Wednesday, January 28, 2015


It's Wednesday, and you have three more days to figure out what you're going to feast on with family and friends this Superbowl Sunday!  Not surprisingly, I planned my dessert options out first.  This year's cupcake is a pretty simple design, but there is a special treat for the feaster on the inside.  Much like the currently popular baby gender revealing cake, I have prepared these cupcakes so that they are filled with sprinkles inside of either the colors of the New England Patriots or the Seattle Seahawks!

Let's take a step back and talk about the cupcakes first.  I'm a big fan of boxed cake mix, which allows me to focus my time on the design.  These cupcakes were prepared using chocolate cake mix.  The frosting, I could have made my own buttercream, but I went for purchased vanilla frosting then colored it with Americolor "Leaf Green" gel.  

Before the green tinted frosting was spread on the cooled cupcake, I took a small non-serrated knife and cut out a 1" deep hole in the top of the cupcake.  Gently taking out the cake from the hole and setting it aside, I then filled the empty space with sprinkles.  Going back to the cake I just pulled out, I cut off the bottom 2/3 of the cake cylinder and replaced the top 1/3 back over the sprinkle-filled hole so that the cupcake dome looked complete once more.  Now, I spread the frosting over the top.  In a bowl, I poured a generous amount of green decorating sugar, then took the cupcake, turned it upside down, and gently pressed and rolled the top of the frosted cupcake into the sugar ensuring the dome was covered.  Don't push too hard, or you will push the frosting around and make a mess of the top.  The final step was to pipe on the field lines and yard numbers with untinted frosting that had been slightly thinned out (#3 tip)!

Hmm...based on my test cupcake that I cut to show the surprise inside (below), it looks like it may be the Patriots this year.  Though, after "deflategate," I'm not sure how I feel about this cupcake prediction.  Regardless, try these for your Superbowl buffet and be prepared for a mess when people figure out what's going on after biting into them!


Posted on Wednesday, January 28, 2015 by Julie

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015


I am a big fan of chocolate chip cookie dough!  So much so that I'm willing to totally disregard the small salmonella risk just to satisfy my desire to lick the spoon.  When I saw I Am Baker's post about a chocolate chip cookie dough frosting, I immediately added it to my to-do baking list.  The idea behind this frosting is not to make actual cookie dough, but focus on the primary flavors - chocolate and brown sugar.

The frosting is delicious and almost could be a dessert on its own.  It's a little tricky to spread and get a good presentation look, but I kind of like that it's messy because then you feel like you're being naughty and scraping the side of the bowl with your finger.  The great thing about this frosting is that there is nothing in it that won't keep in the refrigerator for a bit, in case you want save the leftovers and make another batch of cupcakes later in the week.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Cupcakes


Ingredients

  • 1 box chocolate cake mix and associated ingredients from the box instructions
  • 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks) softened
  • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, packed
  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 15-16 Tbsp (1 cup) whole milk
  • 1/2 cup miniature chocolate chips

  1. Make a batch of chocolate cupcakes from a cake mix, following the instructions on the box.
  2. Allow cupcakes to cool.
  3. In an electric stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed until smooth.
  4. Add flour, vanilla, and salt and mix together well.
  5. With the speed on low, add the milk in slowly, one tablespoon at a time until you get the consistency you want.
  6. Add chocolate chips and mix in evenly on low or by hand.
  7. Spread over cupcakes and enjoy!

Posted on Tuesday, January 27, 2015 by Julie

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Sunday, January 25, 2015


Sometimes I just get a craving for german chocolate cake, but don't want to go through all the fuss of making an actual cake or even cupcakes.  I love macaroons.  Logically, I wondered what would happen if I added a few more flavors to my original coconut macaroon recipe to evoke the flavors of traditional german chocolate cake recipes - basically add pecans and chocolate.  The end result was pretty yummy and very easy!

