Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Have I mentioned before how much I love Washington D.C.'s proximity to New York City?  And you have so many alternatives for convenient modes of transport - car, bus, train, and plane.  My preferences are to either drive up myself or to choose from one of several bus operators that provide cheap round trip fares.  Amtrak is great, but can cost as much as a flight.  And, while it may be the shortest trip, flying costs more, requires a cab ride into and out of the city, and has the most risk of being off schedule, I think.

This weekend, we opted for the bus.  I like Vamoose because it leaves from Bethesda where the parking garage is free over the weekend.  Several other buses leave from different starting points around the D.C. Metro region as well - BOLT bus, Mega Bus, etc. The bus option for this weekend dose of NYC was perfect for me since I, currently, have my nose buried so deep in a book series right now that I can't see straight, let alone drive 4 hours!!

Once we arrived in Manhattan and got our stuff stashed at a friend's apartment, it was time to take advantage of the weather to walk to SoHo for some shopping!  It was also lunchtime, so we made a snacking tour of the area as well, stopping first to taste the deliciousness served by the Wafels and Dinges food truck parked on Broadway.  I got a plain Brussels Wafel with speculoos spread as my dinge (or topping...well, it actually means thing or whatchamacallit in Flemish).  I've never had speculoos before, but after it was described as a gingerbread/graham cracker spread, I said "yes, please!"  Come to find out, it's the same taste as the Biscoff cookies handed out as snacks on airplanes.  My friend, not one to pass up anything that is paired with bacon, went for the maple bacon wafel for her snack!  While the Tribecca Taco Truck parked next door looked tempting, after eating such a sweet treat, we had to pass on that snack stop.

After a little shopping to burn off the waffles, we ended up sharing a tasty treat at Rice to Riches.  This place ONLY serves rice pudding.  But not your everyday rice pudding, rather at least twenty different great flavors.  We opted for one of the most popular, the Cinnamon Sling, that tastes like you're shoveling oatmeal raisin cookie batter into your mouth.  This time, we didn't add any dinges....or as they call them at Rice to Riches - Jesus Droppings!  Love it!

Because we were in NYC, we had to continue on this yummy culinary tour for dinner.  For our pre-theater meal, we crossed over to the West Village to sample the Italian fare at Corsino Cantina.  They have delicious crostinis to try as starters -- we selected the sweet onion & walnut, canellini/mushroom/lemon thyme, and the brussel sprouts & pecorino.  For antipasti, we shared a huge bowl of baby arugula, apples, walnuts, and red onions and an amazing risotto croquette.  Cheese and rice?  Yes!  Our pasta was also fantastic.  I got the trofie with basil pesto, potato, arugula, and ricotta salata.  Paired with a very light pinot grigio, it was the perfect trip through the tastes of Italy - and great preparation for my upcoming journey to the "boot country."  We were able to squeeze in a stop at a local gelateria, L'Arte del Gelato, to cleanse the palette - and to also help prepare for my trip, of course.

We were so absorbed in our gelato experience, that we didn't realize the cab driver was taking us up 6th Ave. to get to Times Square to our theater.  If you know anything about traffic in NYC, that is NOT the best route and traffic costs more.  We found ourselves ditching the cab two blocks away and walking very fast to the theater on 45th St.  For this NYC adventure, the show of choice was the revival of Andrew Lloyd Weber's Evita on Broadway, starring Ricky Martin.  Overall, it was your classic Broadway show.  I was impressed with Ricky Martin and a little underwhelmed by the woman who played Evita, especially considering that she had played the role on the West End.

Since we were still pretty energized after the show, we searched for a fun place to grab a drink after down in the Union Square neighborhood.  Due to the fact that it was 10:30pm on a Saturday night, seating space was limited.  So, we found ourselves some stools at the bar of Pure Food and Wine, a restaurant that serves raw vegan food - not surprising to find empty seats there, in my opinion.  This was probably my one and only vegan/raw restaurant experience.  After passing on the Master Cleanse Tini (a martini using the ingredients from the master cleanse thanks!!!), I ordered a rosé sangria.  Since the food did not use any eggs or dairy, I didn't even consider ordering dessert because there is no way it could taste good!  My friends were braver than I and went for the dark chocolate semi freddo with passion fruit puree and the "creme" brûlée with a mango slice for a crust.  I, on the other hand, went for an assortment of nut cheeses...primarily because I liked saying the name "nut cheese."  I didn't have high hopes since they were stripping the "cheese" of the best part - the CHEESE!  Instead, they somehow molded nut paste and herbs into balls in order to cut into wedges, and served it with rosemary crackers.  My review of Pure Food and Wine: well, at least the company was great!

