Friday, October 29, 2010

My Perfectly Fall Weekend

It has been a BEAUTIFUL fall so far here in DC. Seriously...I love fall, but I am in love with Fall 2010. Last year it seemed to rain every weekend and got cold and yucky very VERY quickly. While this fall has also flown by, every weekend has been sunny and comfortable. My favorite parts of fall; crisp cool air, the unique fall smell, and the glowing colorful trees, have all given us plenty of time to enjoy the season as we ease into what I now call "the dark months" (because I don't see a ton of daylight :-/ ).

Two weekends ago, my friend Danielle and I decided to escape city life of DC and head out to Cox Farm for all things fall; a hayride, apple cider, farm animals, and most importantly to pick out our pumpkins! It was so much fun!

The farm market was full of all sorts of beautiful squash, pumpkins, and apples!

Apples galore!!!

These reminded me of Farmville immediately....I know that is really sad.

Ummmm crazy squash!

Cute white pumpkins!

Danielle and I wandered around the farm, checking out the animals, tasting some cider, going on hayrides, and taking pictures with the various cardboard things they had around. 

Fresh Apple Cider! Soooooo Good!
Danielle found the Scarecrow!
I saw my old friend the Tin Man!

We made friends with a witch!

Danielle is this tall....

....I am not as tall.

After wandering around the farm a bit we went on pretty much the most random hay ride ever! There were tons of random characters and things poping out at you along this hayride. There was even a Where's Waldo off in the distance at one point...I found myself wondering how many people really noticed him. Here are some picture highlights:

Presidents....including Bill & Hillary (there were more but this is all I caught on camera)

Aliens that popped out and scared all the little children.

Blue pumpkin head guy on a computer? Sleeping?

Fun Hayride! :-)
On our way out of the farm, we picked out some pumpkins. We each got a little pumpkin for free...and then we each bought a big pumpkin for carving! There were lots to choose from!

The next day...I had a few friends over (including Danielle) to do some pumpkin carving! Of course I felt very inspired to make seasonal treats!

Halloween Funfetti Cupcakes
Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing

I have to comment that the pumpkin cupcakes were REALLY easy. You can make them with a simple edit to  yellow cake box mix. I found the recipe on on Real Simple. But I did my own thing with the cream cheese icing. I usually make cream cheese icing by taste, because I like it SUPER cream cheesy :-).

We did some pumpkin carving. I had the neatest pumpkin I've EVER seen. I opened up my pumpkin and it was basically hallow with four patches of seeds going down the sides. And it wasn't gross and slimey to clean out at all! I was so proud of my pumpkin haha! I only got one picture carving....the rest are the completed pumpkins.

Opening my pumpkin!

My creeeeeeper pumpkin...
Danielle's spooky pumpkin

Shirin's lost a few wiskers and tail :-/

We of course baked all the pumpkin seeds! We did half of them a sweet and salty flavored mix that I also found on Real Simple. The other half we did traditionally. Both flavors came out GREAT! :-)

I had such a wonderful weekend celebrating fall at the farm and carving pumpkins! But I learned a valuable lesson....carved pumpkins go bad A LOT faster than I remember as a carved pumpkin didn't even come close to making it to Halloween (not that I thought it would really last THAT long but) didn't even last a week actually. I felt so sad when I had to toss my perfect pumpkin less than a week later :-/. But I took advantage of lighting him up when he was around. Next year I will try to do the pumpkin carving a bit closer to Halloween! :-)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who Needs Apple Pie Spice?

Thursday, my coworkers and I decided to surprise our boss to celebrate Boss's Day! Yes, Boss's Day is Friday, but a lot of people weren't going to be around Friday so we did Thursday. We know that our boss is an apple pie lover so my coworker, Natalie, mentioned how our friend Rebecca recently made Apple Pie Pops from the blog Buttercup. We thought it might be a nice twist on his favorite. I volunteered to do the baking.

I was really attracted to attempting this recipe for a few reasons. 1) I have been looking for new fun things to bake. 2) These won't bake for too long because they are smaller than a whole pie. 3) It required cutting less apples than a bigger pie. 4) Pre-made dough and pre-mixed spices were A-O-Kay!

