Category Archives: cool links

Chocolate Monday: Hershey’s Gold Peanuts & Pretzels

Hershey's gold barWhile dropping off my daughter’s prescription at our local Kroger, I noticed a new candy display. It looked like a Hershey wrapper, but was a strange cream color I am not used to associating with Hershey’s. Low and behold, it was a brand new type: Hershey’s Gold. It claims to be a caramelized creme, which I’ve never really heard of, so I had to try it. Plus, it has peanuts in it, which is a big plus. Peanuts have always been one of my absolute favorite snack foods.

This bar also boasts pretzels and while I am not usually a huge fan of chocolate covered pretzels, when I was in college I worked at a knock off Hallmark store and we sold these amazing white chocolate pretzel candies that were very pointy and “cluster” looking, but that tasted like creamy dreamy heaven. Even though this bar claimed to be caramel and not white chocolate, I thought it might be similar, so I gave in.

Hershey's Gold pieceIf you’re looking for a strong caramel flavor, this isn’t the bar for you. It has caramel hints at best. And really, it just sort of has a milky, creamy, buttery flavor. It’s not really distinctly anything–except salty.

The salty, which comes mostly from the pretzels is not so overwhelming as to make it inedible, but it is strongly there. It kept catching me in the back of my mouth as I finished up each bite. The peanut bits combined with the pretzels add a nice crunch the bar, but not tons of peanuty flavor.

Aside from the pretzel (and again, the salt), none of the flavors really stand out. It’s just sort of a sweet and salty hodge podge. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised at the back touts that “sweet meets salty, creamy meets crunchy.” And really, that is the best way to describe the bar. A sort of nondescript sweet and salty flavor. It’s not bad, but I find it a bit unsettling that I can’t describe it any better.

Overall:

Taste: 4/10
Appearance: 5/10 (I find the color a bit unsettling too)
Value: 4/10 (it was more expensive than its regular Hershey brethren, which I also find unsettling).

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Free Reading Friday: Caraval

CaravalIf I could pick one book I want made into a movie this very second, it would be this book. I simply LOVED it!

Stephanie Garber does a spectacular job of bringing the darkly magical world of Caraval to life. Part mystery, part magic, part love story, this book has something for everyone. Despite the fact that the book is set in a different world during what appears to be the equivalent of our 1800’s, Scarlet is a heroine any modern girl can relate to. The otherwordly setting is just real enough to be believable to anyone who like historical fiction, but just magical enough to appeal to those who love fantasy. I think this is the perfect book to introduce reluctant readers to the fantasy genre because of all the other elements from the genres of mystery, romance and historical fiction that it also incorporates.

Scarlet and her sister Donatella need to escape their abusive father who has spent the last 10 years making their lives hellish. They are both obsessed with Caraval, the magical game that takes place once a year, by magical invite only. Although Scarlet writes to the mysterious Legend, the master of Caraval for years, it is not until the eve of her engagement to a man she’s never met that she finally gets a response. And not just any response…three tickets to Caraval.

As much as Scarlet wants to go, she cannot let childish curiosity for the game outweigh her desire to save herself, and more importantly her daring, but younger sister from their father’s grasp. She believes her impending nuptials are the only escape. However, when Scarlet is kidnapped and taken to Legend’s private island where Caraval is being held, she toys with the idea of staying. It is not until her beloved sister is also kidnapped and held as the game’s prize that she consents to truly play.

From there the book is a glorious mix of mystery, magic and romance that readers are sure to fall in love with. Garber does a wonderful job of setting up the sequel in a way that has left me clamoring for more. This is my pick for Goodreads YA fantasy book of 2017.

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Throwback Thursday: Black Friday shopping

When I was 14, my aunt took me Black Friday shopping for the first time. I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited. Back then, the deals were impressive and most of the stores opened early, but early was 7 am.

I stayed the night at my aunt’s house and we got up at 6 am so that we could be in front of our first store, which was Zayres. My cousin, who was 7 really wanted a Teddy Ruxpin doll for Christmas and Zayres had the best deal on it. Our aunt was bound and determined to get one. We stood outside the store, in the pitch black with about a hundred other people just waiting for the doors to open. Since I was smaller and quicker than a lot of the adults, my aunt told me where the toy aisles were and told me to sprint for one and that she’d catch up.

