Friday, July 31, 2009

Where has summer gone?

I can't believe July is almost over! This month absolutely flew by - obviously helped along by our mid-month trip. Once we got back, we celebrated my birthday on the17th by going out to one of our favorite pizza places, Rizzuto's, and going to see the latest Harry Potter movie. I had a little trouble getting into it in the beginning, but by the end we were both wishing we didn't have to wait two years to see how it all ends! (Well, I know how it ends since I've read the books, but it'll be exciting to see the journey completed on-screen.) I also made my own birthday cake, choosing the Burnt Sugar Cake recipe from Marjorie Johnson's cookbook, but I didn't really go about it with the intent of blogging and I didn't take any pictures. It was tasty though! And fortunately we spent some time with our friends Bill and Amanda that weekend, playing the game I got for my bday, and they helped us eat some of it.

The following week we got together with Shaun's family and celebrated the July birthdays (Shaun's sister, mom, niece, and me). We decided last year to have joint family celebrations in June and July, since we have three birthdays plus Father's Day in June and four birthdays in July...way too many to do invididually! We lucked out with a beautiful evening and had a nice cookout, topped off with ice cream cake.

Other than that, we haven't really been up to all that much. I can blame a lot of that on the weather, as the rainy trend has continued and kept us inside more than we'd like to be. Just one more thing to grumble about, in addition to stupid drivers, which I'm always grumbling about - I swear, they get dumber and more obnoxious all the time. I'm sure I'll expand on that another time.

And I try not to talk about it on here, but I've also been grumbling about work lately. I know that in this economy I'm lucky just to have a job, and any sort of benefits, but I'm not liking the fact that I currently only get five paid vacation days per year. Shaun just started earning 24 days a year at his job! It's just frustrating to feel like I'm holding him (and friends who want to take long weekend trips, etc) back because of my lack of time, or to have to decide between going to visit my family for a few days or taking a vacation alone with my husband. Eh...that's all for now. Just needed to vent a bit.

At least in the coming months we plan to cram a lot of fun stuff into the weekends! In August my friend Lauren is coming up from Atlanta, in September we're going to Notre Dame for the first game of the season and to DC to visit John and Sarah, and in October Rich is taking us to another game at his alma mater, Penn State. We're also trying to figure out a time for my parents to come out and visit before it gets too cold. But no more talk of cold right now...hopefully we still have quite a bit of summer to enjoy!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Minnesota...You Betcha

Sorry I have been so slow in getting a trip recap up...I really have no excuse. And now that it's here, it's super long, so I understand if you just wanna skim through and look at the pictures! Hopefully you find something of interest though, and I've popped some links in to help any potential Twin Cities trip-planners. So, here we go!

Shaun and I flew out with our friend Rich on Wednesday the 8th. My parents met us at the Minneapolis airport that evening, along with Ruby (the crazy Westie-Scottie mix who never seems to run out of energy).

Seriously, almost any time she was awake, she was trying to play fetch with someone - and usually succeeded, since you just can't say no to that face. On Thursday we played mini golf, got some pizza, and played games before going to pick up John and Sarah at the airport after their flight from DC.

On Friday, I started off the hometown tour with a quick trip to downtown Wayzata - nothing too exciting, but it's a cute little area with shops and a beautiful view of Lake Minnetonka. It's also where we used to have our homecoming parades in high, memories.

We did some grilling out for an early dinner, and then Rich, John, Sarah, Shaun, my sister Laura and I took off for the Minneapolis and the baseball game (while my parents ventured over to the Basilica Block Party). We made a quick stop on the Stone Arch bridge to get a glimpse of the city skyline, old mills and of course, the Mississippi River:

The game was fun - it was close and exciting but ultimately a victory for the Twins over the White Sox. Soon the Vikings will have the Metrodome all to themselves, since the Twins and the Gophers are getting their own new stadiums - both looked really nice when we drove by. For now, one last look at the 'dome:

On Saturday I wanted to show a bit of St. Paul, so the five of us followed my dad and Laura past the governor's mansion and the capitol building, and then we stopped for a brief swing through the Como Zoo. I don't have any pictures because everything was just so crazy! We left the zoo and went back home to meet up with my mom, then we all went out to Lord Fletcher's to eat at "The Wharf", an outdoor part of the restaurant that's right on Lake Minnetonka - just a different part than we were at the previous day.