Once we finally woke up the next morning, we got dressed and dragged our butts over to one of my favorite breakfast spots in NYC:  Friend of a Farmer in Gramercy Park.  Not only is this place supercute with its rustic turn of the century decor, floral wallpaper, and baskets of fruits and vegetables, but it serves delicious, hearty food.  I couldn't decide what I wanted, so I opted for the sampler plate:  the Boomer Special with the eggs, home fries, bacon, and thick cinnamon raisin bread french toast.  I also ordered a kids plate of the pumpkin pancakes to share with the table.  Bonus, it came with a ton of sliced fruit.  If you're planning on going to Friend of a Farmer, try to get there before 10am.  They do not take reservations and space is limited, so you may find yourself waiting, especially if you have a party greater than two people.

To round out the quick NYC trip before we had to catch the bus home, we wasted some time wandering the miles of books at the original Strand Bookstore on Broadway.  While not as big as my beloved Powell's Books in Portland, it's still overwhelming with its volumes of books.  You really need to come there with a purpose or a subject you're looking to learn more about.  Their American History section took up a huge part of just one floor!

Posted on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 by Julie

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

I can't count how many times I've watched Project Runway and thought, gee I could probably make that.  Well, I learned this weekend that I can....eventually!  Certainly not in the time allotted to the TV show contestants, though.  I cashed in a LivingSocial coupon to take a Beginner II Express sewing class at G Street Fabrics in Rockville, Maryland (the two other locations in the DC area have classes too).  I already knew the basics of sewing, thanks to my mom who is a great sewer, and had some practice making home decor items -- pillows and roman shades.  But making something from a tissue paper pattern was a whole new world for me.

Sewing basics: pattern, fabric, sharp scissors, needle, thread
I selected the Beginner Sewing II class because we would be making a skirt, and as the weather has turned into an early Spring in Washington D.C., a skirt made perfect sense as a project!  We had the choice between a pencil skirt or an a-line skirt pattern.  I knew I wanted something lightweight, so I went with the a-line and found an adorable tiny anchor print in the quilting fabrics section.  After probably a total of 7 hours of pinning, cutting, sewing, surging, embellishing (belt loops to hold a grosgrain ribbon belt), fitting, lining, and hemming, I had a completely adorable skirt for spring and summer!!

Add a blouse and a navy cardigan or blazer on top, then pair it with one of my supercute Kate Spade clutches that looks like an art deco cruise liner, and I think I'm ready to start my new fashion design business!  Just kidding, I'm going to stick with my regular day job.  Yahoo - yet another step towards becoming a domestic goddess!

All cute skirts deserve a cute purse!

Posted on Sunday, March 18, 2012 by Julie

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

This month, I took two classes to continue my pursuit to become a master cupcake maker.  Ok, so that's not really my life's quest, but I do enjoy cupcakes and using my creative energy to make adorable decorations.  Since I had some success with classes at Sur la Table in the past, I opted to take their cupcake decorating class that is based on the book, "What's New, Cupcake?" - one of three instructional books by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson.

The four designs highlighted in the class were the fortune cookie, koi fish, marshmallow mum, and berry pies.

The fortune cookie is a simple frosted cupcake with a caramel fortune cookie topper.  Microwave two cubes of caramel candies for 3-4 seconds just to soften.  Work together and roll out on a cutting board wrapped in plastic wrap.  Using a 3" round cookie cutter, cut a circle in the rolled caramel.  Place your paper fortune message slightly off-center, to the right and down.  Fold on the half and push the ends together in the middle only.  Then stick your fingers in near the fold and gently bend the caramel in half, bringing the two ends on the fold together.

