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We returned from our trip some time ago and man, is re-entry into normal life hard! Also, I have completely fallen out of the blogging habit and need to leap back in. Let’s try to jumpstart things with a little randomosity, yes?

  • On the way to Europe, I was fine. Very little jet-lag that lasted maybe two days. On the way home? TWO WEEKS of waking up at 2:30 every morning, my body insistent that no, in fact, it was 8:30 and I was done sleeping. Didn’t matter if I’d gone to sleep at nine or midnight the night before, and believe me, I tried both. Didn’t matter if I took melatonin. Just wide awake at 2:30.
  • And then I got a monster cold, from all the lack of sleep. Super fun.
  • There were so many things to love about our trip, and I was prepared to return home and pine for the walkable cities and the suffusion of culture and the beautiful mountains. I was not prepared to pine for asparagus.

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    We were in Vienna and Munich during spargel season (spargel being, of course, asparagus) and MAN was fresh Bavarian asapargus delicious. I wouldn’t say I’m a lover of asparagus; I like it fine, and will make it occasionally for dinner, and once in a while I’ll order it at a restaurant. Okay, once in a GREAT while. But during our trip, we had many many bowls of spargelsuppe and I even ate an entrée that was made up of asparagus spears dotted with hollandaise. AND THAT WAS ONE OF MY FAVORITE MEALS. For this nacho-loving lady, having drooly fantasies about a plate of white asparagus is very off-brand. Anyway, I have been bookmarking recipes for spargelsuppe and eyeing the asparagus in my grocery store. I haven’t bought any yet; it’s just a sad facsimile of the beautiful bounty of fresh white asparagus we saw at farmers’ markets throughout our trip.

  • One thing I do NOT miss about our trip: the toilet paper. UGH. Even my cheapo Target brand toilet paper is like a angel’s kiss compared to the scratchy junk we used in Europe. Even the hotels had terrible toilet paper!!!
  • Since we’re already talking about the bathroom situation, can I tell you about a misconception I had? So, in the cities we visited, there were no free public restrooms. You had to pee, you had to pay. I never had the proper change on me, so anytime I needed to avail myself of the facilities, we’d either hike back to our hotel (which happened once, and only because it was on the way) or stop in at a café for some tea and cake and a bathroom break. I am really enjoying my bathroom-related rhyming in this paragraph. But one morning in Vienna, neither of those options was available, and I had to use a pay toilet in the middle of a market. I was dreading it. DREADING. I waited until the last possible second because I had visions of American rest-stop bathrooms in my head. Well! My half Euro got me into a PRISTINE restroom, with stalls that had been freshly cleaned, each with its own sink. It was a little weird that the attendant to the ladies’ room was a man, but once I got past that, it was a delightful experience. Well, as delightful as a public pee can get, you understand.

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    Here is a picture from one of the stands in the market; I did not photograph the restroom. I’m sorry slash you’re welcome.

  • I came to the conclusion on our trip that mankind has not yet invented a truly comfortable shoe. Either that or my feet and ANY shoes are the Princess and the Pea of extremities. Sure, we were walking a lot (ten miles a day), but my husband was wearing his years-old loafers and he had ZERO problems. I had to rotate between my new-for-this-trip Sketchers and an old pair of Børn riding boots that I packed at the last minute because the weather was supposed to be so cold and rainy (it was, which didn’t dampen our fun in the least, see what I did there). Even switching between them, my feet were in constant agony. Oh well. I think I kept the whining to a minimum; at least, my husband didn’t murder me for foot-complaint-related-reasons, so I’ll call that a success. And I only got one lonesome blister, from my dressy shoes, which I have had with no issue for years and wore ONE evening only and yet they still ripped open the skin beneath my pinky toe.
  • Shout out to Rick Steves — whom my husband and I affectionately refer to as “Ricky” — whose guides are super helpful and always include easy-to-follow city walks. My husband toted his Fancy Camera all around Bavaria and his camera bag had a pocket just big enough to stow our Ricky selection of the day — Rick Steves Vienna, Salzburg, & Tirol while we were in those places and Rick Steves Germany 2019 when we were in Munich and Nuremberg. While Ricky and I don’t necessarily have the same taste in food, I am very fond of him and his dad-style humor.

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  • There is a very charming café culture in Vienna. Lots of cafes where you sit and have coffee/tea and cake. We ate a lot of cake. I miss the cake.

  • I also miss the beer. Beer and wine were plentiful and inexpensive AND delicious. Of course, the beer I loved the most does not seem to be exported to the U.S., but I guess that preserves its awesomeness a little more.

  • And the castles. I miss those too.
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    Hohenschwangau Castle, southwest of Munich

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    Fortress Hohensalzburg, which looms over Salzburg in a very intimidating fashion and can be reached by hiking or funicular. 

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    Neuschwanstein Castle, a stone’s throw away from Hohenschwangau. By the way, this photo was taken from a teeny rickety bridge spanning a crevasse between two craggy mountains. Was I certain the bridge would collapse at any moment? YES. Did it? No, I suppose not. 

  • Well, it was a great trip. Our plane didn’t crash (although the turbulence we experienced on the way to Europe was so severe I didn’t sleep AT ALL) and neither of us suffered any illness or injury. Okay, so I did fall down the stairs of our hotel in Munich, but it was the day before we left, so it didn’t put too much of a damper on things. And I didn’t break any bones, just got an enormous bruise, which, to be honest, is a fairly frequent occurrence anyway. I have skin like a peach.
  • And now we are home, and reintegrated into our lives, and trying to inject little snippets of our European fun into our everyday: we took Carla downtown last weekend and walked around the city (not the same as walking around Vienna or Munich or Salzburg) and meandered through the market hall (SO not the same as the charming markets in Bavaria) and bought some Bavarian beer. I am bemoaning the lack of easily accessible public transportation and charming (if renovated post-war) streets.
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    Streetcar in Vienna – my favorite mode of transportation

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    Adorable street in Nuremberg, which we knew to photograph thanks to the inimitable Rick Steves

  • Now that I am FINALLY sleeping again, I feel like I am getting back in the swing of things: coming up with meals to serve my family, thinking through Carla’s birthday party plans, tidying the house for my in-laws who will be visiting soon… Glad to have traveled, glad to be home.

