Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mandarin Orange Cake

Recently I've gone on a large baking spree. Sometimes I just get into a baking mood, and before you know it I've made a ton of different cakes in only a few days. Well this is now day 3 of this week, and day 5 or 6 of baking in the last two weeks. Last week I made three new cakes/pies: first a "gooey butter cake", which was more like a plain coffee cake (eh), second was a blueberry cake, very dense, not bad, but not great, and third was a strawberry pie. The strawberry pie turned out great and I'll surely be saving the recipe to use again. If you're interested in that one, let me know and I'll send it to you or get motivated to put it up here.

This week started out with peanut butter balls on Monday (people really freaked over those, and Jeremy did a wonderful job helping me make them this weekend), and some Ebelskivers on Tuesday. Ebelskivers are like little filled pancakes that are prepared in a special pan. They are super fun to make and probably great way to get kids involved in baking something fun for breakfast. I wasn't sure how they'd transport to work, but people seemed to go crazy for them. I made about 20 with fillings like blueberry/lemon and raspberry/creamcheese.

Last night I continued the baking spree and made a Mandarin Orange Cake. I think people at work are convinced that I'm trying to fatten them up. While I haven't actually cut into it yet, the cake looks super tasty and from what I've 'sampled,' this is gonna be delicious!

The recipe came from my latest cookbook - Cooking up a Storm - Cajun Cooking from New Orleans. It's super simple to make and looks fantastic. (Don't mind the above picture, it was taken with my iPhone... I've gotten camera lazy.) Plus the 'frosting' is so light and creamy, and it is mixed with crushed pineapple, mmmm my favorite. I almost considered just eating it all straight out of the bowl instead of putting it on the cake.

I hope you consider making this for your next picnic, as it'd be a great summer cake due to the light frosting.

Mandarin Orange Cake

1 (18.25 ounce) package yellow cake mix
4 eggs
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 cup vegetable oil
1 (11 ounce) can mandarin orange segments with juice
1 (11 ounce) can mandarin orange segments without juice (if you desire more oranges, I think it needs this second can)
1 (8 ounce) container whipped topping (such as Cool Whip)
1 (20 ounce) can crushed pineapple with juice
1 (3.5 ounce) package instant vanilla pudding mix

Preheat the oven to 350 deg. Grease and flour 3 - 8" cake pans. (Of course you can do a 9x13 pan or 2 - 9" cake pans. Whatever you want, just keep in mind baking times my vary)

Slightly beat the eggs in a medium bowl. Add the cake mix, oil and baking soda and mix well. Using a wooden spoon, mix in the mandarin oranges and juice from one of the cans. Mix until incorporated.

Spread the batter evenly amongst the pans (since I made a 3 layer cake but only had 2 pans, I did two first, then, after they were done, I made the third).

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the cake pulls away from the sides and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Note: A 9x13 pan may take 30-40 mintues.

Let them cool fully in the pans, or most of the way in the pans then flip onto some wax paper to finish cooling while you reuse the pans (if necessary).

To make the topping, combine the whipped topping, crushed pineapple with juice, and pudding mix. Stir together with a spoon until all incorporated.

If doing a layered cake, spread each layer with a bit of the frosting then stack. Finally cover the entire cake and sides with the frosting and store in the fridge. Since it's made with Cool Whip, you'll be able to let it set out for quite some time before it melts and gets yucky. (thus a great summer dessert).


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How to make your dinner a little nicer

These days we're always in a rush. Somewhere to be, someone to meet, something to do. But here's a quick tip that will make your rushed dinner seem a little nicer.


Presentation can or break your food. You can instantly make anything look more or less appetizing just by the way the food is arranged on the plate. The nicer it's arranged, the more likely you are to want to eat it.

This doesn't have to be over complicated, so don't panic. A quick thought into presentation, can take your dinner from 'boring Tuesday night' to 'maybe we'll open that bottle of wine.' Think about the picture above. Instead of throwing some cheese and crackers on the island while you're cooking dinner, take a moment to actually take those crackers out of the box (gasp), cut up some cheese, and arrange them on your favorite cutting board or plate. Notice I added some raspberries for color.

When it comes time to serve dinner, consider adding some parsley next to your meat for color, or chopped and spread around the edge of the pasta plate. Another easy way to make your main course look fancy is by stacking. The picture above is from Emeril's restaurant in Orlando, FL. It's not my favorite presentation, but notice how everything is stacked toward the center? You'll be surprised how these little tricks can really spruce up your food. And don't get frustrated if it doesn't work out well the first time. After some practice you'll find what works and what doesn't. Some foods stack well and some are just meant to be put on the plate with a little parsley.

