Category Archives: my friends

Chocolate Monday: Vanilla Rooibos Tea

I first found Vosges while exploring Armitage Street in Chicago. I wasn’t looking for a chocolate shop. My mission was to visit the local LUSH store to stock up on much needed hair and skin care products. However, as my best friend and I strolled down the street, we found not one, but two fantastic chocolate shops. Sadly the first one, Ethel M’s closed down only a few years after we found it. The company itself is still in business, but the Chicago store closed and they also stopped selling the majority of the truffles and filled treats I love. When I found them again in Vegas years later, they had less than half the stock of the Chicago store.

Luckily Vosges not only stayed on Armitage for our yearly visit, but they spread their stocks wider and wider so that even my local Kroger now sells a variety of their chocolate bars. My only real issue with Vosges is that their stock tends to be overwhelmingly dark chocolate and try as I might, I just don’t like dark chocolate as much as its lovely milk cousin. However, I have found that their 45% dark milk chocolate is very tasty.

I especially enjoy it in their Vanilla Rooibos Tea bar. This bar is a wonderful combination of dark milk chocolate, rooibos tea and tart cherries. Just about anything with cherries, especially with dried tart cherries, has my heart. I love cherries in just about any form they take. I especially love them in this bar.

The chocolate definitely has a dark hint to it. It is not smooth and creamy exactly. It has a tiny bit of bitterness to it that could be off putting if not for the the lovely tartness of the cherries. The cherries not only add a bright burst of sweet to help temper the bitterness of the chocolate, but they also add a great texture to the bar. That texture is enhanced by the slightly crunchy bits of tea. Although tea can add bitterness to some candies, either the chocolate masks it in this case or it simply isn’t here. The only bitterness I find is in the actual chocolate.

This is a delightful bit of dark chocolate and I not only like it, but seek it out.

Overall:

Taste: 9/10
Appearance: 6/10
Value: 7/10 (at $8 a bar, it is pricey, so it’s definitely a treat)

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Free Reading Friday: All the Crooked Saints

All the Crooked SaintsI am a big Maggie Stiefvater fan. I was really excited about the release of this book in part because it is the first book she’s written since finishing up the Raven Boys series, which I adored, and in part because this book helped me cross one more book off of my Pop Sugar reading list: a book recommended by an author you like. It just so happens that when I saw John Green speak on his Turtles All the Way Down tour, he mentioned Stiefvater’s book and suggested we all go out and read it. Since I’d pre-ordered an autographed copy of All the Crooked Saints with a nifty bookplate designed by the author, as I heard Green make the suggestion, I knew I’d be easily able to check that book off my list.

With the pile of books I had waiting for me to read, it actually took me quite awhile to get to this book. So long that instead of being the last book I finished in 2017, it was the the first one I finished in 2018. Yes, it meant I fell a little shy of my Pop Sugar goal, but since it wasn’t the only book keeping me from finishing the reading list, I accepted my defeat gracefully.

I did, however, stay up until 1 am on New Year’s Day finishing All the Crooked Saints. I had to know how it ended before I could allow myself to drift off to sleep.
Crooked Saints owlI was especially excited to read this particular book because I had not one, but two copies of it. The first was my pre-order, which came with a cool owl postcard signed by Stiefvater and the super cute owl bookplate. When I got my copy in the mail, I thought it was pretty nifty looking.
Unbeknownst to me, one of my best friends went to a library conference where Stiefvater was a keynote speaker and not only did she get to meet her and take pictures with her–which she sent me–but when I begged her to get me a signed copy of The Raven Boys, she did. However, she didn’t know I’d pre-ordered All the Crooked Saints, so she also got me a personalized signed copy of it. So now instead of one autographed copy, I have two. One personalized to me and one that isn’t personalized but has a cool bookplate. I’m not quite sure what I’ll do with the “extra” copy. My guess is I’ll hold on to it and give it to one of my kids. They are both huge readers and really it’ll only be another few years before my son is ready for this book. He’ll love that it is signed and has the bookplate.

book plateAlthough this book is in many ways very different than the Raven series or her Shiver series, it still shares that wonderful sense of magical realism so prominent in all of her books. In fact, I think she may be at her best as far as magical realism goes in this book. Unlike the Shiver series or The Scorpio Races, she’s not depending on already established mythos to center this book around. Also, unlike the Raven series, she manages to keep this book a bit more in the realm of reality, which I think enhances the magical realism in it. This book is the one that reminds me most of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, although it is definitely not quite in that league.