 

What have you been up to, Internet?

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A couple of you (hi Lee! hi Kate!) have requested  that I share how to cook an artichoke and I am happy to comply because it means eating another artichoke! Woo!

When I was a kid, artichokes were a Treat Food. You have these, right? Something that your parents would make or buy very occasionally, usually for some special circumstance. And because of the rare, special nature of these foods, they became, perhaps forever, a Treat.

It’s funny to think back on the Treat Foods of my childhood:

  • “Real” Coca Cola: This was something that we only got when we were home sick. It was usually served warm and flat, to settle the stomach. (Is any of this even based in any sort of physiological reality? Who knows!) For a long time after I was living on my own, I’d order Coke at a restaurant because of that special thrill it gave me, of having something normally forbidden.
  • “Real” Sprite/7Up: With exception of the aforementioned Sick Days Coke, my parents didn’t keep full-sugar soda on hand. So on the very rare occasions I got to go out to dinner, I’d order a Shirley Temple. Oh man, was that a special treat! Sugar swirled with sugar topped with sugar disguised as a fruit! YUM.
  • Lobster Tail: I mean, even NOW that I am a grown-up who can buy Coke and artichokes any damn time she wants to, lobster tails remain very oooh-la-la. Once in a blue moon, my parents would order lobster tails from Omaha Steaks or one of those other mail order companies and we’d have them for dinner. My mom prepared lobster tails for my junior prom — and we even got to eat them in the Fancy Dining Room! — which made the evening even more special.
  • Cracklin’ Oat Bran: As a kid, the only cereals my parents would buy on the regular were Rice Krispies or Shredded Wheat – and we’re talking the big hay bale type of Shredded Wheat, not Frosted Mini Wheats. Once in a while, they’d bend the rules and buy a treasured box of Frosted Flakes or Kix. Mayyyybe some Corn Pops. Oh, how I longed for all the sugary, kid-friendly cereals advertised on Saturday morning in between episodes of DuckTales  and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles  (heroes in a half shell, turtle power) (why is it that I can completely forget to take Carla to her weekly ballet lesson, but I have the entire lyrics of this cartoon theme song firmly locked into my brain?). Cocoa Puffs, Trix, Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms, From Loops, Cookie Crisp, Golden Grahams — they all sounded so decadent and magical! But no. Those cereals were not permitted in our home. Instead, to prevent us from growing bored of Rice Krispies and Shredded Wheat — though I can assure you the boredom was instantaneous — sometimes my parents would buy a box of Grape-Nuts or Raisin Bran. (I’d rather choke down a pillow of dry Shredded Wheat than eat a raisin.) However, possibly because the name makes it sound much more respectable than it is, they would occasionally be persuaded to buy a box of Cracklin’ Oat Bran. Which is DELICIOUS. I bought a box for Carla the other day and told her it tasted like cookies. Which is 100% true.
  • Crab Rangoon: I totally get why these were a Treat Food: they are SUPER hard to make. My mother would make her own – make the filling, fill the wonton wrappers, fry them in oil on the back porch — and we’d have them on very special occasions. She would even make a plum sauce to dip them in. Oh man were they tasty. Whenever I see them on the menu somewhere, I order them because they are still so reminiscent of Special Times.

Anyway. Artichokes were on the list of Treat Foods, too. My mom would steam them and then serve them with tiny cups of butter for dipping. They seemed daunting, when I was a kid. Finding them was tricky. In our rural northern town, they weren’t available very often. And when they were, I imagine they cost a pretty penny. Plus, after you ate all the delicious leaves, you had to deal with the choke. YUCK. I was so disturbed by the choke that I never ate the heart – which, it turns out, is the BEST PART. Well. I know better now.

Living in a Major City now, in a day and setting where you can get anything at anytime, it is much easier to get my hand on artichokes. And I’ve discovered a very easy way to make them. And they are DELICIOUS.

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I will tell you that they aren’t quick. Prepping them takes maybe… five minutes. But you have to cook them for 30 minutes, so they require planning ahead.

Here’s how you do it.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Prepare a large cookie sheet with foil or a Silpat or whatever.

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Trim your artichoke stem. You can absolutely eat the stem of the artichoke, although it can get pretty tough after cooking so long. So I like to cut it to about an inch or so in length. (Stem not pictured above.)

Wash your artichoke. I use a veggie spray that may or may not do anything, but it makes me FEEL like I’m cleaning my veggies more thoroughly than with plain old water.

Veggie spray

(I used to use a different kind of veggie spray, which is cheaper on Amazon and gets better reviews, but I can’t find it anymore at my local grocery store. And I like how the Rebel Green seems like actual soap. Which I acknowledge may be a turnoff for others.)

Trim your artichoke leaves. Some websites say to cut the top quarter or so of your artichoke off, and you can definitely do that. Or you can use kitchen shears and snip off the sharp end of every leaf. Or you can come to my grocery store where someone does it for you.

Cut your artichoke in half vertically.  You’ll need a nice big knife for this.

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Remove the choke. The choke is the fuzzy part in the middle. I use a big spoon to scoop it out, and then I rinse the artichoke to get any bits of fuzz out. It’s okay if you throw away some of the inner leaves, too – they are hard to eat because they are so small. The heart of your artichoke will discolor almost immediately once you remove the choke. I’ve tried rubbing it briskly with a cut lemon, but that doesn’t really help. And you’re going to roast it so it will turn nice and brown anyway.

 

Use a pastry brush to apply olive oil to your artichoke. I use about a tablespoon, and add it to all sides. Then sprinkle both sides liberally with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. You can squeeze a lemon into the inside of your artichoke too, if you please. Or even nestle a slice of lemon inside the empty space where the choke was, but it’s totally up to you; it doesn’t make a huge difference, taste-wise.