German Chocolate Macaroons


Ingredients

  • 4 cups shredded coconut
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk (e.g. Eagle Brand)
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup miniature chocolate chips
  • 4 oz. german chocolate (e.g. 1 box Baker's Brand)
  • Sweetened condensed milk for drizzling (remainder of the can)

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. Mix together in a bowl the coconut, egg white, vanilla, condensed milk, pecans, and chocolate chips.
  3. Cover a baking sheet with a silicone sheet or parchment paper.
  4. Press together 1 inch balls of the coconut mixture and place on the baking sheet.
  5. Bake 18-20 minutes on the top shelf, monitoring to ensure the coconut doesn't burn.
  6. Let cool on the baking sheet.
  7. Melt german chocolate in the microwave, then drizzle on the macaroons with a spoon or use a squeeze bottle. 
  8. Repeat the drizzling process for the sweetened condensed milk.

Posted on Sunday, January 25, 2015 by Julie

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Sunday, January 11, 2015


California's Pacific Coast Highway is formally known as Route 1, and it spans from Orange County in the south to Mendocino County in the north.  For photographers, the real jewel of this road is the stretch that takes you along the Big Sur coastline.  Often times, Route 1 merges with Highway 101, and it is this road that I took to extend the coastal trip up to see the massive redwoods of Northern California.  In addition to coastal scenes, there are several highlights along the route that are "must see" stops, in my opinion.  Those places are in addition to the many things to do and see in both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

One of the stops on this roadtrip that I suggest you make is Solvang, just north of Santa Barbara. Solvang is a little taste of Denmark, founded in the early 1900s by a group of Danish transplants. Part of the main road through town is designed to represent typical Danish architecture, and there are plenty of bakeries and restaurants to try out some authentic food.


I wanted to stop at another "must see" of the PCH, Hearst Castle, but I was restricted by time and the fact that I had my dog with me.  The visitor center is pet-friendly, but the house is not, and I won't leave him in the car.  I've seen photos and heard reviews from friends, so I was sad I had to skip this attraction.

Just north of Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, is the popular beach (or rookery) where everyone stops to look at the giant elephant seals sleeping in the sun.  The best time to see the seals are in the winter months, when the males come to the beach to lay claim, then the females come a month later to start the breeding season.



Heading north past the seals, you enter into California Costal heaven - Big Sur!  Take advantage of lookouts to capture the views.


A little bit longer stop should be made at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to take the short trail that overlooks the 80 foot McWay Falls.  This narrow waterfall pours onto the beach from a rocky cliff and, technically, is called a tidefall for that reason.  Entrance to the park is on the east side of PCH.



The Big Sur tour culminates at the Bixby Bridge, a 320 foot concrete arch bridge.  When I passed over the bridge, a group was filming a commercial for a BMW SUV.  The downside was that traffic was stopped on both ends of the commercial driving zone for a bit as they wanted to have it clear on all the coastal road S-curves for safety and visual advertisement aesthetics.  The upside was that I got a clean, traffic free photo of the bridge!


After Big Sur, the stops are less attraction-based and more city/town based.  Of course, if you have time, you must explore Carmel.  It has some great restaurants and shops, especially art galleries.  A short drive north is the town of Monterey.  This town, rich with history as a former hub for sardine canning on the California Coast, and its iconic cannery row - that played a huge role in John Steinbeck's novel of the same name - has kind of turned into tacky tourist trap.  There is still the wonderful Monterey Aquarium to visit and the potential sighting of sea otters, especially if you take advantage of some of the otter kayak tours.  Other than those attractions, I don't really see the need to stay more than a half day, if you have the time.



Once you've finished in Monterey, Route 1 will pass through the artichoke capital of California, Castroville.  Consider making a fun, quick stop at the boardwalk of Santa Cruz.  Obviously, visiting in the warmer months would be more ideal, as the rides would be open more frequently and the very colorful Sky Glider chairlift ride would have people occupying the seats instead of weighted trash cans!


It is just a, comparatively, short ride to get from Santa Cruz to the fabulous San Francisco.  About two years ago, I wrote about how to do a quick tour of San Francisco (link), if you're interested and want to check it out.  As I mentioned earlier, the official end of the PCH is Mendocino County, which begins just after the Golden Gate Bridge.