I ran to the store and one of the things on my list included:

When I found the spice aisle of the grocery store I was confident I would find what I was looking for. There were racks and racks of McCormick spices along with more shelves and racks of other brands. There were even two different kinds of this pre-mixed spice:

I looked, and looked........and looked. Apple Pie Spice was no where to be found. Having never made any sort of apple pie before, I was a bit panicked about this. I decided to look up what was in this mix and get those spices. I had cinnamon, I found some nutmeg, I found some allspice...and I decided to go with a litttttle bit of brown sugar and skip the was sort of pricey. I knew I could find uses for the other spices, but I have only heard of using cardamom once ever before (in an interesting whoopie pie) so it didn't seem like a necessary investment. (Speaking of investing in friend Shirin jokes about her kitchen spice inventory in her cute blog: Diary of a Messy Kitchen)!

I started by chopping up two apples, and then putting them on the stove with some sugar, lemon juice, and my own apple spice mix. Once the sugar melted and boiled, I added some cornstarch to thicken the mixture up...

I have to say, this was really easy to mix up and to my surprise the sugar mixture was really easy to clean off my pan :-). Once the filling was ready, I took out the pre-made pie crust and use an apple shaped cookie cutter for the crust of the pops. I got about 9 pieces out of each crust, but there was a lot of extra dough. This is when I remembered that I don't have a rolling pin...whoops!...well who needs a rolling pin when you've got the captain helping you out?

Ok well...I could still use a rolling pin but the captain did a pretty good job. I managed to get 4 more out of each crust! After I had all my crust pieces cut out, it was time for assembly. I was convinced that using the apple cookie cutter was pointless after putting the edges of the crust together...they didn't really look like apples once put together...

I got a total of 13 apple pie pops put together on 2 trays...Milo was in his normal kitchen supervisor position.

I topped the pops off with an egg bath, cinnamon and sugar :-)

Then they went in the oven...and I crossed my fingers that they wouldn't explode (especially around the stick). As they baked, I cleaned up the counter, and was surprised at how even though I felt like I used a lot of kitchen supplies, the sink was only full of little dishes! I'm used to a sink FULL with big bowls after I bake.

About 15 minutes later, out came the pops! And to my surprise...they actually sort of looked like apples despite how much I thought I mutilated them during construction!

A few of the pops cracked open....I decided to take the worst one and make myself a late night snack when I was done ;-)...these mini pies are PERFECT with ice cream!

I still wasn't sure if the apple pie pops would actually stand up. They seemed a bit top heavy so I didn't have a lot of confidence. Even after I let them cool for a while, they weren't feeling too stable. However the next day at work I had a 9 out of 12 success rate when I stood them up! Look!

They were a big success! The branch (and the boss) thought they were great! (So there missing Apple Pie Spice!) I think I might try to make these again this weekend, but perhaps without the pops. Maybe make them "bites" with smaller cutouts....hmmmmm.

Sidenote: Sorry about my blurry pictures...I need to look into why my phone on my camera stopped focusing, but it was hard while I had messy hands.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Weekend in Charleston

This weekend I took a road trip down to the beautiful Charleston, South Carolina to visit my good friend Cody! We had a great relaxing weekend of shopping and eating great food and I thought I'd share some of the highlights!

I had off of work Friday so I left super early for the 8 hour drive to Charleston. Sound miserable? Well it is a long ride...but exactly halfway down I arrived at my favorite rest stop!

I was so excited when I got to my favorite outlets! This outlet mall has an unbelievable amount of outlet stores including Gap, Banana Republic, New York & Company, and LOFT! (and Fossil and Nine West on and on and on!) I LOVE this outlet mall. My wallet on the other hand doesn't love it so much. I left DC so early though...that I actually got to the outlets 40 minutes before they opened! At this point I wasn't sure what to do. I was anxious to make good time on the road, but I also knew Cody needed to get some work done at school and at this rate I was going to get there by early afternoon. I was also ready for some caffine and the car needed some gas so I decided to run those errands and wait the for the outlets to open. I did pretty well for myself shopping too!