But I don’t mean that as an insult to Stiefvater. Her book isn’t truly comparable to Marquez because she has a very different intended audience and she is very in touch with that audience. She writes for YA readers and those who love YA fiction and she brings magical realism to them in a way that I think is more accessible. And, in a way that I feel might lead them to Marquez.

Her prose in this this book is warm and rich. I love the way she introduces characters by telling the reader one thing they wanted and one thing they feared. For example, on page 4, she introduces Joaquin Soria by saying, “here was a thing Joaquin Soria wanted: to be famous. Here was a thing he feared: dying alone in the parched dust outside Bicho Raro.” She does this again on page 8 as a way to further introduce Beatriz Soria. “Here was a thing Beatriz wanted: to devote time to understanding how a butterfly was similar to a galaxy. Here was a thing she feared: being asked to do anything else.” These small moments of brilliance add great depths to the characters and allow the reader insights into them that they might not otherwise get.

I thoroughly enjoyed the miracles performed in this book. They were, of course, not at all what I thought of as miracles. How anyone could imagine someone who just wants to escape his life of fame and recognition receiving a miracle that turns him into a giant, is beyond me. And yet, it makes perfect sense. Tony’s fame made him a giant in his world and in order to truly find peace and happiness, he had to learn to deal with his problem in full force. The miracles themselves add those moments of magic–twins who want to be separate people but are too afraid to be are twined together by a snake that threatens to devour them if they get too far apart–a woman who cannot find a way to speak for herself who can only echo everyone else’s words–these are the perfect miracles for them because those miracles teach them to finally face their problems and overcome them.

The book has wonderful message that there are no miracles that can just fix lives. Problems need to be worked at and struggled through. And most importantly, they need the help of others. There are problems that we cannot fix on our own. It’s not only ok to ask for help, it is important to. We must reach out and try to solve our problems, but we must ask for and accept help from those who want to help us. Our problems are not insurmountable, but there are no real miraculous cures for them. We have to work through them, with those who love us to find solutions and a sense of peace.

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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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Chocolate Monday: Condor Chocolates

Condor chocolates full boxOn my most recent trip to Athens, Georgia, my best friend and I stopped by Condor Chocolates. While we were there, not only did I get a very delicious dark chocolate brownie, but also a box of their 8 filled chocolates.

Condor is a cute, family owned chocolate shop founded by two brothers whose mother came from Ecuador, which is also where they get all their chocolate from.

Although I am not a big fan of dark chocolate, I always like to support local chocolate shops and every now and then I find a dark chocolate I really love, so I figured I had to give this chocolate collection a shot.

When I opened the box I thought the chocolates were all simply, but elegantly decorated. I had a moment of worry though–I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell the chocolates apart. It’s not like I could eat all 8 at once. Ok, that’s a lie, I could do it, but as it would make me sick, I knew I shouldn’t. So, when I opened the box a day later, the only one I was sure about was the raspberry chocolate. The little red dots on top, which look like individual raspberry seeds, was a dead give away.

Luckily I noticed the position of the raspberry in the box, right between a circular chocolate and one with what appeared to be a coffee bean on top. On the list of chocolates included in the box, there are 8 chocolates and the second row has a mayan, mocha, raspberry and spiced apple. The genius people at the chocolate shop put them in the box in the same order they are listed on the insert. I’m so glad I figured it out and that they have this clever system, otherwise I would have been lost.

Usually I’m a save the best for last kind of girl, but since I didn’t want to risk jumbling the chocolates and not knowing what I’d be tasting, I decided to eat them in order.

Condor bourbonMy first chocolate was the bourbon chocolate. Surrounded in dark chocolate, it definitely has a bitterness to it. However underneath that bitter dark is the distinct taste of slightly smokey, slightly sweet bourbon. It reminds me quite a bit of the center of my homemade bourbon balls. I’m not much of a bourbon girl, but I like bourbon balls. Especially because they always leave my mouth just a little tingly. So did this truffle. I felt like I’d just had a shot, only without the actual alcohol buzz.