A final note. If you have kids and you want them to eat something new, try a whimsical and creative presentation. If it's fun to eat, you're more likely to get them to at least try it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Spartacus Workout

This morning I did my first Spartacus Workout... and what a workout it is, phew! Since I don't have many weights at home, I used the only two sets that I had, a 4 lb set and a 6 lb set. For the most part this worked out well. Toward the end though, I wished I had some 3 lb weights, cause man, it gets tiring. At some point after the workout was over, I just started walking aimlessly around the house. I was just so out of it, I couldn't think what to do next.

While I love doing the P-90x workouts, I think this is a great supplement and it's always nice to change things up every once in a while. Just make sure you have a timer with you (the Tabata app for the iPhone works great) and that you stay motivated, especially at the end.

The whole workout consists of 10 exercises (stations) each done for 1 minute, with a 15 second break in between. After the 10 exercises take a 2 minute break and repeat. Do this for a total of 3 cycles and 2 2-minute breaks. Before and after your workout, you should be sure to stretch.

I've listed out the stations below, but you can go to the link HERE to see pictures and descriptions of each exercise if you don't know them.

Station 1: Goblet Squat (squats with weight held in front of chest)

Station 2: Mountain Climber (on your hands, feet moving fast)

Station 3: Single-Arm Dumbbell Swing (feet about shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, swing weight between legs then up above head. Switch arms 30 seconds in)

Station 4: T-Pushup (pushup, twist up to the right, pushup, twist up to the left, repeat)

Station 5: Split Jump (jump lunges)

Station 6: Dumbbell Row (feet about shoulder width apart, feel your shoulder blades come together)

Station 7: Dumbbell Side Lunge & Touch (side lunges with weight, touch weight to ground on each side, watch your form)

Station 8: Pushup Position Row (pushup, row up right arm, pushup, row up left hand, repeat)

Station 9: Dumbbell Lunge and Rotation (holding 1 weight in front of chest - forward lunge and rotate torso right (one motion), come back up, forward lunge and rotate torso left (one motion), come back up, repeat)

Station 10: Dumbbell Push Press (slight squat, thrust weights up, repeat)

Now that you've read the workout, go home and try it this week. Let me know how it goes!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Frequent Flyer Mile Rant

I read an article on today about the pain of using Frequent Flyer Miles. (link HERE) What I like to call, "miles you can look at, but you can not use."

I recently switched my frequent flyer mile program from United to Southwest. Now I haven't actually used my southwest free flights yet, but from what I can tell so far they are

1. much easier to use
2. have fewer blackout dates (I think 9 total in 2010)
3. have a larger number of seats/flight available to rewards passangers
4. require less miles/flight (a direct comparison would be about 19,200 miles SW vs. 25,000 miles United for a US round trip flight)
5. make it easier to get and understand miles. (SW uses a simple point system. 16 pts = 1 round trip. Each one-way part of a flight gets you 1 pt, thus a roundtrip flight earns you 2 pts. You must get 16 pts within 2 years, and you have 1 year to use the flight or pay $50 to keep it for longer. If you have the SW credit card you get 1 pt for every $1,200 you spend. That's about it. Oh and the annual fee is a bit less than the equivalent United card ($1/1 mile))

Now really, it's that third point that will get ya. I recently used the last of my United miles to buy two round trip coach seats from Houston to Italy. Let me detail for you below the very painful process that I went though to get these seats.

First, let me say that it has taken me 3 years to acquire 110,000 miles. Sure, I fly a lot relative to most people (8-10 times per year maybe), and I charge a lot to my credit card, but still 110,000 miles takes a while to acquire... and this also includes the 37,000 that I've gotten free over the years from promotions and compensation. So, by the time I reached 100,000 miles, I was excited. I was actually at 103,000 in November, and I was like "good, I'm gonna stop using this United card, I have the miles that I need, and I'm gonna switch to Southwest." And that's just what I did, I switched. Now you may be thinking, but above she was just talking about 110,000 miles, not 100,000 or 103,000. Ah Ha!

When I decided that Jeremy and I would be going to Italy for a vacation, I thought, perfect, I've got my miles and I'm ready to go. Apparently, in the past year, since I looked last, United changed their overseas mileage flights from 50,000 (for coach) up to 55,000!