After a bit of shopping I got back on the road and managed to make it to Charleston by 3pm! Cody and I caught up for a bit and then she took me to Octoberfest at MUSC! We listened to a live band, had some brats, burgers, and soft pretzels, and tasted all sorts of lagers in our cute souvenir tasting glasses!

Saturday we went to the market on Marion Square. There were lots of people selling all sorts of food and goods (I love a good outdoor market)!

There was also a GIANT yoga class in session...

We had lunch from one of the market stalls and then we found the local cupcakery for dessert of course!

Yes those painted cupcakes in the window are supposed to look risque....October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month! We each had a cupcake in the shop. Cody had the pumpkin cupcake and I had the chocolate peanut butter.

We also made sure we had some for dessert for the rest of the weekend!

(Two of these were the ones we ate there...we weren't SOOO bad!)

We finished the day shopping at all the fancy and unique stores down King Street. We saw some of the most interesting shops. There was an accessory store where the walls were FULL of necklaces and earings but somehow managed to stay REALLY neat. There was also a chocolatier who made the most BEAUTIFUL chocolates. He painted them in a way that they didn't even look edible. He made a chocolate pumpkin to put little chocolates in....and even a chocolate high heel! It was crazy! (I'm sorry for the lack of pictures). We had dinner at Basil, an excellent Thai food restaurant, and then rented a movie and (of course) had cupcakes for dessert!

Sunday we had mimosas and southern brunch at Magnolias and then went shopping at the well known Charleston Market. I managed to find a pair of earings and necklace pendant that are perfect for fall. Cody also found some nice earings. We stopped for ice cream (haha yes we ate a lot this weekend) and then went Folly Beach to relax and watch the sunset!

We ended our last night with a movie, light dinner, and the last of our cupcakes for dessert :-).

Monday morning I bid farewell to Cody and drove and drove and drove all the way back to DC :-/...but I did stop at the outlets again. I even found something I didn't find on my first stop! I will be wearing it at work tomorrow ;-).

All in all I had a wonderful weekend getaway in Charleston. It was great to be able to relax and spend time with a good friend. It really got my mind off of anything crazy going on in DC!

I didn't even get into what a beautiful city Charleston is! I think because I have been there a few times now it slips my mind to discuss. If you have never been to Charleston, SC, I cannot stress enough what a great place it is to visit. Its a city full of character and history. Great shopping, great food, and the most beautiful sites! It somehow manages to be busy and peaceful at the same time. Honestly it is one of my all time favorite cities and I would highly recommend visiting if you ever get the chance! Cody is so lucky to live there! And I'm lucky to have a person to go there to visit!!!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

National Cupcake Week 2010

I am not quite sure how I actually managed to do any work this week. I was on a roller coaster of sugar highs followed by big time crashes in a week full of baked goods. We had our monthly birthday celebration at work, and I'm lucky enough to be a taste tester for a baking endeavor (which I will most likely write about another day), but most importantly (and most fun) it was National Cupcake Week! For the past few years, my friend (and blogging guru) Rebecca has been celebrating National Cupcake Week by making cupcakes every day all based on one theme. This year's theme: Ice Cream Desserts!

I asked her if I could blog about all her wonderful cupcake creations along with my thoughts and reviews! If you want to read more about the baking and inspiration behind the cupcakes, just click on their links and they will take you to the page for that day! (Her pictures are WAY better than mine so you should click through to her pages!)  The descriptions below come straight from Rebecca, followed by my pictures and personal thoughts about each flavor from this week.

Monday: Banana Split
Rebecca says:
"A soft banana flavored cake with a sweet and tangy Strawberry & Pineapple Buttercream Twist Frosting and topped with dark chocolate shavings!"

Laura Says:
The Banana Split cupcake was FULL of flavor. The icing packed a tangy strawberry and pineapple punch while the cake had a strong banana flavor. I'm not usually one for fruity desserts, but this cupcake was GREAT! And could it look any cuter? Such a perfect twist of color (and flavor) in the icing! This was a strong and yummy start to National Cupcake Week!

Tuesday: Turtle Sundae
Rebecca Says: 
"Whirls of chocolate buttercream rest atop a salted caramel cupcake and capped off with chopped pecans and tiny twirls of caramel."