Next up was the caramel truffle, which probably would’ve been my second to last treat if I was doing this in my usual order. But, as I was sticking to my chart, it became my second. I liked the little geodesic dome structure to it. It was sleek and fun. The dark chocolate on this piece is much more subtle, partially tempered by the very sweet caramel. It was not the usual buttery caramel I’m used to. It is definitely a liquid caramel, which is what I always prefer, but it was a mix of sweet with just a slightly savory hint. Salt-like, but not salty. I’m not sure quite how to describe it. I’m also not sure I really liked the actual caramel, which is a rarity for me. It was such a small piece, that it was hard to call it.

The dark chocolate was next for me and my first bite was definitely more than enough. It didn’t help that it had bits of dark chocolate nibs on the top and they scraped the roof of my mouth. For someone who loves dark chocolate, this is probably a dream piece, but I just couldn’t finish it.

Condor earl grayThe Earl Grey piece was a bit more my speed. I thought it was very pretty to look at. I love the bits of tea on top of it, especially the tiny purple beads. It didn’t have an overwhelming tea taste, but it did have tiny bits of tea leaves in it, which gave it texture. It reminded me of the few times I’ve eaten tea leaves by not straining properly. It did have a bit of a creamy taste to it, which reminded me a bit of putting milk in Earl Grey tea. Not my favorite, but I could definitely finish it.

 

 

Since I’ve had a few different chili chocolates, I figured the Mayan chocolate was going to have a spicy kick to it. This piece did not have a painful dose of spice–and I have had some that really have. One brand of chili chocolate I had was so spicy it made my eyes start to water. This one was more subtle. The center itself has a slight sweetness to it. The spicy doesn’t really hit until a few seconds after the bit is swallowed. There is a sort of lingering heat at the back of my throat and my tongue and cheeks have a slight tingle to them. Despite being a fairly dark piece, this is my favorite of the first five.

I was not at all excited about the espresso chocolate. I am not a coffee gal and anytime there is a coffee or mocha or espresso flavored chocolate, it’s usually the first chocolate I eat (if I don’t give it away), so that I can get it out of the way and move on to better, tastier chocolates. I do like the design on this one. It has some cute white “pearls” and a little coffee bean on top. Just from an aesthetic perspective, I find this one very appealing. If you are a coffee fan, this one is definitely for you. Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it. It definitely had not only the taste of coffee, but also a slight hint of crunchy coffee beans–even before I bit into the actual bean. It was actually creamy and fairly tasty…and not just for a coffee chocolate.

Condor raspberryThe raspberry chocolate was the next on my list. This was the one I was most excited about. I LOVE raspberries. In fact, my love for them is so deep that they actually helped me ease into dark chocolate. I attribute my biggest leaps in my tolerance of dark chocolate to Godiva’s raspberry cordials. This meant I had pretty high hopes for Condor’s raspberry chocolate. And those expectations were fairly well met. Although it didn’t have the liquidy raspberry center I love in a cordial, the center was VERY tart, which is my only real desire in a raspberry dark chocolate pairing. Unlike the rest of the the chocolates, this one has an added layer of what looks a bit like raspberry jam, which gives it that lovely, fruity, tarty sweetness. The bitterness of the dark chocolate is completely eclipsed by that super yummy raspberry. I love the little tiny bits of raspberry seeds in it too. While not quite as amazing as Godiva’s raspberry cordial, it is a close, close second. I actually saved the last bit of this truffle so it could officially be my last taste of Condor chocolate.

My final piece was the spiced apple. This one had a thinner layer of dark chocolate surrounding it, but had a surprising amount of bitterness to it. It also had quite a spicy bite. It reminded me a bit of eating Penzy’s pie spice right out of the jar. It was very heavy on the nutmeg and a bit too light on the apple for me. It wasn’t bad, but did not fulfill my hopes. It made me very glad I reserved that last bite of raspberry.

I enjoyed about half the pieces in this collection and truly loved one. When I go back to Condor on my next visit, and I will definitely go back, I’ll be a bit pickier about my selections. I’ll probably fill my box halfway full of raspberries. I may also have to try the gelato.

Overall:

Taste: 6/10
Appearance: 8/10
Value: 7/10

 

 

 

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Throwback Thursday: Georgia with kids part 2

Rook and PawnOne of my top priorities when traveling with my kids is to get them to spend as much time as they can outside. Even though my kids always pack their backpacks and often a separate toy bag to the brim with some of their favorite ways to pass the time, when vacationing anywhere they will be forced to spend waking hours in either a hotel room or at a friend/family member’s house, inevitably they run out of ways to make those same toys fun to play with day after day after day.

