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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Odds & Ends

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1. After hearing everyone go on and on about Orange is the New Black, I finally plopped myself down on the couch one evening and watched the first episode. I have to say, it hooked me immediately! I’m now 3 episodes in and my brother actually bought me the memoir the series is based on, so now I'm pausing to read the book and then continue the series!

banana bread
2. Since we stayed in one large house together as a family on vacation, we ate most of our meals there, saving restaurants for just a few occasions. For breakfasts, we kept things simple—yogurt & granola, eggs & toast, cereal, or muffins! I made and froze carrot zucchini ginger muffins along with banana chocolate chunk walnut bread and transported it to Kiawah Island. The banana bread lasted maybe twenty-four hours and the muffins disappeared a few days after that! In other words, you can’t go wrong with either!
cookies and cream shake
3.  Speaking of South Carolina, it was there that I had my first ever Chick-Fil-A experience. We have a few Chick-Fil-A’s in the St. Louis area, but they’re much further out in the suburbs where we rarely venture. I’m not a huge fast food fan, but I have to say, their chicken really did look and taste so much better than what you’ll normally find! And the shakes….I am all about those! (Try the mocha cookies and cream!)

4. Remember when I told you about my cousin’s girlfriend’s online jewelry shop? My mom bought me a necklace from there for my birthday and I am in love. Not only is part of it made from a coin purse from the St. Louis Zoo (seriously, how awesome is that?!), but it arrived beautifully packaged and with obviously homemade care. Such a perfect gift!
Two Years Ago: Grilled Salmon with Tomato Peach Salsa
Three Years Ago: Fountain on Locust
Four Years Ago: Toasted Coconut Banana Cream Pie

Friday, August 30, 2013

4 Year Blogiversary (& a BIG Announcement!)

(image source)
A lot can happen in four years. Transformations occur in four years…just look at a high school freshman, and the insane amount of growth and change they undergo before they graduate four years later as a senior. In the four years since I began this blog, I feel like I’ve had a similar transformation. I started off clueless and uncertain, with a crappy camera and not a clue about blog advertising or Twitter or search engine optimization. Four years later, I’m still a little clueless, but I’m also more confident in what The Sweets Life is trying to be. I’ve built up a nice little following on Facebook, figured out how to use the manual settings on my DSLR, and made enough of an impression to get a mention on the Huffington Post. Through it all, I’ve stayed true to who I am as a writer, a blogger, and, most importantly, a chef. My hope is that when you come to The Sweets Life, you recognize the authenticity in my voice and my true love for enjoying food and sharing it with others.

In the four years since I began this blog, my life outside of blogging has had quite a few transformations as well. I trained for and completed a marathon. I overworked my body and dealt with running injuries on multiple occasions (I think I’ve finally figured this one out now!). I started and finished a Master’s degree. I traveled in just about every direction within the United States. I moved out of our duplex and into a single family home in a neighborhood we love. Through it all, much like with The Sweets Life, I’ve worked to stay authentic, living according to our faith and family values, learning and growing every step of the way.
 Four years later, I’m on the brink of my biggest transformation yet—adding the hat of “mom” to the many others I wear. Ryan and I are thrilled to announce that The Sweets Life will be that much sweeter come February! I’m just about sixteen weeks into this journey, and so unbelievably thankful for this blessing we’ve been granted. Along with sharing the news with all of my dear readers, I wanted to explain a few changes that are going to take place on The Sweets Life in the days to come…
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Facebook baby announcement
(How we broke the news on Facebook!)
Starting tomorrow, I’m going to cut back to blogging four days a week—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday will be food posts like always, and I’ll keep up the Odds & Ends feature on Saturday. Sometimes I'll probably swap out a Saturday post for a travel/restaurant post. Although I’m still, for the most part, cooking just as much as always and have plenty of recipes to share, I am tired and don’t have the time or energy to spend so many hours on the computer in the evenings. I figure that will only be more true when Baby McLaury arrives!

I’m hoping that fewer posts will allow me to up the quality and work on some behind the scenes blog stuff that I never seem to get to. In reality, I probably still won’t get to it, and I’m okay with that! Much as I love this blog, my family comes first and life moves too quickly to spend all of my free hours behind a computer screen! I anticipate that the blog will continue to evolve and grow and transform as time goes on, and I hope that all of you will keep reading and cooking alongside of me! Thank you for stopping by, whether you’ve been here since yesterday or four years ago…YOU are the reason I do this!