The evening was a bit more relaxed as we took a walk around Lake Harriet, and Lyndale Park Rose Garden, in the beautiful sunset. (Well, relaxed except for Ruby, who wanted to run almost constantly - Shaun took her leash and they literally ran circles around our group toward the end. And that was the second time my mom had taken her on the 3-mile loop that day!)

Lake Harriet and Minneapolis skyline at my favorite time of dayShaun, me, Rich, Sarah, John (and Ruby)

Rose Garden (before we decided to get married at Notre Dame I briefly thought about this as a wedding location...can you see why??)

Before John and Sarah left on Sunday, we made a stop at the Mall of America. I can't believe it's been around for 17 years already! I remember going with my cousins shortly after it opened. I still contend though that the theme park was much better as Camp Snoopy than the current Nickelodeon Universe. The neon colors alone are enough to make you go crazy.

Anyway, our last stop before hitting the airport was the 5-8 Club. Coincidentally, Shaun and I had seen the same episode of Man v. Food as John and Sarah did that had put the 5-8 Club's Juicy Lucy up against Matt's Bar's Jucy Lucy (both are versions of a burger, originated in Minneapolis, that has cheese in between two patties rather than on top), and we decided to give one of them a try. 5-8 Club's burger was pretty tasty, but since Man v. Food hadn't provided a verdict, we decided that we would try Matt's Bar when everyone comes back for a game at Target Field someday and see if we come up with a favorite.

After we bid farewell to John and Sarah, we made the short trip to my cousin Emily's place to visit her 18-month-old son Timmy and 1-month-old daughter Brynn, and of course my Aunt Mary. My Aunt Anne had also driven up from Iowa with my cousin Ashley (who was visiting from all that?), so it was quite the gathering! I wasn't sure whether I'd feel the baby itch when I got to hold Brynn, and while she's adorable, I definitely knew I'm not ready for that yet! (my hubby can breathe easy)

After having some early birthday cake for Aunt Mary's and my shared birthday, the whole group of relatives and friends went to enjoy a John Philip Sousa Band concert at Centennial Lakes Park. As a little kid I loved going to see them, and of course as a band nerd in school my appreciation grew, so it was fun to go back and share that experience with some of my favorite people, outside on a beautiful evening.

Emily, Ashley, Laura holding Timmy, me holding Brynn, Shaun holding Ruby, and Rich

We took Rich to the airport early Monday morning, and Shaun and I came back and napped for a bit before the day's activities. We had seen on Sunday that Centennial Lakes had a nice putting course, so we played nine holes with my parents and Laura. And of course, we had to do a short run on the paddle boat afterward.

The rest of the time was mostly spent relaxing and trying a few restaurants. We also stopped at Shop in the City, because I was intrigued by my birthday gift that Aunt Mary found there...a shirt with the following design:

I hope that doesn't offend anyone, and I did realize that you could swap in your own state and simply replace Minnesota with "too cold" or "too many hotdishes" or something to that effect - even before I found the company's website with my shirt and tons of other region-specific shirts. Regardless...I'll still have fun wearing this around Connecticut.