It’s already hard enough for kids to be out of their usual environments for extended periods of time. But I’ve found that unless our vacations have the thrill factor of an amusement park vacation, my kids need a lot to do or boredom quickly sets in. At home, they are fine. They will play by themselves, or sometimes even together, for hours on end. However, even on our two yearly vacations to the beach, where there are cousins to play with and to Georgia, where my best friend always surprises them with fun crafting supplies, the sheer number of hours the adults would like to just hang out at the house and chat is too many for them.

Because I don’t want my kids to have to sit around a house that is not theirs for several hours every day of vacation, I always try look for lots of fun things to do outside. However, sometimes the weather just does not cooperate.

This year, during our bi-annual trip to Athens, Georgia, we had three days of rain. While only one day was a bit of a deluge, the other two were still fairly steady in their ickyness. After being trapped in doors the entirety of the first day, my kids needed out of the house.

Since my best friend was not on fall break and still had to teach classes, we decided our first activity that would get us out of her house, but also keep us out of the rain, was a trip to The Rook & Pawn. On our last three visits, we’ve had at least one rainy day and since my best friend and I both love board games, she has suggested we take the kids. It is a wonderful place to pass several hours with kids. Not only is the food pretty dang tasty (I highly recommend the grilled cheese with brie, tomato and spinach and the seasonal salad), but they have a wall of board games that stretches from floor to ceiling. Anyone who cannot find a game they want to play is just being a crab! Our trouble is not finding a board game we all want to play, but in limiting it to just a few so that we don’t spend the entire day there. For anyone who might need to take the edge off of another day spent indoors with whining kiddos, they also have a lovely drink menu. Since it was only day 2 and I had to drive back to the house, I just had a Diet Coke.

My best friend met us at the Rook & Pawn after her classes were done for the day and we spent several hours trying new games. Sushi Go! was my personal favorite this trip. My son really liked some Star Wars spaceship Wookie game he and his sister played while my BFF and I chatted. Last time we went we tried Settlers of Catan Junior, which was not only fun (my BFF and I are HUGE Catan fans), but was a great gateway to teach my son how to play the grown up version.

nature centerWhen it continued raining on Tuesday, I was more than a little disheartened. However, on our very first trip to Athens, we encountered similar rain storms and my best friend introduced us to the Sandy Creek Nature Center. Since I knew she was a bit burned out on it having just recently gone with another friend and her two young children, while she conducted classes, I packed up my munchkins and we headed over to the nature center.

The nature center is not a place you can spend hours at, at least not if it is raining and you are just exploring the educational center. With younger children you could probably kill two hours there without much trouble. However, since my kids are 7 and 10, an hour was pushing it for us. I kept having to redirect them to small pieces of the exhibits they hadn’t really looked at. I tried to get them involved in the scavenger hunt, but since they’d done it on our last visit, they weren’t having it. The educational center does have two classrooms and sometimes if they are open the staff will let kids go in and play in them, which provides even more entertainment. However, there were school groups at the center when we went, so we had to stick to the main exhibit room.

My hope is that one of these days it’ll be nice enough that we’ll actually get to go on the trail and look at the gardens as well.

Even though the rain had cleared on Wednesday, since it was my BFF’s last day of teaching for the week and she was going to be home by 2, I took the kids for a morning at the local Chuck E. Cheese. Even though they’ve been to our Chuck E. Cheese quite a few times, they actually managed to spend more time at this one, in part because there were so many different games and they had to really think about which ones they most wanted to play. My son managed to win the “jackpot” on some balloon game and walked away with enough tickets to buy an actual prize. He was thrilled!

We also found several really awesome programs at the library for the kids to attend. My son got to play chess while my BFF and my daughter found a nook to read books in. My son thought it was pretty great because even though he lost more games than he won, he was the youngest player (by 2 years) and actually beat a player who was 16. We also saw a magic show one morning at the library and both of my kids got to assist with different tricks.

Athens is a great town to visit with kids…even when the rain threatens to ruin the vacation.

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Throwback Thursday: Vacationing with kids

Athens playgroundFrom the moment my best friend delivered the devastating news that she’d gotten her dream job–10 hours away from me–I started planning my first visit to see her. It just so happened that her move at the end of July coincided with my school’s very first year on the balanced calendar. In between trips to our favorite coffee shop and last minute movie watching, she was packing up boxes to move three states away and I was putting the finishing touches on my lesson plans.