One Year Ago: Peach Yogurt Bundt Cake
Two Years Ago: No Bake Chocolate and Peanut Butter Oatmeal Bars
Three Years Ago: Peanut Butter Cookies
Four Years Ago: Homemade Blizzards

Thursday, August 29, 2013

German Chocolate Sheet Cake

chocolate sheet cake
German Chocolate Sheet Cake
 German chocolate cake was actually one of the first cakes I ever made from scratch. I’m pretty sure it was before I was married, and my (then) future sister-in-law Katelyn and I set out to make one. If I remember correctly, we had to borrow cake pans and we didn’t really know our way around the kitchen (at least not like now!), but we managed to construct a somewhat lopsided, but still tasty, German chocolate cake.
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chocolate sheet cake
Years later, I’ve now made several layer cakes (my favorite being this dark chocolateone!), and have more cake pans than I know what to do with! My cakes do sometimes still come out a little lopsided from time to time, a mistake easily avoided by making a sheet cake instead of a layer cake! This German chocolate cake comes together quickly in a 9 x 13 inch pan. The cake itself is spongy, with a deep chocolate flavor. Even if you aren’t a fan of the frosting on German chocolate cake, this would be a great chocolate base for just about any frosting!
chocolate sheet cake
Even though I forgot to toast the pecans AND coconut, the frosting was easily my favorite part of the cake. Yes, it’s almost sickly sweet, but the sugar is tempered by the dark chocolate in the cake, and a small piece is enough to satisfy! Half of this went to our pastor’s family, in celebration of their fourth baby, and the other half went to work, where not a crumb was left by lunchtime!

One Year Ago: White Chocolate, Cranberry, Oatmeal Bars
Two Years Ago: Turkey Quinoa Meatloaf
Three Years Ago: Columbia Crest Cork & Fork Dinner

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Smoked Pulled Pork with Tangy BBQ Sauce

pulled pork
 Can I gush about Ryan for a little bit today? I’ll be brief, I promise, but it’s his birthday and it’s well deserved. I married up. As in all marriages, there are plenty of his quirks that I could gripe about (as he could about me!), but those pale in comparison to his constant acts of selflessness.
Pin Itpulled pork
Take this pulled pork. We’d been talking about using our smoker again, ever since the ribs were such a huge success. With my friends coming to town, it was the perfect excuse to smoke a giant piece of meat! Ryan took complete control of this recipe, from start to finish. The night before he prepared the rub, making an extra trip to the store for ingredients. He woke up at 7 am on a Saturday to get the pork in the smoker (and then spent the day staining the back porch railing, I might add!). He made BBQ from scratch, even after I assured him our store-bought stuff would be just fine. He pulled all 7.5 pounds of the pork, trimming away any excess fat. AND he scrubbed the smoker before putting it away that night, ensuring we wouldn’t return to a sticky mess the next time we pulled it out.

His efforts were much appreciated, as was evidenced by the insane amount of pork the eight of us polished off for dinner that night. Although the photograph shows the pork on buns, we soon discovered it was best sans any bread, which distracted from the wonderfully smoky meat and the tangy BBQ sauce. The spice rub and sauce recipes came from ExtraordinaryBBQ, my go to blog for anything BBQ-related. It’s no surprise they’re blowing the socks off of judges in BBQ competitions—this was some of the best BBQ we’d ever had!
Happy Birthday Ryan, my hard-working, servant-hearted dream of a husband!

One Year Ago: A Very Special Birthday
Two Years Ago: Snickerdoodle Scones
Three Years Ago: Chicken, Mushroom, Asparagus Bread Pudding

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mixed Fruit Chicken Salad

chicken salad
My grandma made this chicken salad last summer for my sister’s wedding shower, and I asked for the recipe but then failed to ever make it. Instead I fell in love with another chicken salad, which I’ve made several times now. I actually finally remembered to give this one a try when I picked up some orange preserves for this chickpea mango spinach salad and wondered how I’d use the rest of the jar. Peanut butter and orange preserves just doesn’t have the same ring that peanut butter and jelly has, am I right?
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chicken salad
When mixed with white balsamic vinegar, cilantro, and jalapeño, the orange preserves make a tangy base for a mixture of chicken and a variety of fruits. Much like my favorite chicken salad, this one includes grapes and pecans, but also mandarin oranges and pineapple! I’d recommend using fresh pineapple if you can find it, but I made this last minute and couldn’t find a ripe one (the canned stuff was still fine in a pinch).

