, weeknight meals, rinse the pot/pan out & place it straight in the dishwasher with your plates & utensils. Calphalon realizes that The Time You Save is valuable, so taking away the task of doing the dishes after a meal is great! You can now take some time away from the kitchen, and instead, enjoy that time with your family decorating the house, wrapping gifts or building a gingerbread house for the holidays! :-)

Also, along with Calphalon’s “The Time You Save” campaign, I wanted to share a couple of recipes with y’all, featuring their new cookware that requires very little hands-on time in the kitchen. :-)

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Calphalon sent me their new panini pan, as well as their 8 quart multi-pot with steamer to use for some time-saving recipes. I used their panini pan to make a chicken panini, using leftover roasted chicken, and I used the multi-pot to make a chicken tortilla soup.

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Training Tuesdays: Week 3

Well, I’m 1/4 of the way done with training. Completely nuts. During my runs, I’m always thinking about race day. Will the adrenaline kick in and help me run a bit faster? Will I be able to actually do 13.1 miles? I keep questioning myself on my decision to train for this, when I’m not even close to being done with my weight loss journey. If I were 60 lbs. lighter, I imagine this would be a whole lot easier.

I’m also facing this killer plateau. I’ll admit, I’m not 100% on calorie counting, but seriously…I’m running 12 miles/week. Shouldn’t I be losing SOMETHING? I’ve read a few things about muscles building the first few weeks of training, so I’m hoping that’s it. I also hope the terrible urge to eat everything goes away soon. I’m ALWAYS hungry! My usual meals aren’t filling me up, and I’m craving chocolate….all.the.time!

This week was hard. 3.5 miles as my short run? That’s more than any race I’ve ever done! And don’t even get me started on 5 miles. Goodness. I ran 5 miles on Sunday. I also noticed that my pace was pretty terrible this week, which is so discouraging. I’m trying to not let it get me down, because I know I’m challenging my body in crazy ways right now with this training. I’m also 240 lbs. I know it’s not supposed to be easy to carry that for 5 miles.

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I was actually pretty proud of this run. I stayed under 16 min/mile pace, and there was a cold front going through that evening. Talk about windy!

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This was the hardest run for me to face, to date. My legs were heavy, and I just couldn’t get my mind off of the running. Usually, I can start letting my mind wander and think about other things in life, but oh man…every stride was just annoying. Thanks so much for your encouraging comments on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook. It made me realize that a run is a run. :-) Doesn’t matter the pace (except for race day lol).

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5….flipping….miles. I was so shocked by this one! I think I could have gone faster, but can I tell you…Louisiana sucks right now. Tuesday’s run was in the 50s (and dropping towards the 30s)…Sunday’s run was 75 and so humid. I had to peel clothes off of me…so.dang.sweaty. Sorry if that’s TMI…just keeping it real.

All in all…I survived. I did the miles, and I’m so glad that I didn’t quit (even on that Thursday run). :-) I’m going to TRY not to beat myself up anymore when a run gets bad….as long as I finish, I should be proud of myself. Heck….three years ago, I couldn’t even run for a minute straight!

Cranberry Crumb Bars with Mulling Spices

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I’ve been waiting for months for fresh cranberries to be back in stores. As a few of you may remember, I used to contribute on Weddingbee (under the moniker, Mrs. Ballet Flat). Every year around this time, some of the bloggers exchange ornaments, making one of the giftee’s moniker. So, I have quite a few ballet flat ornaments on my tree that I truly cherish. :-) Last year, along with the ornament, I also got a few of these bars in the mail (an awesome surprise!). I was addicted….absolutely addicted.

After the holiday craziness, I went to the grocery stores to buy fresh cranberries to make these bars, since my exchange friend mentioned they were from Smitten Kitchen’s cookbook (which I had recently purchased). Well, all of the stores near me were sold out. Gone. No more cranberries. I promised myself that once they were back in the produce section, I was going to immediately make these bars. They’re just as good as I remembered…a subtle spiced crumb layer and cranberry filling with a hint of orange in it. It’s marvelous (as if I expected anything different from Deb of The Smitten Kitchen).

I brought these to my coworkers, thinking that cranberries are an iffy ingredient for some people…they probably wouldn’t go that fast. Um…these bars left faster than when I bring cupcakes to work! They were an absolute winner! If you’re looking for a festive holiday dessert that is a little different than the norm, give these a try. The recipe comes together fairly quickly, and any cranberry lover will probably go crazy over these. :-)

Cranberry Crumb Bars with Mulling Spices
Source: Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Ingredients:

For the crumb base:

  • 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled (saving the wrappers to grease the pan)
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. table salt
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/8 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1 large egg

For the filling:

  • 1/2 tsp. freshly grated orange zest
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. orange juice
  • 3 cups (12-ounce bag) fresh cranberries
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp. cornstarch