As we waited for the store to officially, open, I slowly started making my way closer to the front doors.

By the time they opened, I was one of the first people in the store and as soon as I was actually in the doors, I made a mad dash to the right and headed straight for the toys. I was one of the first people to lay my hands on a Teddy Ruxpin, and after I had it, I quickly moved out of the way, using a side aisle to avoid the chaos. My aunt, who took several minutes to find me, had a cart with her, so I deposited good ol’ Teddy and we went on our merry way, her pointing out items she wanted and me swooping in to get them.

When we finished at Zayres, we headed over to the mall. Our first stop there was L.S. Ayres, where they were giving out boxes of Cracker Jack with special shopping surprises. My aunt got a 25% discount on her entire order in her box. I got a $25 gift card in mine. Seeing as how I had limited funds, that gift card allowed me to buy two different Christmas presents: a stuffed sheep dog for one of my aunt’s (it looked just like the gianormous sheepdog named Muffin she’d had when I was a child) and toy for my cousin.

We spent a few hours at the mall scooping up deals at the big department stores, then we headed over to Burger King to have breakfast. It was about 10:30 am and we were done for the day.

Over the next decade and a half, my aunt and I made Black Friday shopping a tradition. We braved earlier start times, larger crowds, crazier deals and bitter, bitter cold, all for a few hours of togetherness and some pretty sweet deals. I never really bought that much as for the majority of our shopping trips I was either in high school, college, or just starting out as a teacher with a very, very small salary. But it wasn’t really about the shopping. It was about spending time with my aunt and sometimes my cousin or my step-mom. But mostly just me and my aunt.

The year I moved to Florida was the first time in 15 years I did not go Black Friday shopping with my aunt. Since the move only lasted for 6 months, I was right back at it the next year, but it felt like something had changed. The stores were opening on Thanksgiving day. The crowds were more hostile and the stuff on sale was either way too grandiose for me, or absolutely nothing I needed.

The following year I was pregnant with my son and there was no way I was getting up that early, getting jostled by crowds or standing in the cold while 6 months pregnant. I haven’t set foot in a store on Black Friday in 11 years.

I haven’t stopped Black Friday shopping though. I’ve just joined the thousands of people all across this country who have decided that o’dark thirty in 30 degree weather amidst angry hordes is not worth it. Instead, I jumped on my computer at 7 am and started ordering away. I still had a good portion of my shopping done by 10 am, but I got to do it in the comfort of my den while sipping my tea in my jammies.

Since it was never really about the shopping for me, I don’t really miss it. But I do get nostalgic for the talks my aunt and I used to have while standing in check out lines that stretched to the back of the store, during quick car rides between stores and over sausage croissants at Burger King.

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Chocolate Monday: Dream Dinners Scones

Dream dinners sconesDream Dinners has become an obsession of mine. For those who have not heard of this amazing place, it’s one of those meal prep places. You place an order for at least 12 meals and then schedule a time to come in and prepare all of the meals at once. They have everything chopped and all the measuring tools conveniently placed at each recipe station. Over the course of an hour or two, you follow the very simple step by step instructions, measuring everything into baggies, placing all those baggies into a bigger baggie, pop some cooking directions in and voila…easy to cook weekday meals that taste like you spent hours on them.

Although I was a bit skeptical about how much time going to Dream Dinners would actually save me and about the quality of the recipes, I am a complete convert. My least favorite part of cooking is all the slicing and dicing needed for meal prep, so the fact that this is all done for me is brilliant. I have no food waste and can spend extra time with my family each evening. It’s a complete win and worth the $5 or so a portion.

In addition to being a great time saver, a food waste reducer and a social outlet for me (I go each month with one of my best friends), Dream Dinners also has levels I can unlock, which makes it into a bit of a game for me. The more meals I prepare and review, the more points I earn. The more points I earn, the more freebies and fun stuff I get. As part of their November promo, not only did the meals I ordered earn me double prep points, but I also got a free package of their scones. Of course, in order to get the scones I had to purchase one extra meal,  but I as soon as I saw there were white chocolate raspberry scones, I was sold.