This chicken salad isn’t as well suited for sandwiches as a mayo-based chicken salad, so serve it atop greens with a side of crackers and you’ve got yourself a complete meal!

One Year Ago: Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits
Two Years Ago: Tomato, Feta, and Basil Galette
Three Years Ago: Banana Blueberry Bread

Monday, August 26, 2013

Lightened Up Pad Thai

lighter pad thai
 I love pad thai, but I’ve never even attempted to make it at home. Sometimes I shy away from making ethnic recipes at home because I don’t want to stock up on a bunch of random ingredients just to make one dish. That’s why this “cheater” version of pad thai is so great—I didn’t have to buy anything special to make it. Andie admits it’s not authentic pad thai, but it was authentic enough for me.
Pin Itpad thai for two

Sautéed cabbage replaces the noodles in this version, which considerably lightens the dish. Clocking in at less than 400 calories a serving, it makes for a healthy weeknight meal. I’d actually double the recipe—it makes two servings, but I definitely could’ve eaten more. I also recommend adding some extra protein—something like shrimp or chicken.

vegetarian pad thai
I’m sure I’ll eventually attempt real pad thai at home, but this is a more than welcome replacement in the meantime!

One Year Ago: Lemon Basil Hummus
Two Years Ago: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Cheesecake Bars
Three Years Ago: Salsa Verde Bake

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Finding Time in 2013: St. Louis Food Media Forum

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food media forum
 Rather than head to the kitchen to fulfill this month's "Finding Time in 2013" challenge, I decided to fulfill it a little bit differently. The point of the challenge, after all, is to take time to do things I maybe wouldn't normally, and attending the Food Media Forum certainly fell in that category.
fork spoon knife paper
As much as I love blogging, I don't necessarily participate in the blog community as much as most other bloggers. I sometimes forget about Twitter for days, rarely attend blogger meet-ups, and don't really attend blog conferences, unless I win a free ticket there ;)! I couldn't come up with a good reason not to go to Food Media Forum, especially since it was hosted in St. Louis and by some bloggers I know, including my friend Laura.
culinary institute st. louis
The two day conference was hosted at the Culinary Institute of St. Louis, which was perhaps the most impressive part of the weekend. Although culinary school isn't in the cards for me, it was fun to see the classrooms, industrial kitchens, and chat with a few of the students, who gave up their weekend to cook and serve us meals (I may or may not have snagged their chocolate chip cookie recipe, which I plan to try soon!). 
chocolate chip cookies
I'm not going to detail every minute of the weekend, but I did want to highlight a few of my favorite parts. In total, I'm glad I decided to put aside my reservations and go. As extroverted as I am, situations like these often feel contrived and cliquey, but the Food Media Forum definitely did not. Given that it was a much smaller blog conference than most, it seemed easier to meet people and to have discussions in some of the sessions.

So before I get too long-winded, the highlights....
corey woodruff
1. Picking up food photography tips from Jonathan Pollack and Corey Woodruff, two well-known St. Louis photographers. My food photos are one area I continue to want to improve, but haven't dedicated the time to really make those improvements (plus I think some of this is just innate talent, and one I do not have!). These two led photography sessions that made food photography seem very approachable and the guys honestly couldn't have been nicer or more willing to answer questions. 
ali gimme some oven
2. Meeting other bloggers! I was introduced to St. Louis bloggers I didn't even know existed (Live Laugh Rowe, an awesome DIY/lifestyle blogger with a heart of gold, and Tidy Mom, a crazy successful blogger who features everything from recipes to household tips to crafts on her blog). I was able to meet bloggers I've been reading for awhile, but had never put a name and person behind the blog (Stacy from Every Little Thing, Elizabeth from Eating Local in the Lou). And I was able to spend time with bloggers who I think of more as friends than fellow bloggers (Laura from Food Snob STL, Ali from Gimme Some Oven). 
cookie dough truffle
3. Hearing insights from different brands. The conference was sponsored by a number of brands, but I especially loved hearing from Copper River Salmon and Safest Choice Pasteurized Eggs. Bloggers get contacted by brands quite a bit, and it was great to hear some of their perspectives on working with bloggers and how these relationships can benefit both the blogger and the brand. Additionally, both Copper River Salmon and Safest Choice provided us with foods featuring their products (my particular favorite being the no-bake cookie dough truffles!)...you can always win us over with edible goodies! 
culinary institute st. louis
I could get more into what I learned in many of the sessions, including tips for styling your food photos, how to optimize the SEO on your site, and how to get started in Wordpress (a switch I've been wanting to from Blogger for years!), but in summary, I left jazzed about the new knowledge I'd picked up, the people I'd met, and the great food they fed us all weekend long. It was absolutely a worthwhile experience, and one I highly recommend if you're a food blogger in the midwest looking for a reasonably priced, non-overwhelming conference!