While it would make sense to stop in San Francisco and make my way back home to D.C., I had always wondered about the redwood forests made famous by Woodie Guthrie's song, "This Land is Your Land."  Plus, who could resist an opportunity to actually drive a car THROUGH a tree?  The several drive-thru tree options are all paid excursions, so I selected to visit just the Chandelier Tree to check that box.



The best strategy for visiting the redwoods is plenty of advance planning.  I found this site and this site with hiking suggestions, both long and short.  And even with internet research, stop at a Visitor's Center and get some tips from locals and National Park Rangers.  My goal was to see at least one of the famous trees, so I made a quick visit to Tall Tree - a behemoth at over 360 feet tall and 13.5 feet in diameter!



Finally, while passing through Eureka between Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, I stopped at a gorgeous Victorian home known as the Carson Mansion.  This former home of a California lumber baron is recognized as one of the best examples of Victorian architecture in America, as it represents all of the various styles of building and detail.  It has also served as inspiration for many illustrations of haunted houses.  Sadly, the grounds and house are not available to the public.


So that's it!  A PCH plus a little more roadtrip!  If time allows in your travel schedule and you choose to continue on north into Oregon, you will be delighted with more beautiful coastal scenes.  In the warmer months, you should even consider staying in the Brookings to Coos Bay area to rent ATVs and explore the incredibly large sand dunes.  I did that once when I was in high school with a friend, and we had so much fun - and sand in our scalps for days after!

Posted on Sunday, January 11, 2015 by Julie

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Friday, January 2, 2015


If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that whenever I go and visit my friend, Kristin, in whatever country or state she is currently living, I am guaranteed a lot of activities and adventure.  We have taken a ride on an elephant in Malaysia, we climbed up to see Mt. Everest in Nepal, we almost had to bail over the side of a small ferry with a smoking engine on route from Terengganu to Palau Redang, and she is the reason why I initially got my SCUBA certification.  Last summer, when she moved back to Hawaii, I put in my visit request right away because it had been maybe five years since I was back on the islands and over a year since I had last seen her.  In five days, we went on six hikes, saw three waterfalls, kayaked out to an island, and ate (only) two shave ices.  Oh, and we got stuck by President Obama's motorcade once, almost twice, too.  I took all my camera equipment with me on this trip to try to capture some of the beauty of the island of Oahu.  Some of the photos on this post are from that camera and some are from my phone.

One photo I definitely wanted to take, especially since we were staying in Kailua on the east side of the island, was a sunrise shot.  My friend said a great location is a pre-dawn hike to two pillbox concrete structures leftover from WWII that overlook Lanikai.  What my friend didn't realize was that, since the last time she lived in Hawaii, the pillbox hike has become exponentially more popular.  Even with a crowded trail, we got up to the top in the dark with our headlamps in time to get in position for the sunrise.  I set up in three spots to get the different overlooks over Lanikai Beach with the two "mokes" (Na Mokulua) islands, the pillbox covered in people watching the sun, and the view all the way over Waimanalo Bay to Makapu'u.






No trip to a Hawaiian island is complete without a visit to at least one waterfall.  We hiked to three! Manoa Falls is a very popular waterfall outside of Honolulu.  The trail is well maintained, but there were still some tricky areas towards the falls.  The views off the trail are great for fans of bamboo forests, banyan trees, and other jungle flora.


Even though the Jackass Ginger Pool, off of the Old Pali Road (Nu'uanu Pali Drive), is relatively close to the road, the area around the falls is not easy to maneuver.  I had hoped to get to the other side of the pond to get a head on shot of the falls, but it wasn't going to be possible with all my camera gear.


My favorite waterfall hike was a short 15 minute trail to Likeke Falls from the Ko'olau Golf Course. There were some beautiful tropical flowers on the trail, and it was not crowded at all - as in no one was on the trail.  We did hear a "growling pig" but were pleased that the pig decided to leave us alone since we were not sure how to handle a wild boar encounter.