When I went to do my November meal prep, the scones were already in the package waiting for me. There were a dozen triangular pastries just waiting to be baked. I didn’t even have to thaw these bad boys, just preheat the oven, break them apart, put them on a cookie sheet and bake for 25 minutes.

The smelled heavenly.

I am a HUGE fan of scones. I have not only made my own super tasty strawberry scones from scratch, but also tried several different mixes for drop scones that I have really liked. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the Dream Dinner scones were better than the mix scones and almost as good as my homemade ones. According to my husband, they were even better.

GRRRRR.

Seriously though, these little pastries are fantastic. The raspberry is the perfect blend of sweet and tart and quite clearly a mix of both raspberry jam and real raspberries. There are white chocolate chips throughout to help balance out the tart and add the perfect amount of creaminess. I love how mixing white chocolate with raspberries gives the perfect berries and cream taste. The scones are light and perfectly blended so they do not taste too doughy or too floury, which can be a real problem with scones. Texture wise they remind me of scones I’ve had at tea time in several small English tea shops on visits to London.

Everyone in my family adored them. I know that I will have to buy more of these and I may even branch out and try some of the other flavors. Although this one is so tasty it’ll be hard to convince myself to get a different one.

Overall:

Taste: 10/10
Appearance: 8/10
Value: 10/10–but only b/c they were free. I actually don’t know how much they are (and can’t find a price on the website), so the jury is still out on this one.

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Free Reading Friday: Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon and the Homo Sapiens AgendaSimon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by  Becky Albertalli is yet another book on the this year’s Rosie list, so I had to read it. Before I picked it up, I had no idea what the book was about. The title was intriguing though and even though I’ve read comments that the cover is keep no of boring, I like the faceless body and the title as a quote bubble.

It only took me about 20 pages to get into Simon’s story. My favorite chapters were definitely the emails between Simon and Blue. I love how cute and genuine their emails feel. I love how vulnerable they are with each other. And even though there was a part of me who wanted Blue to cave and reveal who he was to Simon much sooner, I understand why Albertalli had him wait. Blue’s reluctance to truly reveal himself to Simon (and the world) reflects just how scary first relationships can be. They are terrifying when you are straight and conform to all the expectations of society, so I can only imagine how immensely more terrifying they are for LGBT+ teens. Especially in Georgia…or any area that is intensely conservative.

Since my best friend lives in Athens, Georgia, it was doubly fun for me to read this book which is set outside of Atlanta. It was especially great to see Albertalli mention the Junkman’s Daughter since I’ve been to the original store in Athens. I love when I find places I’ve visited in real life in books as well.

Even though I was not thrilled with the idea of going back to school after the break, I was excited about sharing this book with my students. My school has a growing LGBT+ population and I knew I would have a bunch of students who really wanted to read it. I think it is super important for them to find books which portray romantic relationships they can relate to and see themselves reflected in. Sure enough, the second I book talked it, multiple hands reached out for it.

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Throwback Thursday: Thanksgiving

Seasons 52 dessertLast week my family celebrated Thanksgiving in a way that was a bit of a shock for everyone. Well, everyone except me: we went out to a restaurant to have Thanksgiving dinner.

This was not my idea. I have been dutifully cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my family as well as 8 of my in-laws for the past decade–ever since my son was born. Every year we have pulled out my grandmother’s ancient, but still very useful, portable electric roaster to cook our turkey in. Every year I have pulled out my recipe book, filled with my husband’s family Thanksgiving recipes for stuffing, sweet potato casserole, orange cranberry sauce and hollandaise sauce. Every year I have stood with my mother-in-law as she gives me tips and suggests about how to cook her Thanksgiving feast (while she helps, of course).

And every year when I talk about making the stuffing, my mother-in-law and I have the exact same conversation about it.

Me: I’m going to start on the stuffing
MiL: Oh honey, you’re not going to stuff it in the bird are you?
Me: No MiL, I’m not. It’s your recipe and I’m going to cook it exactly like you do. I just call it stuffing because my family has always called it stuffing.
MiL: Oh good! Here’s the cornbread you’ll need to make that dressing (heavy emphasis on the word dressing). 