One Year Ago: Odds & Ends
Two Years Ago: Best of 2011 - Harvest Restaurant
Three Years Ago: Banana Caramel Cake

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Odds & Ends

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1. Pimento Cheese!!!!! WHY have I gone so many years without it?! I tried it for the very first time while in Charleston a few weeks ago (had it at Leaf Cafe & Bar) and immediately fell in love. We immediately picked up a pimento cheese spread to snack on at the house and it didn't last more than twenty-four hours. It's definitely one food I'd like to bring up from the south!
erewon attune foods cereal

2. I'm reclaiming a love for cereal, lately, but trying not to veer too much into the world of the sugar-laden varieties that have no nutritional value. I recently tried Erewhon Supergrains Quinoa & Chia cereal from Attune Foods which definitely falls on the opposite end of the cereal spectrum. It came in my Food Media Forum Swag bag (more on that tomorrow) and I'm loving it mixed with plain Greek yogurt. There's virtually no sugar in it, which means I'm free to get my sugar from other sources (like ice cream!)

the aviator's wife
3. If you've talked to me in the last week or so, I've probably mentioned The Aviator's Wife to you. Prior to reading it, I had very little knowledge about Charles or Anne Lindbergh, but this historical fiction novel completely brought their story to life, capturing me from the first page. I highly recommend it, even if you aren't typically a historical fiction fan.

oatmeal chocolate chip snack cake with cream cheese frosting
4. It's tradition in our work group that you bring in treats on your own birthday, much like we did in grade school. Most people succumb to store bought muffins or Panera bagels, but I try to bring in homemade baked goods each year. This year, one of the goodies I brought in was the oatmeal chocolate chip snack cake with cream cheese frosting. I'm not going to lie...intentions were selfish...I just wanted to eat it again! Thankfully my co-workers seemed to enjoy it too!

One Year Ago: Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Bars
Two Years Ago: Strawberry Basil Pesto Pasta Salad
Three Years Ago: Roasted Red Pepper Artichoke Bruschetta

Friday, August 23, 2013

Orzo with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Basil

Orzo with Sun-dried Tomato and Basil
Orzo with Sun-dried Tomato and Basil
 As much as I love our house, I'm not crazy about the amount of pantry space I have. Shopping on a weekly basis is pretty much a necessity. I like this on the one hand, because it elimates a lot of food waste on our end (no room to store excess food!), but I also often find myself with a lot of odds & ends clogging up space. There'll be a half used box of pasta or a quarter-full container of quinoa taking up valuable real estate!
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Orzo with Sun-dried Tomato and Basil
Orzo with Sun-dried Tomato and Basil
That problem was precisely what led me to this recipe, which managed to use up several odds & ends from within the pantry and refrigerator. Aside from helping me use up the orzo, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, and feta (my addition to the recipe), it was a great side dish alongside some grilled chicken that I can't wait to share with you! 

Want to turn this into more of a main dish? Add chicken, much like this chicken orzo salad with goat cheese!

One Year Ago: Bourbon BBQ Chicken
Two Years Ago: Cheesecake Stuffed Strawberries
Three Years Ago: Brownie Roll Out Cookies

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Black Bean and Greens Tacos with Mushrooms and Caramelized Onions

There's a newish Mexican restaurant in town that we've been to a few times. Gringo is situated on a bustling corner in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis and known for their tacos. I've partial for their fish taco, as well as the al pastor taco, but they have several tacos on the "weirder" end of the spectrum. Among them, the octo (grilled octopus!) and the chapulines, which is stuffed with sauteed grasshoppers! I haven't ventured to try either of those yet, but perhaps next time...
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Vegetarian Tacos
Black Bean and Greens Tacos with Mushrooms and Caramelized Onions
These black bean tacos kind of resemble their hongos taco, which featured mushrooms, pureed black beans, arugula and cotija cheese. Not to brag or anything, but I think I upped the ante a little bit on this variation, which skips any cheese but includes caramelized onions and collard greens alongside refried black beans and mushrooms, topped with a hefty sprinkle of tomato and avocado.
Vegetarian Tacos
Black Bean and Greens Tacos with Mushrooms and Caramelized Onions
When Pacific Foods sent me a few of their bean boxes to sample, my mind went straight to tacos and didn't look back. You could just as easily use a can of refried beans, but I loved how easy the Pacific Foods beans were (open carton, dump in bowl, heat in microwave). They came seasoned, making things even easier for me. Much as I love a traditional taco, this version is sure to please even the staunchest traditionalists! 