 Laura Says:
The Turtle Sundae was made for me! I love chocolate. I love pecans! I love caramel! I LOVE TURTLES! Yum! This cupcake easily beat out the Banana Split for me (although like I said above I am not usually fond of fruity flavors in desserts). AMAZING! I loved the combination of flavors, especially with the caramel oozing down the sides! The chocolate icing was yummy and very sweet. My only critique: I think perhaps the amount of icing was a tiny bit overpowering for a mini cupcake because of how sweet it was. 

Can we TALK about this little mini squirt of caramel she put into the cupcake!?!?! The PERFECT amount. I loved the sweet surprise inside! That was definitely my favorite part!

Wednesday: Oreo Cookie Blizzard®/Cookies-n-Creme
Rebecca Says: 
"A rich chocolate cupcake dotted with a vanilla creme center topped with a vanilla buttercream frosting speckled with tiny Oreo bits and garnished with a mini Oreo."

Laura Says:
This was hands down my favorite cupcake of the week! The chocolate cake was super moist! Rebecca even put a little surprise of cream inside! The icing was amazingly fluffy and not way to sweet at all. Very light which (I have decided with this cupcake) is a great way to represent ice cream in icing. The mini Oreo on the top was adorable and I loved that it was a tad bit reminded me of the soft/crunchy bits in the middle of ice cream cake (my favorite part). I just loved this cupcake!!!

Thursday: TWO TREATS!
Hot Fudge Sundae
Rebecca Says: "A vanilla cupcake with a crisp milk chocolate cap and topped off with vanilla buttercream, chocolate syrup, and peanuts."

Laura Says:
What a great way to end the week! I didn't think anything could beat the Oreo icing in terms of replicating ice cream and I was right...but I think this tied. It wasn't light and fluffy...but it was extremely smooth and not too sweet. It made the perfect vanilla ice cream. Its not visible in the picture, but there was a harder piece of chocolate between the icing and the cupcake. I liked the chocolate, but I'm thinking a soft chocolate filling like the caramel earlier in the week would have done better. The peanuts on top were the perfect finishing touch! A VERY yummy cupcake!

Rebecca Says: "Layers of pistachio and chocolate cakes topped with a fluffy cloud of whipped cherry frosting."  (It was also garnished with granulated sugar. As a sidenote, I have a special connection to this cupcake).

Laura Says:
I was apprehensive about this cupcake. I like chocolate and I LOVE pistachio nuts. Cherries are alright but by now you all know I'm not a fruit dessert lover. Plus I've never had spumoni. That being said, I think the flavors in this cupcake went really well together. The cherry icing by itself was a bit strong for me but It really complimented the cake(s). The chocolate cake seemed to dominate the pistachio, but you could tell it wasn't all chocolate.

I thought it was weird how the cupcakes looked really chocolatey and tasted more chocolatey but seemed to have so much more pistachio...I had to take a picture to show you what I mean. Not that this was a bad thing but I just thought it was interesting. Overall this wasn't my favorite cupcake of the bunch, but it was really a very good and interesting combination of flavors!

Since Rebecca only works four days out of the week, Thursday was the end of National Cupcake Week 2010. Here are my overall rankings for the cupcakes of Ice Cream Dessert week!

Laura's Official Rankings:
1 - Oreo Blizzard®
2 - Turtle Sundae
3 - Hot Fudge Sundae
T4 - Banana Split
T4 - Spumoni

Office chatter would suggest Banana Split was number one for most people. I have to disagree. It was a close call between Turtle and Oreo, but because of the light and fluffy icing, Oreo got the top spot. I couldn't choose between Banana Split and Spumoni for 4th and 5th. I think the tarty fruit flavors put them at the back of the pack for me personally, but they were each yummy with interesting flavor combinations. At least two other coworkers gave the top spot to the Turtle Sundae. I should note that even though I reviewed and ranked the cupcakes, I really enjoyed every one of them!

I want to thank Rebecca for making all those cupcakes, letting me blog my reviews, AND for having (and creating) National Cupcake Week in the first place! I can't wait to see what is in store for next year!

If you tried them, which cupcake was your favorite? If you weren't as lucky as me...which do you think looks the best?