Although juggling the heartache of her leaving with the extreme stress that comes with the start of each new school year was really weighing me down, I just kept reminding myself that in a little over two months I’d be taking my first trip to see her. I attempted to delude myself into believing that I’d be so caught up in the new semester that it would be easy to forget she was no longer right down the street. Sadly, I’ve never been a great liar…not even to myself.

The time did pass and at the end of the grading period, we loaded the family up and headed to Georgia. Of course, we only stayed with her one night before continuing on to Disney World. After five days that I can only describe as the best family vacation we’ve ever been on, we turned around and headed back to see my best friend.

This time my husband only spent one night before he had to head back home to work, leaving me and the kids behind to spend an amazing week with my best friend and her husband. Although we had no car of our own, it really wasn’t a problem. When my best friend had to teach we either hung around her house doing crafts and taking walks or we went to campus with her and played in the fun park-like area near her building or she lent us her car and we went to local parks. Then, when she was off, she introduced us to a plethora of really fun places for the kids to play while we got to talk.

Since this initial trip, we’ve found some favorite places in Athens that we go back to every single visit.

park bulldogOne of the best parts about visiting Georgia in October is that the weather is usually pretty nice. Unlike Indiana, where the temperatures sometimes sink down into the 40’s, in Georgia the weather rarely dips below 75, which means plenty of outdoor time with the kids. And since my kids LOVE to be outdoors, if it’s not raining, we plan outdoor activities.

This year we got to check out the new World of Wonder park, which is actually part of Southeast Clarke Park. We’d actually visited the park on one of our previous trips and while the playground was pretty cool and the kids had a blast, it was not nearly as epic as the updates are. The playground was actually moved to the other side of the park and now has two separate park areas, one for kids under 5 and one for bigger kids. The bigger kid playground features 10 different slides, a really cool webbed climbing merry-go-round thingamabob, a three-story tree house looking structure for kids to climb, wobbly bridges, tons of swings, lots of room for families to sit and even these really cool porch swings (of sorts) that are in shaded areas. The picture at the top of this blog is from the WOW park. My kids had a blast on it. My son particularly liked the “mushrooms” which were these stepping areas that reminded him of the mushrooms in Mario Bros. He loved the way they sprung beneath his feet as he jumped from one to the next.

My BFF and I loved that we could sit on a lovely shaded bench and talk while my kids ran amuck on the playground. Since we could see just about every area of the playground from our seats, we never lost eye contact with the kids for more than a few seconds. And, since the playground is surrounded mostly be a wide open grassy area (and is completely fenced in), it’s not like they could really wander off anywhere.

Bear Hollow signOn our last full day in Athens we also got to visit one of our favorite places: Memorial Park/The Bear Hollow Zoo. My BFF is not normally a fan of zoos. Like many people, she hates the fact that animals are taken from their natural habitats, forced into cramped spaces (at least compared to how they’d live in the wild) and put on display for our amusement. However, she is a huge supporter of The Bear Hollow Zoo. The reason is simple: The Bear Hollow Zoo only has animals that are native to Georgia and only has animals that have been injured and are in need of rehabilitation and protection. All of the animals in the zoo have been injured and cannot survive on their own. They are brought to the zoo by people who rescue them. Some times the animals can be rehabilitated and released back into the wild, but often times their injuries are so severe that they would not be able to survive in the wild, so instead they get to live out their lives at Bear Hollow. The zoo is fairly small with only less than two dozen animals in it, but it’s pretty cool.

The zoo has a few birds, including two owls, an alligator, three bears, an opposum, a tortoise, an otter, a bobcat, an eagle, deer, turkeys and some reptiles. Every time we’ve gone we’ve been able to see all of the animals, which is pretty cool. Since it is part of the public park system, it’s not fancy, but it’s a great way to spend half an hour with kids.

Bears at Bear HollowAs part of her service learning class, my BFF has her students do volunteer work for the zoo, so she always has some great information to share with me and the kids. One year she even got us a “backstage” tour. We got to feed almost all of the animals (we skipped the alligator and the snakes) and even got to go into some of the enclosures. My daughter still goes on and on about how she fed the bears blueberries. Yes, that’s right, my kids actually fed the bears in this picture yogurt covered blueberries. It was initially pretty terrifying for me to watch, as I was sure they’d lose at least a finger if not an entire hand, but they loved doing it.