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Prepare a 9×13 inch baking pan by lining it with parchment paper and rubbing the butter remnants left on the inside of the butter wrappers on top of the parchment paper.
  2. In a large, wide bowl, add the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and spices. Whisk the mixture well. Using a pastry blender or fork, work the chilled butter and egg into the dry flour mixture until the texture resembles a coarse meal. Pat half of the crumb mixture into the bottom of your prepared baking pan (note: the layer will be thin).
  3. In a food processor or blender, add the filling ingredients and pulse the mixture until the cranberries are coarsely chopped (but not pureed). Using a spatula or spoon, evenly spread the filling over the pressed crumb base. After the filling is evenly added, sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture evenly over the berry mixture.
  4. Bake the bars for 30-35 minutes, or until just lightly brown on top. Allow the bars to cool completely before serving, cutting the bars into 36 small squares.

 

Training Tuesdays: Week 2

I can’t believe that week 3 of training starts today. This race is going to be here before I know it, eh?

I’m so happy to say that I’m staying at a pace where I won’t end up swept on the bus. I have to admit, while I’d love to be fast, all I want to do is finish the race. Finishing the race means keeping a pace faster than 16:00 minutes/mile, so I can’t crawl there. Currently, I’m teetering between 15:30 and 15:45 minutes/mile. While I’m slow, I have to admit that I’m proud of myself. I’ve run a total of 20 miles in the past two weeks. That’s crazy…

Also, I purchased a Garmin Forerunner 10 this past week! I used it for Sunday’s run, and I love that it alerts me when to run/walk. I hate looking down at my phone to see pace/time, because the less I have to think about those things, the better off I am. I was afraid the watch would aggravate me during my run, but it really wasn’t bad at all. I think this is a keeper.

As for run/walks, I’m consistently running 10 minutes and walking one minute the whole time. This timing is working perfectly for me, and really helps me to break up the run mentally (since I know my pace).

 

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Tuesday, I had a pace of 15:37 minutes/mile. To me, that’s a successful run. :-)

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Thursday, I was a tad slower with a pace of 15:39 min/mile.

 

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Sunday was a tough run. My legs were heavy the whole time, and while the temps weren’t so bad, the sun was beating down on me. 15:44 min/mile (still won’t get swept, so boo yah!).

In speaking with a good blogger friend who has been down this road before, I was reminded that I need to start thinking about hydrating myself and fueling myself during long runs. Am I at that point already? Wow..this Sunday will be 5 miles, which is nuts. What’s your favorite way to fuel during your runs? I think I’m going to just have to buy a variety of things at the running store near me, but I’d love suggestions.

Holiday Spritz Cookies & A Giveaway!

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I am in hog heaven lately. It’s no surprise to you guys that Christmas is a holiday that I just adore, and with the holidays, there is always baking. Lots and lots of baking. I know I mentioned last week that I had to special order 28 blocks of cream cheese…well, when the butter goes on sale, I’m pretty sure I’m going to need 15 boxes. I’m not even kidding. I just love holiday baking, and truly enjoy sharing those treats with the ones that I care about.

America’s Test Kitchen recently came out with their newest book: The Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book, and sent me a complimentary copy to review. I just adore America’s Test Kitchen. I subscribe to both Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, as well as frequently cook from The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. So when they asked me if I’d like to review this book, I didn’t even have to think about it. I actually had this book on my holiday wish list when I first read about the book in this post (which is what encouraged me to bake those scrumptious sticky buns in the first place). :-) When I received it in the mail, I had my post-its in hand ready to mark the recipes that I wanted to make right away.

The book contains 15 different chapters, with 450 recipes total. The book also has a comprehensive section called baking basics, explaining pretty much anything you ever needed to know about basic baking ingredients and tools, as well as tips to become a better baker in the kitchen.

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It’s also beautifully illustrated. I’m usually a sucker for color photos when it comes to food photography, but the black and white photography just draws you in. Also, in true Cook’s Illustrated fashion, there are step-by-step illustrations for some of the more complicated recipes. I appreciate this, because while you don’t necessarily always need step-by-step photos, there are some recipes where you just need an illustration or two to guide you along the way. There’s also notes in the beginning of every recipe, explaining what the recipe is and how certain ingredients in the recipe work to make this recipe just perfect.

As I was skimming through the book, these holiday spritz cookies caught my eye. Really, it was the word “holiday”. ;-) I’ve attempted to make spritz cookies before, and sadly, the dough ended up being too thick to use in the cookie press. I haven’t attempted spritz cookies since, and that was a few years ago. While I own a cookie press, I wanted to try it with another method that they recommended: a star tip and a piping bag. Genius….

I was so excited when these cookies actually piped out, and they baked up perfectly. These cookies put those holiday tin cookies to shame. They’re perfectly buttery, not too sweet, and are so simple to make! I ended up adding some sprinkles to some before baking as well, and that gave them some extra holiday flair. Of course, they’re delicious on their own, but sprinkles make everything more fun, right?