The koi fish is perfect for kids because I think only kids would like eating those marshmallow orange peanuts!  Frost the cupcake in blue.  For the body, take one candy marshmallow peanut and snip the end on an angle, cutting up and in from the flat side.  Using frosting as glue, attach eyes (two M&Ms or Reese's Pieces and two mini M&Ms) and mouth (Cheerios cereal) to the angled edge.  Set on top of cupcake.  Take another peanut candy and cut in half lengthwise.  Cut each half at an angle.  Play around with the shapes and make the tail with two pieces and the fins with the remaining two pieces.

Another simple design is the mum.  Generously frost the cupcake in order to have enough frosting for the marshmallows to stick.  Take miniature marshmallows and squeeze them on the long edge, elongating the shape into a square, then cut on the diagonal.  Dip the sticky side (the cut side) into a colored dusting sugar for color.  Attach the outside layer first, and work your way in.  I liked using half of a miniature marshmallow for the center, or for a sunflower look I used the brown mini M&Ms.

Out of the four, the pies were the most complicated, but still very easy.  Frost a cupcake with a brown colored frosting.  Select a color of M&Ms or Reese's Pieces that matches the color of the "fruit" you'd like to portray.  Cover the frosted cupcake with these candies.  Fill a piping bag with some of the brown frosting, using a circle tip that is a small-medium opening.  Pipe diagonal stripes on the M&Ms to create the lattice-work on top of the "pie,"  then use a shell piping technique (anchor the piping tip, push forward then drag back, layering the loops on top of each other) on the side to make the crust and clean up the edges.  I tried to use the basket weave technique on my cherry pie, but the frosting tip wasn't the right size, so it came out a bit messy.

While this class was fun, it definitely was nothing you couldn't do on your own using the photos as samples or by just buying the book on Amazon.

Continuing with the pursuit of cupcake knowledge, I also took advantage of a recent LivingSocial coupon offer in D.C.  We are very fortunate to live in the headquarters city for LivingSocial because they are testing out a physical classroom location for special offers, like cooking classes, pop-up restaurants for local chefs with new restaurant concepts, concerts, and art classes.  The cooking classes offered so far have been with notable chefs and restaurant owners in D.C.  This class I took was lead by the founder of one of the, if not THE, first cupcake shops in D.C. - Warren Brown from CakeLove.

The facility at LivingSocial was amazing and has a lot of potential, with video screens at each workstation broadcasting the demonstration table, as well as a wireless microphone system.  Unfortunately, they're still working out the kinks as far as feedback on the mics and having all of the ingredients out at the right time.  But overall it was a relatively good experience.  The cupcake recipe we were given for the class was a triple chocolate cupcake -- two chocolates used in the batter and chocolate ganache for the filling and topping -- with a meringue buttercream frosting.  (Pardon the blurriness of the photos, I only had my iPhone with me!)

Chef Warren Brown was very friendly and even gave me the secret to his yummy strawberry frosting, which is fortunately just the recipe for the meringue buttercream with fresh sliced and sugared strawberries blended in.  In addition to the cupcake instruction, we also received instruction on how to make a chocolate spice martini and a citrus ginger champagne cocktail from Warren's friend, mixologist Daniel Mahdavian, that accompanied the rich cupcake.


I ended up not taking home any finished cupcakes that I made because I'm not a huge chocolate cake fan, but what I tasted in the class was a nice, light density cake.  This was surprising because normally CakeLove cakes are dense, probably due to the pounds of butter that go into them!  We also received a sample of a cupcake prepared by CakeLove for the class to take home with us so we could see the finished product.  I think, overall, this was a great experience and a perfect introduction to a whole new venue for me to learn new skills from the experts, and I will definitely be keeping my eye out for upcoming classes at the LivingSocial facility!

Posted on Sunday, March 11, 2012 by Julie

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Last fall, I was wandering around Old Town Alexandria and my attention was drawn to some window displays with gorgeous, sophisticated floral arrangements.  And I'm not talking about huge displays in the lobby of a 5-star hotel, but more like a cover of Martha Stewart Magazine.  Lucky me, as I slowly walked down the sidewalk, I caught sight of a sign offering floral arrangement classes!  When I got home, I went on the website for the store, Helen Olivia, and looked at all of the available classes.  Unfortunately, the timing was bad because I discovered the class offerings when they were most in demand - holiday entertainment season.  So, I had to wait 5 months for a class I wanted to take, but it was worth it!