It was really great to spend time with friends and family, though it went too quickly as always. At least we'll be back for Christmas at the latest. Anyway, thanks for reading my gibberish...if you want to see any more pictures, check them out here! I will try to get back to a schedule of more frequent (but shorter) posts soon!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Strawberry & Chicken Salad

I'm back! I haven't gotten around to uploading the pictures yet, but I'm sure I will soon do a recap of our fun trip to MN. For now, here is a recipe for a salad that I made for some quick, light dinners before our trip:

Shortly before I graduated from college, my mom discovered this recipe and it quickly became part of her regular dinner rotation - and then my own once I moved out. It's a refreshing, summery salad from Kraft - it's light and sweet, and even though it sounds like chick food, it tastes so good that even guys like it. In fact, Shaun is disappointed when we have any salad that doesn't involve caramelized almonds - and we don't even normally eat almonds! Here's the original recipe, and my version is below. (I omit the mandarin oranges and onions because I'm boring like that.)

Strawberry & Chicken Salad

Head(s) of green leaf lettuce, washed and torn
Chicken breasts, cut into small pieces and cooked
Sliced strawberries to taste
Sugar and sliced almonds for caramelized almonds (see below)
Kraft Creamy Poppyseed Dressing (I'm sure other brands or even homemade dressing would go just as well, but I'm addicted to the Kraft stuff)

Caramelized Almonds
Heat 1/2 cup sliced almonds and 3 Tbsp. sugar in nonstick skillet on medium-high heat for several minutes or until sugar is golden brown, stirring frequently (it doesn't take long - once the sugar melts they're almost done). Spread into a thin layer on baking sheet or sheet of wax paper; cool. Break into small pieces.

You can assemble everything in a large bowl like the Kraft website suggests to make it pretty, but since it's usually just the two of us, we take our lettuce and toppings buffet-style for individual servings. One head of lettuce, 2-3 chicken breasts, and the amount of almonds above will usually get us at least 4 servings.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cinnamon Buttermilk Muffins

One last post before I take off for Minnesota tonight!

I only ended up with about 5 of these (PW Spreads again)...the narrow eastern edges and the little bump on the northern border liked to break off and I gave up and cut the rest into squares. Oh well, at least I got to use the MN cookie cutter I've had for three years...even though Shaun said it just looked like someone took a bite out of a regular cookie, haha. Anyway...

I made Cinnamon Buttermilk Muffins for breakfast over the 4th of July weekend to use up some of the leftover buttermilk I bought for making cupcakes. I had made them once before and they were so good that now when I buy buttermilk, I anticipate making these almost as much as the cupcakes! I found the recipe at Annie's Eats, and it's originally from Williams Sonoma. I had similar results to Annie - I got 10 muffins rather than 9, and the butter/sugar/cinnamon topping amounts listed were way more than I needed.

These are a quick, easy, and YUMMY breakfast treat!

Cinnamon Buttermilk Muffins

7 Tbs. unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg (I used ground)
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

For the topping:
2/3 cup sugar
1 Tbs. ground cinnamon (I halved the cinnamon/sugar mixture and still had a bit left over)
6 Tbs. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted (I used about 2 Tbs. salted since I ran out of unsalted)

Preheat an oven to 350°F. Grease 9-10 standard muffin cups with butter or butter-flavored nonstick cooking spray; fill the unused cups one-third full with water to prevent warping.

To make the muffins, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, combine the butter and sugar and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the egg and beat well until pale and smooth.

In another bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Add to the butter mixture in 2 additions, alternating with the buttermilk and vanilla. Stir just until evenly moistened. The batter will be slightly lumpy.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups, filling each three-fourths full. Bake until the muffins are golden, dry and springy to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Unmold the muffins and let stand until cool enough to handle.

To make the topping, in a small, shallow bowl, stir together the sugar and cinnamon. Put the melted butter in another small bowl. Holding the bottom of a muffin, dip the top into the melted butter, turning to coat it evenly. Immediately dip the top in the cinnamon-sugar mixture, coating it evenly, then tap it to remove excess sugar. Transfer the muffin, right side up, to the rack. Repeat with the remaining muffins. Let cool completely before serving.

Back next week!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Lovely Long Weekend

Happy belated 4th of July!