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Sweet Potato Pie

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I went to the grocery store tonight, since they had cream cheese for 99 cents. When it gets this low in price, I do the annual stock-up for cheesecake season. See, this cheesecake has made me famous between our families, and well, that cheesecake calls for 4 blocks of cream cheese. It can get spendy during the holiday season, so it’s always fun to go to the store to stock up and request 30ish boxes of cream cheese. A bit crazy, but I use every last bit of it. :-)

I was thinking about cheesecake the other day when it came to brainstorming Thanksgiving recipes, and what bothered me is that I never make something traditional for the holiday. So, I wanted to try to make sweet potato pie.

When I went to Fresh Summit, I connected with a company called Frieda’s Produce, and they generously offered to send me one of their featured produce items for me try. When I saw these potatoes on their list, I just had to try them, and the first thing that popped in my head was to try pie. Yes, these are purple sweet potatoes, and I can’t tell you how many times I was asked if I used food dye to enhance the color. Nope…these potatoes are very purple. It’s gorgeous, and they taste great, too!

This pie was definitely the classic pie that I’ve loved for years. It’s not too sweet, but with the bourbon and molasses in there, the flavor was much deeper and richer. This dessert makes me want to curl up on the couch with an electric blanket and drink warm hot chocolate along with a slice of this.

Sweet Potato Pie
Source: filling from Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook, pie crust via Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. sweet potatoes
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs + 2 large yolks
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp. bourbon
  • 1 tbsp. molasses
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup whole milk
  • 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 recipe pie dough (this recipe is meant for a double-crust pie, so half will work for this single-crust pie), partially baked and still warm

Directions:

  1. Move the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Poke each sweet potato several times with a paring knife or fork all over the entire surface. Place the potatoes on a paper towel-lined microwave safe plate and microwave the potatoes until they are tender, but not completely mushy (about 10 minutes…the purple potatoes need to cook longer so they took 15 minutes), being sure to flip the potatoes halfway through the microwaving. Take the sweet potatoes out of the microwave, and peel the skin off of each sweet potato carefully while holding the potato with a towel or potholder to prevent from burning yourself. You should end up with about 2 cups of sweet potato after peeling.
  3. While the potatoes are still hot, add the butter and mash the sweet potatoes with a potato masher until a few small lumps remain. In a medium bowl, whisk together the granulated sugar, eggs, egg yolks, nutmeg and salt. Add in the bourbon, molasses and vanilla extract, and stir those into the potato mixture. Whisk in the milk.
  4. Slowly add the egg mixture to the mashed potato mixture, stirring/whisking gently until just combined.
  5. Sprinkle the dark brown sugar evenly over the pre-baked pie crust, and then pour the sweet potato mixture on top. Bake the pie for about 45 minutes, until the edges are set, but the center will still jiggle slightly when shaken. Allow the pie to cool to room temperature before serving.

Disclosure: I was sent a 5 lb. case of Stokes Purple Sweet Potatoes at no cost to me to sample. All opinions are 100% my own.

Cranberry Salsa

Cranberry Salsa

When I went to Fresh Summit, I was introduced to fruits taking on a more savory note in recipes. I really didn’t think I’d like it, but oh boy, it got the creative juices flowing. One thing I sampled was at the Ocean Spray booth…while I didn’t get to speak anyone there (the summit was super busy with 20k people there), I was immediately intrigued by their cranberry salsa recipe. They were handing out samples with tortilla chips, but when I tasted this, my first thought was TURKEY. How fabulous would this be on turkey instead of the normal cranberry sauce?!

So, when we smoked the turkey this past weekend, I also whipped up a batch of this cranberry salsa. It was fantastic on the turkey! In fact, my husband (who isn’t much of a cranberry fan), loved this salsa. :-) It’s definitely going to be a part of our holiday menu, and I think I’m going to bring a batch to my family’s Thanksgiving when we go. It was just SO good, and very simple to make.

Cranberry Salsa
Source: Ocean Spray

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 12 oz. fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 2 tbsp. chopped pickled jalapeno peppers
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 green onion, white and green parts, sliced
  • 1 tsp. lime juice

Directions:

  1. In a medium-sized pot, add the water and sugar. Stir the mixture, and heat it on medium heat until it comes to a boil. Add the cranberries to the mixture, and return the mixture to a boil. Lower the heat and gently boil the cranberry mixture for 10 minutes, being mindful not to stir during those 10 minutes.
  2. Pour the mixture into a medium heat-proof mixing bowl, and fold in the remaining ingredients. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature, and cover with plastic wrap. It’s best served at room temperature, but you can refrigerate it overnight and serve the next day (it’s actually even better the next day, in my opinion).