On arrival, our workstations were outfitted with all the tools we needed for our arrangements, as well as a bucket of flowers and greenery for our first project.  The tools we used included: knife, pruners, scissors, hand held stapler, pearl topped straight pins, tape, and plant polish.

The first arrangement we created was a classic tight bunching in a tall rectangular vase that incorporated tulips, daffodils, green mini hydrangea, hyacinth, and greenery - pittosporum and aspidistra.  To create the greenery base, we placed the pittosporum in opposite corners and repeated the pattern in order to create a basket like weave of stems to give the arrangement some stability.

Next we split the leaves of aspidistra into thirds using a sharp knife, then took each strip and folded into overlapping thirds to create a heart shape with the two outside strips first, then repeated the process with the third strip and used a hand held stapler to keep the final shape together, finishing with a plant polish spray to get a vibrant, shiny green look.  Taking the tulips as a group, we used the five decorative aspidistra elements to shape a "collar" around the outside of the tulip bunch, used florist wire to bind the grouping, and inserted it into the corner of the arrangement.  The hydrangea, daffodils, and hyacinth were inserted appropriately, with the hyacinth near the tulips as they are both bulb plants that continue to grow while in the vase - so best to have the two flowers grow together instead of completely compromising the shape of the arrangement.  The final step was to wrap the vase with a satin acrylic ribbon, securing the start with tape and the folded over end with pearl topped pins.  My years of wrapping tennis racquet grips helped me get through this step.  And tada!  Beautiful!

The next arrangement was more of an abstract spring arrangement based on a meadow concept.  Using a square, low vase, a strip of wheatgrass was placed at the back of the arrangement.  The remainder of the vase was filled with soaked oasis foam.  Using branches of pink quince to create height first, then the purple anemones, hot pink roses, and green mini hydrangea were placed as desired in the oasis.  Because the anemones have delicate stems, a hole can be prepped using the rose stem to make it easier to insert and reduce breakage risk.  Next, ribbon was wrapped around the base to hide the oasis, wheatgrass roots and dirt.  To complete the arrangement, moss was used as a filler to cover the oasis top.  Voila!  Now it's time to enjoy the wonderful floral scents in my house and go sign up for another class to learn to create more beautiful arrangements!

Posted on Thursday, March 08, 2012 by Julie

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

I admit that when it comes to going to a bar and ordering anything other than beer or wine, I am clueless.  Sure, there was a time that I tolerated cosmopolitans because Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City liked them.  Then, of course, I have my staple frozen margarita and sangria as other options, but usually those are ordered off a menu.  Ask me what's in a White Russian, an Alabama Slammer, a Dark and Stormy, a Mud Slide, etc. and I would just stare at you with a blank look.  So when I saw the LivingSocial deal to attend a Mixology 101 class at the Hospitality Training Institute in Old Town Alexandria, I bought it.

Frankly, I was disappointed when I arrived and saw that we were learning how to mix four drinks my taste buds were already familiar with and, therefore, I was comfortable ordering.  But in the end, I picked up a few tips and tricks that I think will be useful.  And the teacher was very open to going off topic while shaking his shaker to answer general questions of the base liquors - rum, gin, vodka, tequila, whiskey, etc.

His first tip, if you were planning on making the drinks at home, was to supply yourself with basic bar tools.  Specifically, as a start, it would be good to have on hand a Boston style shaker with a wire strainer, a muddle stick to crush up fruit in the drinks, a bar spoon to layer the drink, a twister or a tool to peel the rind off of citrus fruits to twist as garnish or rub on the glass lip, jiggers for pour measures, and a church key bottle opener. 

The seven drinks he reviewed in the class were the classic margarita, the mojito, the cosmopolitan, the lemon drop, and three variations using a long island ice tea base.

For the margarita, the recipe was stripped down to the way it should be made -- no sugars and fresh fruit instead of orange liqueur or triple sec.  The mix, placed in his Boston shaker,  called for: (1) the juice of two limes; (2) one lime and one orange quartered, dropped into the shaker, then muddled to release some of the oils on the rind; (3) 1oz of agave nectar; and, (4) 1.5oz tequila.  Add in ice and shake, then pour.  For salting the rim, he suggested using the juice of a lime to create stickiness, then rolling the rim in the salt, not pressing into it, because it minimizes the lumpiness.