Put your artichoke halves on your prepared cookie sheet, cut side down. Roast for 30 minutes. You’ll know that your artichoke is done when you can pull one of the outer leaves and it comes off easily. (Choose a leaf from the bottom third of your artichoke, but not one closest to the stem. They don’t pull off easily, and the artichoke will be hot, and you’ll burn your fingers and also incorrectly assume the artichoke isn’t done cooking.)

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While your artichoke is cooking, make a dipping sauce. I like lemon juice plus melted butter (1 Tbsp melted butter, zest and juice of half a lemon), or lemon juice plus Greek yogurt (2 Tbsp plain Greek yogurt, zest and juice of half lemon or more to taste). I usually add salt and minced garlic to both sauces, and sometimes paprika to the yogurt. A chipotle yogurt mixture would also be delicious.

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You eat an artichoke in a Leaves First fashion, scraping your teeth against the bottom part of the leaf to remove the meat. As you get deeper into the artichoke, the leaves have more meat until sometimes you’re eating half to three-quarters of the leaf itself.

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The heart is the best part. In the picture, I am eating it with a knife and fork like a proper human. In reality, I often leave the heart in one piece and dunk it in the sauce with my bare hands. Decadent!

Enjoy!

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You may be wondering why you haven’t seen my annual Mooning Over the Passage of  Time or CakeRelated Therapy posts.

You know. The ones where I get all misty-eyed and sentimental about my child’s birthday and try to self-medicate with complicated baking projects.

Maybe you think I’ve gotten it over it! Outgrown it! Filled my life with better and more interesting things to think about!

Or, if you are a longtime reader of this blog, and/or A Realist, you may assume you just missed it.

Well, you haven’t missed it, per se. I’ve written it. Oh, I’ve written it. (I have, in fact, written – let me check here… —  2,349 words on the topic.) I just haven’t posted anything because… well, I am making my own eyes roll is really the best reason I can give you.

But I did have the annual mooning. And I did make some cakes.

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Unicorns in their carrying case at the party, waiting for eager five- and six-year-olds to gobble them down!

Carla wanted to have a unicorn birthday party, so I made unicorn cupcakes for the party. We invited fifteen of her friends. They played on an indoor playground. They ate pizza. They ate unicorn cupcakes. I turned one of her getting-sort-of-grubby dresses into a Unicorn Dress via the magic of iron-on unicorn and stars appliques.

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Baking Secret: I made so many cupcakes that I had… many left over. And I didn’t take this picture until many… weeks had passed. One can only think that the cupcakes would have photographed better had they been FRESHER. These have survived a birthday party, being in a hot car while the birthday girl ate a post-party lunch (she did not eat pizza AT her party), then being in my fridge for weeks. Of course, one might also choose to blame poor photography skills. One has many choices, is what one should know.

For her family birthday party, we went to Carla’s favorite restaurant for tacos. After dinner, we had cake. Carla had requested a purple cake with chocolate frosting. Last year, she wanted a purple cake with black  frosting, a concept I was more amenable to this year. But I went with chocolate.

(Disclaimer: I went with chocolate. But then I tried, briefly, to dye it black. But I only had regular black dye, which turned the chocolate frosting a disturbing shade of grey. [Apparently you need to use some sort of extra-dark cocoa powder AND extra-black black dye to get a truly black frosting.] [Do you think I didn’t check at our local Joann fabric and local baking stores to see if they had these items in stock? If you think I did not, you don’t know me at all.] So then I had to use ALL of the brown dye I own, which was a lot, to get the chocolate to be a nice, dark chocolatey color.)

My husband was very skeptical that that cake would be aesthetically pleasing. I was more optimistic, and plus I had A Plan. A Plan that involved gold and sparkles, which Carla loves.

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Baking secret: The only way I could get these sprinkles to stick to the frosting was by throwing handfuls of them at the cake. There are STILL tiny white sprinkles on my floor.

I think it turned out rather cute, right?

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Why yes, the cake IS a little crooked, thank you for noticing! I tried to compensate for the lean by taking an off-center photo which is, of course, my specialty.

I wish I had photos of it with the shiny gold candles in it, too. They were adorable. Oh well.

See? Chocolate on the outside, purple on the inside! (My mother-in-law noted that it seems more blue than purple. It is NOT BLUE. I applied the dye myself and it is most definitely PURPLE. Thank you for your comment.)

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Baking Secret: While I never thought I would do it, I DID end up using cake mix to make the cupcakes AND the cake alike. I doctored the mix before baking — butter and milk instead of oil and water, plus I added real vanilla bean and pure vanilla extract — but it was SO MUCH easier than making the batter from scratch. To make sure I wasn’t being TOO easy on myself, the filling between the layers is homemade chocolate ganache.

The cupcakes are gone. The cake is gone. The leftover ganache, which I just ate right now by the spoonful, is gone.

And now I have a five-year-old. An independent, brilliant, confident, creative, twirly, curious, still-sucks-her-thumb, sometimes-cuddly-sometimes-not, animal loving, imaginative, LEGO building, super fast running, fearless, charismatic, hilarious, beautiful five-year-old. She gets better and more fascinating and more complicated and more herevery day. I am so very lucky to have her in my life, so fortunate to be able to watch her and help her and enjoy her as she grows. (But I still have all the attendant Feelings™ that accompany my baby’s inexorable transition from infant to adult.)

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Why yes I DID color coordinate her wrapping paper with her cake, thankyouverymuch.

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When I gave up sugar last month, I struggled a lot with the liquid portion of the restriction. I’d been drinking black tea with sweetened creamer for the past billion years, and it turns out that black tea with milk or half-and-half is NOT the same.

My friend had mentioned that she’d started drinking matcha… and it seems to be really trendy right now… and I have liked it in the past, so I decided to start drinking it too.

Matcha latte

My mug has seen better days.

Matcha is a Japanese green tea powder that you mix with hot water and – for a latte – frothed milk. I think it has a very mild, pleasant grassy flavor. It doesn’t remind me much of the green tea you make with tea bags, but I suppose they must have related flavor profiles because matcha is just powdered green tea leaves.

Starbucks sells a matcha latte. And it is delicious. But I will let you know that the matcha is sweetened. (That’s why a grande at Starbucks is 240 calories, and my homemade version is 75 calories and that’s because I use whole milk.) You can buy sweetened matcha, but you can also buy regular matcha. My computer does not recognize matcha as a word, so there is a LOT of red underlining happening right now.