And every year, after having this conversation, I bite back my tongue and keep myself from screaming: Good GOD woman! You know what I mean! I will never call it dressing so let’s just move on with life!

But as usual, I digress.

Back in August, my father-in-law suggested that instead of having me spend hours in the kitchen and have everyone try to squeeze into our not very big living room and dining room, that we go out to eat, their treat. Since it was going to be the same group of about 11 of us, I immediately said YES! My husband was far more reluctant. He emailed his dad back about his disappointment over breaking tradition and how important it was to me and the kids. He CC’d me on the email of course, so I could immediately write him back and say, “As the person who is going to spend hours and hours in the kitchen cooking with your mother, I fully endorse this restaurant idea…now you email your dad back and fix this mess you’ve made!”

After an actual discussion between us, my husband completely saw it from my POV and agreed that a meal out might be fun. For him it was a big step out of his comfort zone, which is not something he’s used to. For me, not only did it mean NOT having to cook for a cast of way too many and still having leftovers for days and days, but it was actually a throw back to my childhood.

Even though my mom is a perfectly good cook, she has never actually enjoyed cooking. Whenever we could eat out, we did. And since I grew up in California, thousands of miles away from any family members who did not live in my actual house, my mom thought it was a waste of her time to make a huge Thanksgiving meal for four people. Especially when two of those people were kids who didn’t eat much. Plus, we lived in apartments with fairly small kitchens most of my life, so it’s not like it was easy to have tons of dishes going at the same time.

So every year my mom and step-dad found someplace that was not our own dining room for us to eat. I have very vivid memories of Thanksgiving dinners eaten at Sizzler, which up until I wrote this post, I thought was defunct since all the ones in Indiana had shut down. Turns out they still exist! Just on the West coast. This made me blissfully happy as my dream to once again eat their Malibu chicken, which was the stuff my childhood dreams were made of, is still a reality! Thank the Lord for mediocre steak houses and our love of them!

I also remember having Thanksgiving at church sponsored events where each family would contribute something to the meal. My mom would pick stuffing, but several boxes of Stove Top stuffing, make it quickly before we left the house and then we’d get to sit down to a full Thanksgiving meal at a huge table in some sort of cafetorium and eat with people we sort of knew from church. Those meals were a bit dicier as aside from my favorite, the stuffing, you never knew what strange ingredients people would add to their version of mashed potatoes or cranberry sauce.

One year we went to some super fancy place near Disneyland that was rather darkly lit and had some sort of ocean theme to it. I swear it was called something like Pirate’s Cove or something oddly similar…probably without the word pirate since I do remember it being nice. I was like 8 though, so really anything that wasn’t Bob’s Big Boy or Del Taco was pretty nice to me.

I do have to say that despite years of eating Thanksgiving dinner in restaurants, today’s trip to Season’s 52 for our family celebration was probably the nicest, tastiest one I’ve had at a restaurant. I do have to admit that the one we had aboard the family cruise we took two years ago comes a close second, but that was more for the whole being on a cruise bit than anything else.

To me where we ate wasn’t nearly as important as family being together. Although the fact that I spent no time in the kitchen and currently only have one bowl in my sink (from last night’s popcorn and movie watching), is the real holiday blessing!

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Wildcard Wednesdays: Dream Dinners

Dream dinners cookedBack in August, one of my best friends invited me to a rather unique birthday party. She invited four of us to a Dream Taste event she was hosting through Dream Dinners.

For a couple of years I’ve heard her talk about Dream Dinners. Often when I’d stop by her husband’s classroom to get my lunchbox out of his fridge (unlike the rest of us, science teachers get to have fridges in their prep rooms), I’d see him eating some of their leftovers and they always looked great. A part of me was interested in finding out just what Dream Diners was all about. However, a larger part of me poo-pooed the idea as I consider myself a pretty good cook and I love garnering the praise my family heaps on me after a successful meal. Even if it means I sometimes spend an hour (or more) putting dinner together after a 10 hour day at work (including my commute).