Non-waterfall destination hikes included a challenging trail to the Koko Crater Arch and to the ruins of King Kamehameha's summer residence.  Located near the parking lot for the famous blowhole on the south part of Oahu, the Koko Crater Arch hike takes you up into the hills to a large rock arch formation that is visible from the highway.  The easier route to the ridge of the hill that takes you the arch is on the west side.  We, unfortunately, didn't know that and climbed up the east side that required a little bit of rock climbing skills, but nothing major because the lava rock was easy to climb with lots of grip.


Hiking books suggest climbing on top of the arch because the trail leads further up to the actual Koko Crater Rim hike.  I wanted to capture the arch itself, so we found ourselves climbing up the trail that placed you right under the arch.  I took the route to the right of the arch and found that it required a spider climb with both legs and hands engaged.  While I slid back down the same route, my friend took the other side back down and said it was relatively easier, but still required a little bit of sliding.




On our hikes, we encountered some beautiful tropical plants and other gifts from mother nature.  The roots of trees in Oahu are unbelievably big and always seemed like they were present and ready to trip you on every trail.




King Kamehameha's summer residence is an easy walk off of the Old Pali Road.  These ruins were once a palace used by the Hawaiian King in the 1840s as a way to escape the heat of the summer.  In addition to the crumbling walls, you can still see remnants of the old water system to the palace.



The rest of our adventures were primarily spent on or around the beaches.  It is Hawaii, after all!  The temperatures were slightly chillier than one would hope, but still warm and sunny.



We climbed down to the beach next to the blowhole, made famous in the 1953 movie "From Here to Eternity," in order to see the large lava tube that extends under the highway.  We tried to go from one end to the other, but the ceiling was getting a little too low and we didn't feel like crawling anymore that day.


Another beach-based adventure took us out in the ocean on a double kayak to one of the "mokes" off of Lanikai Beach.  We actually launched from Kailua Beach, which is just north of Lanikai.  This was my first time in a sea kayak, and needless to say my paddling skills could use a little more practice. My poor friend probably took on more than her fair share of the work!  Thanks Kristin!


The reward for all our hard work getting to the island was a lazy monk seal sunning herself, and a short rocky climb to the island's popular attraction: Queen's Bath.  This is a natural rock formation that has created two pools that look like hot tubs on the ocean.  There were a few sea urchins in the bath to be aware of, but other than that, it made for a quintessential photo, relaxing in the "bath" with the waves crashing behind you.  Of course, we still had to make it back to Kailua, and we had a scary incident trying to launch off the island.  The waves had grown while we were exploring the island, and they were wrapping around and colliding right in front of the beach.  We watched as others tried to launch and fail.  Eventually, some locals who knew what they were doing helped by giving the kayakers a big push.  We thought we would take advantage of their assistance.  Unfortunately, luck was not with us and our timing was terrible - just as waves came at us from both sides - and we capsized and had to swim back to shore.  Our second attempt to get off the island was successful, but still scary!


On one of our "off" days, I convinced my friend to do the trek up to North Shore with the hopes that the surf would be good and we could see some really talented surfers who travel to Hawaii in the winter.  Alas, the weather was pretty stinky - wind and rain - and the swells were maybe only 6 feet. North Shore is a mess, traffic wise, so we took a break from the 5 mph crawl to see if we could find some napping turtles on Turtle Beach.  Even the turtles thought that the weather was cruddy and were having more fun swimming than freezing on the beach.  So with no surfers and no turtles, we tried one more activity - exploring tide pools at Sharks Cove.  We didn't see much in the way of large sea creatures, but we did find a ton of tiny snails cuddled up inside their shells.




So there it is, one jam packed Hawaiian vacation!  I'll leave you with a photo of my "small" shave ice, complete with a delicious combo of cherry and POG (passion fruit/orange/guava) syrups, and a photo from a quick beach night shoot that got cut short when clouds started rolling in.  See if you can spot the Orion constellation above the mokes!



Posted on Friday, January 02, 2015 by Julie

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