My husband is a big coffee drinker – an afficianado, shall we say. He has all sorts of fancy coffee makers, and he does pour over coffee and drip coffee and cold brew and some other kind of coffee with a totally different kind of coffee thingamabob. He grinds his own beans. You know. It’s a big process. And on weekends he enjoys getting out one of his fancy coffee makers and making The Perfect Cup. It’s almost ceremonial, I say as an onlooker to these strange-to-me coffee rituals. It seems to center him and give him immense satisfaction by making coffee exactly the way he likes it.

Well, I do not enjoy the ritual part of making tea. I enjoy the drinking part. I drink tea because I like drinking it. I like having a warm cup of milky tea next to me while I write. It’s a good way to start the day. But I want the making part to be QUICK. And EASY.

Years ago, my husband got me an electric tea kettle that makes the boiling water part of tea making very easy. It has all these options for water temperature, including for different types of tea. One of the temperature options is “Green” (175 degrees F) so you just press a button and you’re on your way. Holy cappuccino that is one expensive tea kettle! Well, I use it every single day. But there are a lot of less expensive options. And I suppose you could always resort to an ACTUAL tea kettle on the stove, or the microwave. There’s no one right answer here, folks!

Matcha tea kettle

I love you, electric tea kettle.

So the water is the easy part. Matcha, as I have learned, is a little fussy. First of all, it’s pretty expensive. I got a little jar of it (1.5 oz, or 30 cups of tea) from my supermarket for a whopping $19.95. That’s a little crazy to me, considering I can buy a box of 20 tea bags for $2.50. You can get it more cheaply at Trader Joe’s or from Amazon. This is the kind I’m going to try once my first batch is gone (4 oz of matcha powder), but you can get a 30 g “starter package” of a different brand of matcha for $9.95.

Matcha powder

I have not seen any of the benefits listed on this package, but I do like the taste! 

Even making the matcha is a little fussy. If you get the powder, it’s not like making regular tea, where you steep your tea bag in some hot water and then poof! you have a cup of tea. No. With matcha, you’re supposed to buy a little special wooden whisk and whisk the powder in until it’s frothy. I firmly resist the idea that I need Extra Accessories.

Well. There’s no way around it. You have to whisk the matcha in anyway, so I got a little whisk like this:

Matcha whisk

The instructions for mine say you have to let it sit in cold water for a few minutes before using it. And after you do that, you have to inspect it for splinters! I was already predisposed not to like this thing. It’s not doing much to recommend itself.

(It comes with the little scoop, which I have never used. I use a teaspoon.)

But I refused to get a matcha bowl, even though some of them are quite pretty, because that is too fussy for my particular needs. I just want to whisk my matcha powder in my mug, okay? TOO MANY STEPS.

Matcha bowl

Very pretty. And maybe I am supposed to use this as a drinking vessel and not just a mixing vessel? In which case, maybe it has some utility? But I have a mug that I am very partial to! 

And perhaps I am being too stubborn. Because I cannot use the little whisk to save my life. Every time I try, I slosh green water all over my counters. Instead, I use a plain old kitchen whisk and whisk the water and the powder vigorously for awhile until I think all the powder has dissolved. (Sometimes I miscalculate.)

My favorite part of the matcha is the latte part. I did some research (read: I googled and read one article) about the different ways to get your milk to froth, and tried what I had on hand, which is my hand mixer. It did a wonderful job of getting whole milk to froth into a nice thick foam. But it’s a little cumbersome, and I have to lug it out from under a counter, and then find the beaters, and then wash them. So I got a milk frother instead:

Matcha milk frother

It does a great job, but it’s a little hard to hold; I find that my hand cramps a little trying to press the button while holding it. (And you have to hold it at a 45 degree angle and lift and lower, lift and lower until your milk is properly frothed.)

If you haven’t ever frothed milk before, it’s very fun. A half a cup of whole milk (which I heat in the microwave for 30 seconds, first) fluffs up nicely to two cups of froth.

Even though frothing the milk takes a little extra time – maybe three minutes, total – and it takes an extra dish (I froth it in a two-cup Pyrex measuring cup), I enjoy it so much I am willing to deal with a little extra fuss. And now I can make Chai lattes, too!

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Well. Two months just sped by bloglessly, didn’t they? I suppose that is a good indication of my current writing habits, which have been fruitful. Just not… blog-fruitful.

Anyway, let me ease back into blogging by posting about a few things that I am LOVING lately. If you have read this blog for any amount of time, I don’t think you’ll be surprised that most of them are food-related. What can I say? I love to eat.

Silicone Clip Strainer

Fave Things Clip Strainer Amazon

Photo from Amazon.com

You know how I love my kitchen gadgets! Well, one of my deep dark secrets is that I hate colanders. They are big and bulky. And, worse, I think they are kind of gross. I don’t like the idea of putting my just-cooked food into a sink that may have not been scrubbed since the previous evening. My colander – one of those big silver jobbers – even has a foot, so the food can’t touch the sink. But the drained water can rise up to above-foot level, or, even if it doesn’t, there’s always the risk that some sink-y water will drip into the pot when you pour your strained food back in. YES I KNOW I HAVE ISSUES. Anyway. My husband got this little guy for me for Christmas and I adore it. It clips on to any pot and allows you to pour out all the water without dumping your pasta/potatoes/broccoli/whatever in the sink. It’s very easy to use and I just throw it right in the dishwasher after I’m done with it. The one caveat I have is that the strainer is markedly smaller – covers less of the pot opening – than some of the Amazon photo options imply. It still works, though. Totally worth $7.99.