I took these cupcakes to a cookout we went to on Friday. I thought the wannabe flag arrangement was a cool idea until I started seeing other festive desserts online, like this cake, that put my little cupcakes to shame. (I'm definitely saving the flag cake idea for next year!) I made half the yellow cupcake recipe and half the chocolate cupcake recipe from Marjorie Johnson's cookbook, and I used this buttercream, which may be my favorite so far.

After Friday's cookout, Shaun and I slept late on Saturday - we were both pretty sore from playing wiffle ball and using muscles we don't normally use. We felt old...sad. So Saturday was a pretty lazy day, and we grilled burgers for dinner and went to fireworks with Shaun's parents. We also watched the NYC and Boston fireworks that I'd recorded, because to me the 4th isn't complete without hearing The Stars & Stripes Forever! Oh, and you know what - after my little complaining session last week we actually got two whole nice days in a row - Saturday and Sunday! Today was pretty nice too but of course we were stuck inside.

I think our flowers have enjoyed the rain though. This is our second summer in our townhouse and we're still getting garden surprises. I swear, last year we only had one lily plant and the flowers were orange, but now, as you can see, lots of yellow flowers!

These have also grown a lot since last year - I'm ashamed to admit I haven't been able to figure out what they're called. But we like them!

And I have a reason to be in a good mood besides the weather and pretty flowers - on Wednesday afternoon, Shaun and I are leaving for our long-awaited trip to Minnesota! We're flying out with our friend Rich (a die-hard Red Sox fan), and John (a die-hard Yankees fan) and his girlfriend Sarah are meeting us there, and we're all going to a Twins game on Friday. Hopefully no fights will break out. Just kidding. Rich and Sarah are first-time MN visitors, and John has only visited for one day in November, so I am excited to show them around the Twin Cities at what I think is the best time of year to be there. I'm excited to see my family too, of course! And a couple of short work weeks out of the deal doesn't hurt either.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Amish White Bread

*Small vent to start: It has been so hard to get decent pictures lately, with good light, because it's been so dang rainy and icky so far this summer! I just checked one of the local news sites and it says we've had rain 20 out of the last 30 days. Gross. Vent over.*

Back in the winter I started trying some sandwich bread recipes - I figured the more things I could make at home instead of buying, the better. However, I started off with not much success. I didn't know if it was the recipes I was trying or my technique, but the bread always seemed too stiff and heavy. A few months back though, my mom told me about this recipe she found called Amish White Bread. She said it was very soft and tasted really good. The first time I tried it, Shaun and I were hooked! And it's so easy. The new stand mixer helps, but it really wasn't too difficult to make it by hand either. So, every couple weeks I just make a couple of loaves, slice them, freeze them, and we're set for lunches.

Amish White Bread (Source: Allrecipes)

2 cups warm water (recipe says 110 degrees F - I just guess though)
2/3 cup white sugar (many of the reviews recommend cutting down on the sugar...I usually use close to 1/2 cup)
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
6 cups bread flour

1. In a large bowl, dissolve the sugar in warm water, and then stir in yeast. Allow to proof until yeast resembles a creamy foam.
2. Mix salt and oil into the yeast. Mix in flour one cup at a time. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth (or use dough hook on stand mixer). Place in a well oiled bowl, and turn dough to coat. Cover with a damp cloth. Allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
3. Punch dough down. Knead for a few minutes, and divide in half. Shape into loaves, and place into two well oiled 9x5 inch loaf pans. Allow to rise for 30 minutes, or until dough has risen 1 inch above pans.
4. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes.

I let the loaves cool in the pans for 10 minutes or so and then dump them out onto a cooling rack. I made the mistake of leaving them in the pans too long once and ended up with some sweaty bread (it was fine after some drying time though). I also let the bread cool completely before slicing since I've had better luck that way, but sometimes it's just too tempting to dig into the warm bread.