Once we finished up at Bear Hollow, we walked down a short wooded path to get to Memorial Park. Although much smaller than the WOW park, it has a fun little playground, which is geared more toward younger children. My son, who is 10, still finds ways to have fun on it, but everything is sized a bit more for my daughter, who is 7. In addition to the playground equipment, Memorial Park also has a large man made lake full of ducks, geese and turtles. There are hundreds of turtles in that lake. And, there are little machines with food in them scattered all around the lake, so once we finished on the playground, I handed my kids a few quarters and we killed another 20 minutes walking around the lake and feeding animals. The turtles were not too quick on the uptake. Most of their food was snatched by very quick little fish. My kids thought that was hysterical.

One great thing about the parks in Athens is that they also feature the famous UGA bulldog. My kids LOVE driving around Athens and looking for bulldogs, which are all over the city. At the parks not only do they get to look, but they get to climb on them as well. My kids have memorized where some of their favorite bulldogs are and they make a game of trying to be the first to spot them. Whenever we find a new one, they get very, very excited.

Not only is Athens the home of my best friend, but it’s also a wonderful place to find great food and some great outdoor family fun.

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Chocolate Monday: Sweetie Pie

SP cookies

Cookies featured in photo: (top row): chocolate malt, peanut butter shallot, maple pecan
(middle row): oatmeal raisin and sweet and savory
(bottom row): pumpkin, chocolate chip and ginger turmeric

One of the best parts about visiting my best friend in Athens, Georgia is that it is a town full of amazing food. And I do love food.

Since I visit her for at least two weeks out of every year, I’ve had a chance to discover some favorite places that are must eats every trip. Despite having some tried and true favorites, she always manages to introduce me to some amazing new places.

On my very first trip to Athens four years ago, as I prepared to turn into her neighborhood for the very first time, I noticed that directly across from the entrance was a tiny shack-like building that appeared to be a restaurant. It was a smokehouse called Rooters. Since I love barbecue, I asked my BFF about it, but she said they hadn’t tried it since they didn’t have a single vegetarian option (a rarity in Athens). Her husband later told me that it was decent, but that their hours were so strange that he pretty much gave up trying to eat there.

About two years ago, right as I was preparing for our bi-annual trip to see her, I got an excited text from my BFF telling me that the BBQ joint was no more. In it’s place was an amazing little bakery she could not wait for me to try out.

And try it out I did.

Like its predecessor, Sweetie Pie has some annoying hours. It is closed on Sundays and Mondays and only open from 7:30-3:30 Tues-Sat. I also learned on that first trip if you are not one of the early birds, you completely miss out on one of their absolutely best treats: chocolate croissants. Now, I am a pretty huge fan of the chocolate croissant, no matter who makes it, but I have to say Sweetie Pie takes it to a whole other level. Wow…just wow!

But like I said, you have to get up pretty early in the morning to get them. The owner, Savie, only makes a limited amount and when they are gone, they are gone. Luckily she makes several other flavors of croissants that while not as good in this chocoholic’s opinion, are still completely worth it if you want to sleep in a little.

Much to my severe annoyance, my kids are pretty early risers. My daughter feels that 6 am is the perfect time to wake up, even on vacation. Now that she’s 7, I have made it very clear that unless the clock says 7:00 am, she is not allowed to get out of bed. And, if it doesn’t say at least 8:00, she is not allowed to wake me up. My son does like to sleep in a bit longer, but when he has to share a room with her on vacation, he tends to rise when she rises. The only time I have every been thankful for their insistence on rising before the sun even has the decency to start shining is when I get those chocolate croissants from Sweetie Pie.

Although my heart clearly belongs to those chocolate croissants, on this trip I decided to try something a bit different. This time I took a look at all the different cookies Savie had available in her case. Despite faithfully stopping in at least twice every visit, I’d only ever had croissants, scones, breads or cinnamon rolls before. I’d never actually tried any of her cookies and I thought this was the perfect chance to remedy this.

SP logoWhile Sweetie Pie features typical baked goods you’ll find in a lot of cafes like blueberry scones or pumpkin bread or almond croissants, Savie utilizes a lot of flavor combinations found in Asian desserts. She has taro root muffins, red bean croissants, Thai tea scones and green tea cupcakes. Although I have not tried them all,  the Thai tea scones and green tea cupcakes are excellent.

When I gazed at her cookie offerings, I found several rows of cookies both of the the very traditional variety: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, pecan and the more exotic: sweet and salty, ginger turmeric and peanut butter and shallot. Yeah, you read that last one correctly, she offers a peanut butter and shallot cookie. And yes, I tried it.