 

El Yucateco Chile Habanero Hot Sauce

Fave Things El Yucateco Walmart

Photo from Walmart.com

This is my (current) favorite hot sauce. I love hot sauce. It is my condiment of choice and when I use it, I use a LOT of it. My pantry has Sriracha, Cholula, La Victoria, and usually some fancy-dancy specialty hot sauces that my super romantic husband bought me as a surprise. (If you don’t consider getting surprise hot sauce super romantic, well, then, it’s good you didn’t marry me.) I fell in love with El Yucateco at our local Mexican restaurant – which is much too delicious, inexpensive, and close for my desired pants size. “Fell in love” is probably too mild a term. I became obsessed. In some ways, it feels like I am addicted to it: I think about it when I’m not eating it. I crave it. When I use it, I use wayyyyy more than is necessary. It makes my stomach hurt the next day, I consume so much. But it is wonderful. It’s got plenty of heat but it also has a nice, semi-fruity flavor. It goes really well with cheese enchiladas and burritos. I get it at my local grocery store for $4.99 an 8-ounce bottle, so it’s not an inexpensive habit. Apparently, you can get it at Wal-Not-Target for $1.84, but that’s for 4 ounces. Otherwise known as one meal. Or you can buy it by the case on the El Yucateco website. Which I am seriously considering.

 

Recipe Tin Eats

My husband and I eat a lot of chicken and pork, and it is exhausting trying to find new, delicious ways to mask the blandness that is a boneless skinless chicken breast, I tell you. Enter Recipe Tin Eats. Cue angels singing, champagne popping, balloons everywhere. I have tried maybe ten recipes that Nagi has posted, and man alive they are GOOD. She has such a great way with flavors! And the recipes are all very simple. And she includes very careful notes with each recipe, letting you know about substitutions and cooking variations and how to make it in advance.

Two that have become regulars in our rotation are her Oven Baked Pork Chops (I have been replacing the potatoes with green beans or broccoli lately), which has a marinade that I love so much I actively prevent myself from making it more than once a month so we won’t get sick of it, and her Asian Marinated Chicken, which has another super-easy, super-delicious marinade that I love. Other favorites that I see us making again and again include her One Pot Greek Chicken and Lemon Rice, her Chicken with Mushroom Gravy, her Lemon Garlic Marinated Pork Chops, and her Chicken Fajitas (the fajitas are on my meal plan for this week, in fact).

 

Trader Joe’s Green Goddess Dressing

This is a brand-new discovery (for me), and I am really excited about it. I enjoy a salad now and again, but I tend to avoid them because I really like dressing. A lot of dressing. And dressing isn’t usually worth it for me, in terms of calorie intake. But I spotted this Green Goddess dressing near the lettuce at our Trader Joe’s and snapped it up on a whim. Turns out it is delicious. Light and summery, not terribly avocado-y, and thicker than I expected it to be (almost the same texture/thickness of a restaurant-made salsa). I can’t remember how much it cost, but I think it was something like $4.99. Which is NOT inexpensive. But at 20 calories for a 2-tablespoon serving, it is totally worth it. Trader Joe’s makes a couple of other flavors, too – a carrot ginger miso dressing and an almond butter turmeric dressing – but I haven’t tried either of those.

 

New Adventures of Old Christine

Fave Things Christine Amazon

Photo from Amazon.com

My treadmill is somehow messing up the Internet in our house, which means that I can no longer watch Netflix or DVRed shows or even cable TV while I’m chipping away at my step goal for the day. So I have been making my way through old DVDs we bought in Ye Olden Times. I already churned through Arrested Development, which doesn’t stand up to the test of time in a lot of ways (some of the humor is centered around stuff that isn’t really funny these days). Okay, some of it is still REALLY funny. But it wasn’t as great as my memory of it. I also own the complete series of Ally McBeal, so I am forcing myself to watch that even though it’s driving me crazy. The music, the characters, the situations – I roll my eyes so hard I almost fall off the treadmill at least thirty times per episode. And I HATE BILLY. Well. That is a rant for another time.

But I have found a new, deep appreciation for the sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine. I had the first season already and have since ordered seasons two and three. Seasons three through five are much more expensive than I had hoped for years-old DVD sets, but I have some additional Amazon gift cards that make buying them more palatable. (I haven’t looked for this series at the library, but our library’s DVDs – especially ones that are a few years old – are notoriously scratched and beat up and I think I would cry if I had settled in for a long morning of treadmilling and my Christine DVD stopped working.) My realizations as I watch have been a) Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hamish Linklater, and Wanda Sykes are national treasures; and b) damn, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has incredible hair.

If you haven’t seen it, the show is a comedy about Christine Campbell and her life as a recently-divorced working mother. It centers around her relationships – with her ex-husband, his new girlfriend (also named Christine), her brother, her best friend slash business partner, the other parents at school, and a variety of men she dates. Her son is in there somewhere too, but he’s more of a plot device than a real character. I fear I am not describing this in an appealing way, but it’s really appealing! It’s funny and absurd and heartfelt at times but not in an over way. And it puts a hilarious twist on Mom-Type-Things (taking your kid to school, dealing with other moms, volunteering for school projects, balancing work and home life, etc.) and there’s also all the stuff about handling a divorce and dating and dealing with your ex’s new young girlfriend. It’s much more relatable to me, now that I’m a mom with a kid in school. I laugh – truly, heartily, out loud – a lot while I’m walking nowhere. And even though it’s a comedy – and much of it is really ridiculous – I find myself feeling deep empathy for Christine. It’s not perfect; again, humor has evolved over the past decade. But it’s making my treadmill time much more enjoyable and I would definitely recommend it.

 

Fairy Tales Rosemary Repel Conditioning Spray

 

 

Fave Things Fairy Tales

Photo from Amazon.com

Kidwise, this spray is making life MUCH easier lately. For both me and Carla, I would say. Carla has long curly hair which means that every morning our neighbors pick up their phones and prepare to call the police and report a murder in progress. We’d been using the Johnson & Johnson conditioning spray, and it worked okay. But then a friend recommended the Fairy Tales spray and OUR LIVES HAVE FOREVER CHANGED. I can’t speak to the fact that this conditioning spray repels lice or not (we haven’t had any, but I’m not falling for confirmation bias) (if confirmation bias is the term I am looking for; I am not convinced that it is). But I can tell you that it makes combing Carla’s hair SO EASY. And if I comb it with the spray at night, her hair is much easier to brush in the morning, too. (The link above goes to a two-pack, because the single bottle of spray isn’t available. But I have, in the past, bought the single bottle of spray, so I hope it comes back.)