The mojito was created using 1.5oz of white rum, a muddled lime and simple syrup, soda water, and mint.  Simply squeeze the lime juice then dump the lime skins into the glass.  Add a splash of simple syrup for sweetness and muddle the two together before adding the rum and soda water.  Mix together and add mint.  I wasn't a fan of the volume of soda water in this recipe, so it wasn't the best mojito I've ever had.  It actually tasted like a diet mojito.  From this lesson I did learn one trick, through: always "spank" your mint (put it in your hand and slap it) instead of muddling it because it will break and taste bitter.  Then, after spanking the mint, roll it up and tear it into pieces big enough they won't be sucked up a straw.

The ingredients for the cosmo are 1.5oz of a good citrus vodka (he used Absolut Citron), 0.5oz triple sec, and 1 squeezed lime.  Shake together and garnish with a twist of lemon and lemon juice rubbed on the rim of the glass.

The surprise of the night, and my favorite of the class, was the Tuaca Lemon Drop.  I've had lemon drops before, and they were typically made using a citrus vodka.  Tuaca is an Italian vanilla citrus liqueur.  Shake together one packet of sugar in the raw, 2oz of Tuaca, and one squeezed lime, then pour the liquid into a martini glass with a sugared rim.  Because of the vanilla, this combination lacks the tartness of a classic lemon drop and becomes more of a lemon meringue pie martini!  Yum! The instructor also said the Tuaca goes well with Crown Royal.  I will need to try this!

Finally, the last drink(s) used the base combination of 0.5oz each of vodka, rum, gin, triple sec and tequila, with sour mix to fill the liquid to the ice line (amount of ice is the amount needed to fill a pint glass).  I call this the everything but the kitchen sink liquor base.  Layer coke on the top and you create a Long Island Iced Tea.  Layer melon liqueur and it's a something else (name is escaping me).  Layer black raspberry liqueur or Chambord and you get a Purple Haze.  All of them were not to my liking, so I won't be ordering them anytime soon, especially if I can get another Lemon Meringue Pie Martini!!!

Posted on Saturday, March 03, 2012 by Julie

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Where is Siem Reap?  Well, you may know it better as the home of the UNESCO World Heritage site: Angkor Wat.  But it's so much more than that.  There are several other groups of smaller and older temples - the Rolous group - and my favorites: Bayon at Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.

While it's possible to tour the entire set of major Khmer ruins in the area in just two days (I am proof of that), I think that in order to not feel as rushed, it's best to allow at least three days for the region.

The Rolous Group

The temples that comprise the Rolous Group, approximately 13km outside of Siem Reap, are primarily contained on three major sites -- Lolei, Bakong, and Preah Ko -- and represent some of the earliest Khmer temple structures in the region (circa late 9th century)

Preah Ko

Ta Prohm and Ta Keo

Ta Prohm
As soon as you start your exploration of the Ta Prohm ruin, you'll likely start thinking you're on a set of a movie.  The giant tree roots growing through the ruin walls just seem surreal.  Not surprisingly, Ta Prohm was used in a popular movie - "Tomb Raider" with Angelina Jolie!  Wander around all of the ruins and marvel at the way the trees have pervaded themselves into the stone structures and just taken over.  It reminds me of the illustration of the giant squid with its tentacles consuming the Nemo in Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."  

Ta Keo is another temple in the area.  Prepare for some stair climbing though!

Ta Keo

Bayon at Angkor Thom

Naga and the Causeway to the South Gate
Aside from the grandeur of Angkor Wat, there is nothing better than the faces of Bayon, within the old city of Angkor Thom.  Built in the late 12th, early 13th century, Bayon steps away from the Khmer architecture of the other ruins.  The reason for this is because this is a Buddhist temple, in fact it was the official state temple of the King Jayavarman VII, a Mahayana Buddhist.  The most distinguishing feature of this temple ruin are the 216 remaining faces of the bodhisattva all around the temple.  Second to the bodhisattva is the impressive 350 meter long Elephant Terrace, with giant elephant head carvings holding up the platform to look like a series of columns.  Also note the statues on the bridge leading to the main entry gate (South Gate), including the seven headed snake, Naga.