I decided to order one of each cookie. While I knew there was no way I would be able to eat them all, since there were 5 of us in the house, I knew they wouldn’t go to waste. I also knew that I wouldn’t feel too guilty about trying just a couple of bites from each cookie. At least not over the course of a day or two.

And so later that afternoon, I embarked on an epic cookie tasting adventure. Eight cookies to try and eight cookies to write about.

I’ll start with the more traditional flavors. The chocolate chip cookie, which I worried might be a bit hard as it seemed a little on the thin side, was amazingly soft, buttery and just the perfect amount of chewiness. It was actually fairly light on the chocolate chips, which despite my love of chocolate, is what I prefer. It was very good, but might not be the best choice for someone with a true hankering for chocolate. My best friend, who loves her chocolate chip cookies filled to the brim with chocolate chips, thought it could use more.

The oatmeal raisin was exactly what I expected out of an oatmeal raisin cookie. It was sweet and buttery, with the perfect amount of raisins adding that burst of fruit with each bite. Oatmeal raisin cookies are always a favorite of mine and this one was great. I ended up eating most of this cookie during our epic Settlers of Catan battle the next night.

The pecan cookie, which was pretty big, was soft and chewy and very pecany. If you like nuts, this would be a great cookie for you. I’m actually not a huge fan of nuts in cookies, so while it was good, it would not be one I’d get again.

The pumpkin cookie, which actually had more to its official title which I could not remember once I got back to my BFF’s house (I think there might have been caramel in it too), was delightful. I know pumpkin spice gets a really bad rap, especially in the fall where it is pretty much in everything. Hell, I get annoyed by it myself. I think pumpkin spice Cheerios and Twinkies are pushing the envelope (and not in a good way). And don’t even get me started on the pumpkin spice dog breath freshener chewy things we saw at the pet store. However, as pumpkin pie is also an absolute favorite of mine, this cookie was nearly perfect.

SP choc malt cookieNow, onto some of the more unique flavors. My favorite of the all Sweetie Pie’s cookie offerings were ones I’d never tried in any other bakery before. My absolute favorite was probably the chocolate malt cookie. I’ve never actually  had a chocolate malt before. The closest I’ve come is like Whoppers malted milk balls–that’s similar, right? But this cookie was incredible. Once again, I was initially concerned about this one since it was so thin. I was positive it was going to be the type of cookie my BFF complains about Jittery Joe’s having. However, it was amazingly soft and chewy. It was also very, very chocolatey. I loved the light sprinkling of powdered sugar on the top of it (which amazingly did NOT come off all over my hands). It was light and buttery and reminded me a bit of chocolate fudge. However, it didn’t have that cloyingly sweet taste fudge often gets.

My second favorite cookie was the ginger turmeric. This cookie was the epitome of Fall to me. If I had to assign one taste to the season, it would not be pumpkin spice. It would be this cookie. It was chewy and had just the right amount of spicy ginger. It reminded me a bit of a molasses cookie, but it wasn’t as heavy or syrupy. If only the weather in Georgia would have dipped below 85 degrees, eating this cookie would have made me feel like Fall had finally arrived.

The sweet and savory cookie was not as savory as I worried it would be. The little tag with the cookie mentioned teriyaki as part of the flavor combination, so I was worried it would be too salty. However, it was mostly just very oatmealy. It actually reminded me way more of butterscotch than teriyaki. It probably didn’t hurt that it has the same slightly orange tint oatmeal scotchies have. It was a good cookie, but I liked the raisin version better.

Finally, I attempted the most intriguing, and admittedly potentially upsetting cookie: peanut butter and shallot. It definitely smelled like onions. It was an odd combo to say the least. The cookie itself didn’t taste like onions. It had an oniony after taste, but even that was fairly subtle. The peanut butter was also not overly pronounced. It was definitely a sweet cookie with slightly oniony hints. While I would probably never buy it again as it didn’t wow me, it actually wasn’t bad. Neither of my children were brave enough to try it (my daughter hates onions and she knows shallots are really just fancy onions), but my BFF and her husband did and they agreed it was not what they expected.

I am very depressed that my next visit to Athens will not be for another 5 months. Not just because I miss my BFF so terribly, but also because I won’t get any of Sweetie Pie’s amazing baked goods for a long time.

Overall:

Taste: 9/10
Appearance: 9/10
Value: 9/10

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