 

(By the way, no one paid me to say any of those things above. These are just some things I really enjoy lately.)

What’s making your life brighter/better/more fun these days?

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I think the first half of the post title implies that I am eagerly awaiting the end of summer, but that’s a little… simplistic, I guess. Yes, I will be glad to have my regular schedule back. Yes, I will be dee-freaking-lighted that I won’t have any more camp laundry to do. But I am also trying to relish these last few weeks, primarily because I will miss all this extra time I’ve had with Carla, and secondarily because I am a little anxious about how the upcoming year will go.

In any event, I am reflecting on our First Summer of Camp and also looking ahead to Pre-K.

First, an update on camp. Turns out I had but the one Camp Fret (well, that I posted about, at least) and the rest of it all went pretty well.

We enrolled Carla in four separate camps, for a total of eight weeks. And I think it all turned out fairly well despite the fact that I had NO IDEA I needed to enroll her in camp in FEBRUARY and that I had to start researching/planning in January. That is RIDICULOUS. Nonetheless, I will know better for next year.

The first camp was the best camp. It took place entirely outdoors, in the woods.

Forest

Please ignore the wildfire in the background.

Carla ADORED it. She came home filthy and exhausted and absolutely joyful every single day. She was overflowing with details about what she saw and learned each day, and was bursting with news of whatever creature she had seen or held or been peed on by. There were many snakes. She learned about poison ivy and black capped chickadees and baby toads. She learned how to rappel down a ravine via a rope tied to a tree and how to make sculptures out of mud and how to cook a potato in a campfire. She had her face “painted” with mud. She played in the rain. She napped under a canopy of trees. I cannot overstate how wonderful it was. I hope it is offered again next year, and for a longer time. I will enroll her in a heartbeat.

I also cannot overstate how horrific the laundry situation was. The campers were outside literally all day, every day, rain or shine. When the sun was out, they played in a creek. So she was wet and muddy at all times. How can I convey just how muddy she was? Let’s see. I had to disrobe her in the garage before bringing her into the house. I had to carry her into her bathroom and immediately deposit her in the bathtub. I had to hose her down with the shower to de-mudify her before filling up the bath. She even had dirt and mud UNDERNEATH her underpants and dirt sprinkled into every inch of her hairline.

She wore Keens (with socks) and jeans and t-shirts, and I had to wash the Keens each night and set them out to dry because they were so concreted with mud as to be unwearable. I washed out each individual item of clothing under a running faucet and then plopped it into a washing machine full of Oxi and water. I let everything soak all week and then did a load on the weekend. And nothing ever got clean again.

Listen, I am no stranger to stain fighting! I am a wizard with Oxi-clean. But man alive, the camp laundry was a worthy foe and to this day her camp shirts and many MANY pairs of socks still bear the grim reminder that I did not always win.

The first camp turned out to be the most communicative, another reason I love it so very much. We got an email each morning from the head counselor, telling us what the plan was for the day and what the weather would be like and offering suggestions about clothing to bring. The head counselor also operated a camp website, and each day posted photos and a list of discoveries and activities undertaken throughout the day.

The second camp was fine. I’m not particularly clear on what the campers did all day, aside from coloring print-outs of Disney scenes. The main benefit was that Carla got to go swimming three days a week, which she loved. She seemed to enjoy it well enough, but she wasn’t vibrating with excitement at the end of each day, nor did she bubble over with talk about what she’d done and learned and seen. It struck me as a summer daycare, which is fine, I suppose; maybe that’s the POINT of camp.

The third camp started out disastrously. It was held at the same location as Camp 2, so I kind of assumed it would be similar. We got one email about it, the week before it began. The email gave specifics about the duration of the camp and what the drop-off/pick-up procedure would be. That was IT.

When I picked up Carla the first day, she told me I needed to bring her a snack every day. And I said, no, we’re going home to eat lunch. And then it became clear that she meant I needed to send a snack with her, to camp. And I asked, did the other kids have a snack this morning? And she burst into tears and said that yes, they all brought a snack from home and she was the only one who didn’t have one.

I mean, my heart is obviously broken. This is no doubt going to be one of those things she brings up with hurt eyes for The Rest of Our Lives. And I feel TERRIBLE. But I didn’t know! Camp 1 specifically told us to pack two snacks and a water bottle for the kids each day. Camp 2 said nothing about snacks, but sent out a weekly lunch menu, and also provided a water bottle that we would take home and refill and send with her each day. Camp 3 SAID NOTHING. So. Major Mom Fail. (And let’s spread the blame a bit: Major Camp Communication Fail.) Also, it seemed like Camp 3 involved a lot of watching Tumble Leaf and The Lion King. So I’m not planning on doing THAT ONE again next year. Whatever. Live and learn.

The jury is still out on Camp 4, but rest assured I WILL be packing snacks and I will fill you in on any disastrous outcomes.

As camp winds down, I am thinking ahead to Pre-K. I am fretting over whether I did enough with Carla academically this summer (unlikely) and wringing my hands over whether her teachers will be a good fit for her.

And, in the category of Frivolous Considerations, I have been scouring the internet for The Perfect First Day of School Dress.

Carla loves to wear dresses. I think she’d wear a dress every day if she could. But she has a very specific idea of what A Good Dress is, and so do I, and they tend not to overlap.

I will spare you another home-made Venn diagram.

Her requirements, insofar as I understand them, include:

  • Twirly
  • Very twirly
  • Like, so twirly
  • MUST TWIRL

My requirements include:

  • Not expensive, because she will outgrow it in a year, and also she is hard on clothing
  • Really. I’m thinking the $15 range would be ideal.
  • Not overly frou-frou, because it WILL get dirty (see above point re: hard on clothing) and frou-frou is hard to clean
  • Not ridiculous, which is, of course, a completely subjective thing
  • Not sleeveless, because I want her to be able to wear it all year long

Further complicating things is that her school doesn’t allow kids’ clothing to feature a) denim, b) characters, logos, or single images, or c) words.