One Year Ago: Greek Tomato Tart
Two Years Ago: Lemon Basil Hummus

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Chocolate Pudding Ice Cream with Peanut Butter Swirl

chocolate pudding ice cream with peanut butter swirl
Chocolate Pudding Ice Cream with Peanut Butter Swirl
And just like that, another year has passed. Twenty-six was a hard year for me, in a lot of ways. I was stretched and grown in ways I certainly didn't ask for. Then again, do we ever ask for painful growth?! Coming out of twenty-six and heading full swing into twenty-seven, I can say with certainty that, like every year, I'm emerging stronger, more sure of myself, and more comfortable in who God has made me to be. 

Lest this sound too vague or like too much of a downer, let me emphasize--this year was fantastic in a lot of ways. I had one of the best weekends of my life, celebrating Julia and Nate's wedding. I ran my fourth (!!) RAGNAR Relay and fell in love with California Wine Country. We hosted friends and family for dinners, weekend visits, and visited friends in New York, watched my brother play basketball in Minnesota, spent a girl's weekend with my sister and cousin in Orlando, and made many visits to Chicago (and Wisconsin) to visit the family. I finished my Master's Degree and continued to learn and be challenged in my job. Somehow, amongst all that, I managed to deepen relationships, maintain this blog, and eat a lot of good food!
Pin Itchocolate pudding ice cream with peanut butter swirl
Chocolate Pudding Ice Cream with Peanut Butter Swirl

What better way to wish twenty-six goodbye and welcome twenty-seven than with ice cream. Creamy chocolate pudding ice cream with a peanut butter swirl, no less! My sister-in-law Kate gave me these adorable ceramic ice cream cones for my birthday (Anthropologie!) and I've been dying to make an ice cream to fill them with. I could not have made a better creation for the inaugural use of the cones.

As it turns out, pudding mix does amazing things to ice cream, much like it does to cookies. The chocolate ice cream was rich and creamy, without the use of a single egg yolk. I was tempted to eat the mixture (which obviously had the taste and consistency of pudding) before it made it to the ice cream maker, but I'm so glad I held out for the finished result! While nearly perfect as is, the peanut butter swirled throughout puts the final product in a league of its own. I can't wait to experiment with adding other pudding mixes to ice cream bases!

One Year Ago: Peanut Butter Cup Cheesecake Chocolate Layer Cake
Two Years Ago: S'Mores Cheesecake Bars
Three Years Ago: Peanut Butter Ice Cream

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

No Bake Peanut Butter Granola Bars

homemade no bake peanut butter granola bars
 I'm mentioned a few times that we drove to our family vacation location this year--about a fourteen hour drive to Kiawah Island. Aside from stopping for the inevitable restroom break, we tried to minimize our time off the road—we were anxious to arrive and officially begin vacation! Thus, my sister Julia and I made sure our (rented) minivan, Big Red, was stocked full of snacks to keep us fueled and therefore help us avoid any pit stops for Subway or McDonalds.

Pin Ithomemade no bake peanut butter granola bars
 These granola bars are the first thing we dug into on the trip, before we even made it to the highway in St. Louis. I love homemade granola bars, and these might be some of my very favorites! This particular version is a combination of Kashi Go Lean cereal (or, in my case, the Aldi knockoff brand), oats, peanut butter, honey, a touch of brown sugar, craisins, and chocolate chips. The cereal itself is high in fiber and protein, and low in sugar, but these were still plenty sweet (without tasting like dessert!) from the honey and brown sugar. Next time I make I might reduce the brown sugar more (or completely) and add some ground flaxseed. 
homemade no bake peanut butter granola bars
 The majority of the granola bars disappeared before we made it to our final destination and those that survived served as great beach snacks! Looking for other homemade granola bars? Try Banana Nut Granola Bars with Dried Cranberries, Cranberry Orange Butter Granola Bars, Mocha Coconut Granola Bars (a personal favorite!), or the less healthy but oh-so-good S'Mores Granola Bars!

One Year Ago: Green Bean and Prosciutto Salad Bundles (look fancy, but so easy!)
Three Years Ago: Snickerdoodle Blondies