Well crap!

Had I known this, I wouldn't have switched to my Southwest card so soon. And at this point, I was ready to book my flights, I didn't have time to rack up another 7,000 miles. So what did I do? I had to buy them. Yep, I was buying miles so I could get a "free" flight. How ridiculous is that! And if you're curious 7,000 miles on United will cost you about $260 (and two days of waiting). So before I continue, we may as well add this up now.

7,000 extra miles needed to hit 110,000 - $260
2 years of United gold card ($1/2 miles) - $280 ($140/year)
1 year of United silver card ($1/1 mile) - $65 (I think)
Taxes for "free flights" ($65/flight) - $130
Convenience fee for using my "free flights" ($25/flight) - $50

TOTAL = $785 for my "free" flights

If you're an optimist you're saying "okay, $785 for two flights to Europe isn't bad at all. That's still at least half price." True, and for my sanity, I like to think of it this way. However, you still can't get at least a little annoyed by the large price tag just to get my free flights. Even if you ignore the $260 for the 7,000 miles that I had to get because I missed the rate increase, you're still looking at $525.

Okay, so I had my miles, I had my dates, I was ready to call United. (side note here, unless you're a genius with the United online system, the dam thing is impossible to use). First guy on the phone - useless. This guy could barely understand where I wanted to fly to and from, let alone get my dates right. Frustration sets in about 2 minutes into the call.

Hang up... call again... hope to get someone who speaks a little English.

Person two - useless. At least with this guy we could understand each other... for the most part. However, it was very clear that he didn't know the system well. The hardest part about flying from the US to Europe is the flight across the Atlantic. There are hardly ever the 55,000 mile seats available on these flights. But if you get a smart enough person, they know that there are a number of good connection options to try. This guy didn't know that. He was determined to send me to Italy via Chicago to Frankfurt. When there were no flights available though that connection, he pretty much gave up.

Hang up... call again... hope to get someone smarter.

I should say here that this went on for two days straight before I finally got someone who was, in my mind, like a flight god(dess).

The flight Goddess...

By day 3 of trying to use my miles, I had learned a few things along the way. The most important, that I needed to have about 20 different departure/return flight combination in mind that would work for me, cause there was no way that I would actually get the flights that I wanted. As soon as this woman answered the phone I knew I was in luck. Sometimes you just know. She spoke great English, and instantly knew what I wanted without me having to explain much. (plus she told me that she'd been doing this for like 15 years... perfect!) She even said to me "okay, let me put you on hold and see what I can do." Within 3 minutes she was back on the phone with some options. I told her what would work and what wouldn't (days, times etc.) and within another 5 minutes we had flights! Perfect! It's really amazing how easily this part of the process can go if you get the right person on the phone.

So now, I finally have my flights to Italy, it was fairly painful, but I still saved over $1000, so that's a bonus, and heck, I'm going to Italy for 16 days, so I can't be too upset.

I'd like to say here that this was my first bad experience using miles, but that's just not true. Every time I've tried to use miles (United in particular) it's been a disaster, same with my mom. Why is it to use miles, especially over the summer, you have to book like a year in advance? That's just not practical. And as a side note, I've also realized that United now charges you to change your miles itinerary even if you keep the same departure/arrival city, this was not the case 2 years ago. Ugh, I'm just glad I switched to Southwest. I hope to have a better flying experience with them.

Did I mention, 2 bags fly free?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A New Addition...

Seriously, how good does that look. Mmmmmmm.

Last week I spent the rest of my birthday money and bought myself a new All Clad d5 stainless steel 12" fry pan. Everybody say 'ooooh'

Yes, it's very shinny and very nice. Actually, I'm almost afraid to even use it because it's so nice. But I did. Use it that is.

Last weekend I picked up some organic grass fed ribeye steaks (see picture above) and cooked them using my new frypan. I had heard that you don't need to put the All Clad onto a high heat, so I used about a 6/7 on a 1-10 scale of heat and seared them first, followed by a few minutes in a 350 deg oven. It's nice to be able to put the fry pan directly into the oven. But you must remember that when they come out of the oven, the handle will be HOT! So even after moving them to the stove, avoid your natural instinct to grab that handle. I learned this about two months ago and my hand hasn't forgiven me since.

Well the steaks turned out great and I really loved cooking with the new pan. However, there was one little problem. The steaks left a lot of stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan. So what do you do?