So this Gap Kids dress, which looks appropriately twirly (although it features easily-rippable tulle), is out because it says GAP on it.

And this similar dress is out because it has a heart on it. (I know.) (A pattern of hearts would be okay, though.) (I don’t really get it, either.)

Anyway, I have perused many websites, searching for The Dress. Old Navy, Gap Kids, Target, Amazon, Zulily, Gymboree. Even Hanna Anderson, which I love but which I usually deem too expensive (usually, not always). I have found some possibilities, but nothing that exactly 100% fits the bill.

Shall we take a look together?

This dress from Gap Kids is pretty adorable. But I don’t know if it will be twirly enough for Carla’s taste.

Ooooh I LOVE this dress. Seems like it would have some good twirl, no? Although… $32 is WAY outside my $15 budget. And now that I am giving it a Good Hard Look, it seems like maybe it would be less twirly than… hangy. Maybe what I really want is this exact dress in MY size. For $32. Get right on that, Gap. Thanks.

Carters has… some cute options. But nothing that falls within that narrow slice of Perfectly Twirly and Meets Mom’s Requirements Too.

This is the Lands End dress Carla wore last year. I love it SO MUCH and would happily buy it for her again – maybe in the navy-with-birds pattern – but the original no longer meets the Twirl Standard. (Unfortunate, for a dress NAMED “The Twirl Dress.”) And it’s $39. AND we no longer have a Sears nearby, so I can’t take advantage of the free returns.

Gymboree is usually my go-to for cheap twirls, but I’m not finding many candidates this year. Perhaps this one? But let’s be honest, I don’t really like it. I’m not anti-pink, per se. But this is SO pink. And the unicorns are SO gold. Meh.

Oooh! Hanna Andersson is having a back-to-school sale this weekend! I could totally do $19 for a First Day of School dress!

Hmmm. Okay, they have a very limited number of on-sale dresses available in Carla’s size. And the ones that are available seem… potentially not as twirly as they need to be. This one is cute… but is it First Day of School cute? More important, is it First Day of School twirly?

This one looks more reliably twirly… but I’m not in love with it. As far as plain-top-with-fancy-tulle-skirt dresses go, I like the Gymboree option FAR better. Especially because this one is $39.

Now, I DO like this one! It looks pretty twirly. And it also comes in a lovely purple, which is Carla’s favorite color. Which is important only because it’s buy-one-get-one-half-off, so I’d obviously have to buy two. (OBVIOUSLY.) That’s still about $23 per dress, but that’s reasonable. Maybe. My only complaint, really, is that it’s so simple.

Janie and Jack is having a 20% off sale on dresses! But… nope. The one I like best is STILL $79, with the discount. I cannot justify spending $79 on a dress that will likely end up covered in paint.

Nordstrom has a lot of choices, but very few under $30 and none that seem like they’d have the proper Twirl Level.

This Old Navy dress has potential, although I just can’t tell how well it will fill the Twirl Criterion. Sixteen bucks, though. That’s not too shabby. Although… do the sleeves read more “I’ve outgrown this dress and my mom hasn’t noticed” than “three-quarter-length on purpose”?

This Laura Ashley dress from Dillard’s is so adorable it almost hurts. Plus, it’s only $20. But… it’s much too summery. I don’t see myself flipping through Carla’s closet and choosing this one to pair with leggings and boots this fall. And it looks like it would be ruined in about five seconds, and that I would mourn its ruin. Dillard’s has a TON of really cute dressy dresses. Almost makes me wish that we had some weddings to attend so I’d have an excuse to buy one.

Oooh this dress from Amazon is pretty cute. And it’s under $10! The only thing that might be problematic is the ribbon (which ties in the back). Carla is notorious for removing belts and ribbons immediately. Also, it’s hard to tell whether it would have the appropriate Twirl Factor.

This one seems like it would meet Carla’s twirl requirement… and it’s only $11… but I think the tulle would last a day or two at most. And it has a belt. And I’m not sure if it really says I Am A Serious Academic (you know, as all Pre-K students’ clothing should). Actually, in my very subjective opinion, it veers pretty near to “ridiculous” territory.

LOOK WHAT I FOUND. This may not be right for The First Day of School, but no matter! I am adding this to my Amazon cart right now! How can I not? CATS. On a DRESS. Carla is going to FREAK OUT.

Well. So I haven’t found The Perfect Dress. Good thing it is so enjoyable to SEARCH. If you see anything that fits the bill, let me know!

 

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Carla’s rainbow cake turned out FAR better than I had hoped.

Rainbow Cake Final 4

Firstly, I asked Carla which order the layers should go. I said, “Do you want it to go ‘purple, blue’ like the Bubble Guppies song?” And she thought about it and said, “No, that’s wrong. I want it to be like a real rainbow.” Although she then asked “Where’s the white layer” and I had to assure her that there would be white frosting. (She has also since begun singing the song “blue, purple” despite the Bubble Guppies’ maddening insistence on “purple, blue.”)

Let’s back up a bit now. Because while the title and the first sentence of this post indicate Unadulterated Success, I will admit that there were some small setbacks. Especially when it came to the cupcakes. But a bit when it came to the cake, too.

For some reason, I am determined to make Carla’s cakes from scratch. I don’t know why. My husband (indulgently) thinks I am a wacko. My mother, who intuited my birthday-related stress from thousands of miles away, understood completely. She – who worked a demanding, full-time job throughout my childhood and beyond – made all of my Halloween costumes from scratch because of the same genetic quirk.

So I used my tried-and-true Sally’s Baking Addiction recipe for Carla’s cake. It is a good recipe, and it makes a very nice vanilla-y cake. But I realized only very belatedly that it is an oil-free cake. And – possibly because of that, although I can’t say for sure since I am a baking amateur at best – I think that makes it kind of heavy. I comforted myself for the heaviness of the cake by choosing to believe it makes the cake very easy to cut and layer. But I think perhaps next year I will try a different recipe. OR I will try to force myself to use boxed cake mix, which is what I used for the cupcakes, and which turned out light and fluffy and yet perfectly moist.