  Angkor Wat

The key motivator for selecting the Siem Reap area as a travel destination, of course, is to visit the jewel of the region, Angkor Wat - an early 12th century king's state temple and one-time 820,000 square meter capital city of the Angkor regime, contained within a 3.6 kilometer and 190 meter wide, rectangular moat.  With its many bas-relief panels depicting significant wars and important stories of the hindu religion, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, you can spend hours walking the restored ruins and grounds. 
Causeway to Angkor Wat
Bas-Relief Decorations
Other Temples

There are several other smaller temples in the Angkor Archeological Park to visit, time permitting. On my short 2-day tour, I was able to stop at Banteay Kdai Buddhist temple and Chau Say Tevoda.

Banteay Kdai
Banteay Kdai

Chau Say Tevoda

Regional Travel Tips:
In order to visit the temples, you must obtain an "Angkor Pass" from the Angkor Archeological Park.  Passes are sold for 1-, 3-, and 7-day increments.  The main temples (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm) are best reached by vehicle and not bike, considering the entire park covers over 400 sqkm.  Motorized tuk-tuks and taxis are good options.  Or check with the concierge at your hotel to see if a tour guide can be arranged.  My experience in Siem Reap was organized by my preferred tour SE Asia travel company, Exotissimo.

Posted on Friday, March 02, 2012 by Julie

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

1. "Sit-Com" books - I call these books "sit-com" books because they are easy, quick reads that give you a burst of entertainment in one night.  They are the rom-coms or mystery paperbacks that you grab at the airport bookstore to read on takeoff/landing, if you're an iPad-er like me, or impulsively at the grocery store checkout line.  Recently, I joined the game late and got completely caught up by the Stephanie Plum series written by Janet Evanovich.  I also am anxiously awaiting Kristan Higgins' new book in April. 

2. Speaking of books and airports, even with all the traveling I've done, I just caught on to the Paradies Bookstore Read & Return program, where you buy a book in one airport bookstore, and return it within 6 months to another participating airport bookstore to receive 50% of the purchase price back!  This is actually what started the Evanovich marathon when I bought the first book in the series in Salt Lake City on my way home from Sundance, and returned it when I landed in Washington D.C.  Like I said, a fast (but good) read!

3. Birchbox - if you haven't heard of Birchbox yet, it's a monthly beauty subscription program.  For $10 each month (less if you subscribe for the annual membership), you receive a box of beauty samples tailored to your preferences.  It's like getting a surprise gift every month, mailed in a bright pink box.  For February, my box contained some creams, perfume, and some interesting eye makeup. Subscriptions are first come, first served so you may have to sign up for an invite and wait.  My waiting period wasn't long.

4. Pomegranate Seeds from Trader Joes - I love pomegranates, but I hate having to peel them and dig out all the seeds while trying very hard not to squirt red juice on my clothes that will never come out!  Enter pre-seeded pomegranates into my life!!  They are a little pricey at $4 per box, but so worth it when I don't have to throw out my clothes.

5. My new Huffy Raspberry Sparkle Deluxe Cruiser!  I have to admit it's a bit strange to ride a bike with the wide handlebar and the foot brakes from my childhood, but I can't resist how supercute it is with its white-walled tires, coffee cup, and basket.  Plus, the seat is so comfortable!  Add a bell and lights on the front and rear, and this is the perfect vehicle for running around town.

BONUS:  A cupcake ATM???

On Tuesday, February 28, Sprinkles announced a plan to open a 24-hour Cupcake Dispenser at the original store in Beverly Hills, CA.  From the press release:

This automatic cupcake machine dispenses freshly baked cupcakes, cupcake mixes, apparel and even cupcakes for Fido! In the heart of Beverly Hills nestled between Sprinkles Cupcakes and the brand new Sprinkles Ice Cream, 24 Hour Sprinkles will be continuously restocked day and night with a variety of freshly baked cupcake flavors.


Posted on Thursday, March 01, 2012 by Julie

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