But when she invited me as part of her birthday celebration, how could I turn it down? Ok, I could have turned it down and still not been a total jerk of a friend. Since attending the Dream Taste required me to purchase at least three meals to prepare while I was there, my friend made it very clear that I was under no obligation to come. She knew I’d been interested in the past and thought the Taste might be an easy way for me to try it. She had a feeling I would love it as much as she does, but she didn’t tell me that at the time.

I was not quite sure what to expect when I got there. I arrived with a cooler in tow, just like she’d told me to. I found the birthday girl and three of my other friends ready and willing to experiment with something new. Since we’d had about 8 different meals to pick from, we had some overlap in what we were preparing, but each of us had at least one dinner no one else in the group was making. My friend, in true hostess style, showed us all how to get our order forms, our cooking instruction cards, our aprons and gave us a brief tour of the facility and  outlined the rules.

dream sideThankfully the “rules” are pretty simple. Find an empty station with the recipe card for the meal you want to prepare. Get the proper sized plastic bags to store meal contents in. Using the very handy, very clearly labelled recipe cards, follow all the steps exactly. Then, pop the cooking instruction card in the large bag (with all the smaller bags inside), put the meal in the fridge (on the shelf with your name on it), wash your hands and start over.

At first I was a little nervous. Although I am a good cook and someone who has done make ahead meals before, I’ve never done it in an industrial kitchen with all my recipe items already chopped and waiting for me. Plus, there were other people outside of our party there and they all knew exactly what they were doing, which was also a bit intimidating. However, after my first meal was measured, bagged and stored, I had the hang of it.

It was so simple and so fun! On several of my stations I got to work right next to my friends, so we had the chance to chat while we assembled our meals. Then, when we finished, there were samples from next month’s menu ready for us to try (along with candy and soda), so we all pulled up chairs, sampled, talked and looked at next month’s offerings. At that point, an employee came over and told us how it would all work if we wanted to come back for another round. It was a very low pressure sales pitch and two of us decided we liked it enough to try again (one lived in another state so it was never an option for her).

When I signed up, I only put $20 down on my next order, making sure to double check that I could cancel if my family tried the meals and did not like them. Thankfully, that did not happen. My family LOVED the meals I’d prepared. And they were so EASY! I thawed each one in the fridge two days before I planned to cook them. Since all the cutting and measuring was done, I came home, pulled the back out of my fridge, spent a few minutes mixing ingredients and cooking and before I knew it, dinner was on the table. Seriously, one of the meals took me less than 15 minutes to cook. And, it was delicious. Everyone in my family raved about it.

dream dinners coolerSince my initial order of 3 dinners, I have gone back three times. I actually just finished up my fourth order on Monday. I now have a freezer full of delicious dinners to try. I have chicken bruschetta skewers, oven baked chicken chimichangas, coconut shrimp with Thai chili sauce, pesto ravioli with chicken & walnuts, and rosemary smokehouse turkey burgers on pretzel buns to name a few. Of the 15 meals I’ve made, only one hasn’t been fantastic. Perfectly fine, but not fantastic. However, since I get to rate each meal and make comments on them, each time when I get the next month’s printed menus, if that item is on it again, I’ll get to see what I rated it so I’ll know to order a larger portion or to avoid it. In the four months I’ve been making meals there has yet to be a repeat offer.

dream dinners rawLast month I discovered their mini chicken pot pies. We’d gotten to sample them at my first official Dream Dinners session and I knew my kids would go gaga over them. When I put together all of the ingredients at the store, I was a bit worried that they’d be complicated, but they were amazingly simple to prepare, ready in about 30 minutes and my family raved about them. The only way this dinner could have been easier to make was if I’d bought frozen processed pot pies from the grocery store and then they would have had all those extra preservatives, salt and who knows what else. However, with these pot pies, I knew exactly what was going into them and could even tweak the spices if needed. My husband told me I had to order them every time I can.

While Dream Dinners isn’t cheap, it’s run me about $200 for 12 meals (we get 4 portions out of each meal, so it’s about $5 a portion), considering the time I save on nightly food prep and cooking time plus the food waste I’ve managed to cut down on for recipes that only call for a few tablespoons of an ingredient, I think it is completely worth it. I know I will be going back for many months and maybe years to come.

 

 

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