Of course, I was converting Sally’s recipe – which was for cupcakes – into what I needed for a six-layer rainbow cake. So I instantly made a mistake. My model cake used 8-inch cake pans. But I didn’t have 8-inch cake pans. I had three 9-inch cake pans OR two 6-inch cake pans. I decided to go with the 9-inchers, which resulted in super thin, super flat layers.

Rainbow Cake Layers in Oven

Too thin! Abort! Abort!

But! I stopped while I was ahead! I only made those two layers, and when I realized they would result in a very thin cake, I recalibrated. I mixed up another batch of Sally’s cake batter. And I went with the 6-inchers.

IMMEDIATELY better. They turned out very even in size.

Rainbow Cake Layers Six

They are not in ROY G BIV order here and it is Driving Me Crazy.

To get the color to be so vibrant, I used Wilton gel food coloring. And I ended up using a LOT of each color. Maybe 1/4 to 1/3 a teaspoon of each, which is a LOT. (Note: Sally’s recipe uses only egg whites, which I think definitely helps with the brilliant colors. Using egg yolks makes the cake more yellow than white.)

Rainbow Cake Batter Colors

I used my new Wilton cake leveler to cut the tops off the layers.  Okay, correction: MY HUSBAND used the Wilton cake leveler to cut the tops off the layers.

rainbow-cake-leveler.jpg

I carefully studied the directions (“directions”) for how to use it. And then I watched a video about how to use it, but I still couldn’t get it to work. My husband on the other hand got it to work just fine, and he did all six for me, which made me feel like he was being involved which was a nice feeling, and plus, I ended up with nice, flat tops to all the layers. I saved the tops in a Ziploc bag; they are in my freezer. (It turns out there are a lot of things you can do with leftover cake. I tried one of them – making a cake-pop-within-a-cupcake – with limited success, but there are other things to do as well. Might make for a fun project to try with Carla.)

Then I made the frosting – the same recipe that Sally used for her cupcakes.

Oh! And this is where I tell you my Shocking Vanilla News. Sally’s cupcakes and frosting both call for vanilla beans. And vanilla beans have always been expensive. I think the grocery store brand usually was about $11.99 for one decrepit bean. But last year I discovered that Penzey’s sells vanilla beans, and I was able to get two nice, plump beans per jar for $8.99.

That’s what I assumed I would pay this year, too; I have no concept of the changing price of vanilla beans. But this year, two beans was $18.99. EIGHTEEN NINETY NINE. I expressed my shock to the Penzey’s salesperson, who said that there’s something going on in the region that produces Penzey’s vanilla, and it was pushing the price up. She said she thought it would be temporary. But SHEESH. (Listen, I am selfishly NOT looking up the details about why the price is so high; I am hopeful it is something like an unusual drought and not a horrible civil war or something, but there are only so many things I have the capacity to worry about, you know? I am trying to limit the number of things I cry over these days.) It turned out it was a good thing I spent the $18.99 for two beans, because, as I noted above, I ended up having to make a second batch of cake batter.

Having learned from previous mistakes, I did a crumb coat of frosting and then put the whole cake in the fridge overnight. This is what it looked like right before I did the crumb coat.

Rainbow Cake Pre Crumb Coat 2

And then the next day, I added another layer of frosting and decorated the whole thing with these little rainbow-hued non-pareils.

It was hands-down the best looking cake I’ve ever made.

I don’t think it was the best tasting, though. First of all, the cake was dense and heavy as I mentioned above. Secondly, the frosting was VERY sweet. I mean, it was just sugar and butter, so it wasn’t a surprise; I didn’t expect it to taste like pickles or something. But it was too much. Probably the thick top layer on top of the crumb layer didn’t help. If I were to do it again, I would find a less-sweet frosting to use. Maybe a cream-cheese style (which is my personal favorite) or something that was more like a traditional buttercream, with less sugar. A third option, I suppose, would be to layer the cake with something other than frosting. I would normally go for a curd of some sort, but that wouldn’t really work with the aesthetic of this particular cake. Maybe a whipped cream frosting would be okay.

The cupcakes were another matter.

If you will recall, I made the rainbow cake for Carla’s actual birthday. She and her grandparents and her father/my husband and I went out to her favorite restaurant for dinner, and then we came home to eat cake and open presents.

But her birthday party was several days later. It was a make-your-own-pizza-party at a popular chain and we invited twelve of her friends and it was DELIGHTFUL. But I wanted to make cupcakes for that party, see above RE: wacko, so I did.

Rainbow Cupcake Tray

I think I’d gotten a bit cake-saturated by the time I got to the cupcakes, so my head wasn’t in the game. Plus, I’d decided to use a store-bought cake mix, which made me a little cocky. So I kept making stupid mistakes. I forgot to add the water to the first batch. (I was able to salvage that one with math; I’d already separated the oddly too-thick batter into its separate colors. When I discovered my omission, I simply divided the required amount by six and stirred the appropriate amount into each color.) Then I forgot to add the eggs to the second batch. (That one I had to throw away.) Then, when I finally got to the frosting, I’d left the cream cheese out all day… and despite varying reports online about whether cream cheese is safe to eat after that long (answers ranged from “it’s only okay if you’ve left it out for no more than four hours” to “I’ve left it out all night and it’s fine!”), the resulting batch of frosting I made had a very weird texture and I couldn’t in good conscience feed it to twelve of Carla’s preschool friends. (I ate some of it and have lived to tell the tale. But I’m not going to use preschoolers as guinea pigs.) So I scrapped it and made some more too-sweet icing – although this time I used a Martha Stewart recipe because I was plum out of vanilla bean.

Making the cupcakes into nice even rainbow layers was HARD. I tried the “use a spoon” method. And then I tried the “put each color into a separate sandwich bag” method. And then I tried the “drop whatever you have in wherever it fits” method. I kept running out of one color or another, so that the layers were never perfect.

OH WELL. They were all pretty. And they were all super delicious as well.

And hopefully Carla is DONE with rainbows. Because I don’t know that I will have the kind of patience that comes with novelty if she asks me to do it again.

rainbow-cake-final.jpg

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