Well, first you fill the pan with some liquid, water in this case cause you're just gonna dump it out. Then you deglaze it, using medium/high heat (in this case) and a little gentle rubbing with a wooden spoon. That stuff will come right up.

Well, most of it

I was still very disappointed that there was a brown ring and brown spots still around the sides of my fry pan. After all, the dam thing is expensive! After whining about it to a co-worker, he suggested that I go get some 'Bar Keepers Friend.' Well let me tell you, this stuff is awesome. I have the powder form, but it comes as a liquid as well. It works great on the All Clad, and I'm betting it will work great on my other pots and pans as well. I highly recommend you get some of this stuff, if you don't already have it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dancing in the Street

For Memorial Day weekend, Jeremy and I went down to New Orleans. We also brought along two friends of ours from Austin who'd never been there before. Fortunately, we got lucky with the weather and it stayed cool most of the weekend. Apparently it was 97 deg in Austin this weekend, so you can imagine that the weather in N.O. should have been much hotter than the 80-85 that we felt. I would not recommend going down anytime between Memorial Day and the end of September (heck even mid-October), unless you just really, really like the heat.

So, of course, we had a wonderful time. You're in New Orleans, the weather is great, food is wonderful, and there's jazz everywhere. And I quite literally mean, everywhere. The picture above is from Sunday night up on Frenchman Street. These guys just started playing on the corner and before you knew it, there were huge crowds on each street corner and people dancing in the street. In fact there were so many people dancing, including yours truly, that cars could barely get through. It was amazing.

This was actually my first time up to Frenchman Street, and I gotta say, it's worth the walk. Just a short distance up from Jackson Square, there are tons of great jazz clubs and even an awesome new pizza place for those late night cravings. We spent a few hours up here, and heard some of the best music all weekend. One band, playing at the spotted cat, even had a guy playing flute. Yep, that's right, a jazz band with a flute. Who would have known?

We also quite enjoyed Fritzel's European Jazz Club (on Bourbon), Preservation Hall (of course) and Maison Bourbon. You just can't beat New Orleans jazz.

But New Orleans has much more to offer than just jazz and drinking. They also have a great aquarium, which we went to Saturday morning, unique architecture, and great local art all around Jackson Square. I love just walking around the streets during the day, and checking everything out. I bought another piece of art this weekend and I can't wait to frame it. Hopefully I can do it a bit cheaper than the last few pieces!

New Orleans also has great food.

I know I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Cafe Du Monde is awesome! I went 3 times this weekend and had to exercise great restraint by not going a 4th time on Monday morning. We also checked out a restaurant called Irene's.

First, if you're thinking about going here, make a reservation at least a week in advance. I was lucky to get a spot 3 days in advance. Second, the food is amazing. Very tasty and all delicious. The side picture is a twist on the traditional caprese salad. Instead of tomato, basil, and mozzarella, this is made with tomato, cooked prosciutto, goat cheese, and balsamic vinegar served with a side of red onion. I'm not a big goat cheese fan, but this was quite good, and will be going in my recipe book for sure.

We also had lunch at The Court of Two Sisters. While they serve quite the elaborate and tasty buffet, the draw to this place has got to be their outdoor seating area. A lovely terrace with brightly colored umbrellas and lots of natural ivy growing overhead. Unfortunately for us, it was during a short rain storm and so the terrace was closed. I did, however, manage to get a few new recipes for crawfish louise, turtle soup, and their wonderful hollandaise sauce, which seems to be much lighter than any hollandaise sauce that I've had before. Though keep in mind that their brunch is $28/pp here, so you'd better be ready to eat to get your money's worth.

Below are some more pics from the weekend, and the rest are HERE on my flickr page. Also at the bottom I've included the recipe for the Crawfish Louise if you'd like to try it out.

Crawfish Louise

2 tbs. olive oil
3 tbs. margarine
2 cups julienned mushrooms
1 lb crawfish (meat)
1/4 cup green onions
1/2 cup seafood stock
1/2 tbs. italian seasoning
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/4 cup parsley
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/4 tsp. salt

Heat olive oil and margarine together. Blend in mushrooms, crawfish, and green onions. Cook over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add seafood stock and continue to cook, stirring at 30 second intervals. When this is hot, add Italian seasoning, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and parsley. Continue to cook for 3 minutes. Remove from stove and add black pepper, bread crumbs, and salt. Pour contents inot a casserole dish and bake for 10 minutes at 350 deg. Serves 4.