Valentine’s Day Gift Guide for your Best Friend

Valentine's Day 2015 Gift Guide1. Notebooks, Day Planners & Address Books  |  2. Sequin Heart Clip or Pin
3. Handmade Cotton Napkins  |  4. Glass Jewelry Box in Bronze
5. Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (with recipes!) by Amelia Morris
6. I’m not Bossy. I’m the Boss! Mug  |  7. Personalized Stationery
8. Fujifilm Instax Mini 8 Instant Film Camera

As promised, I’m posting today with a round up of Valentine’s Day gift ideas for your very bestie…or, you know, any friend that you want to show a little love for this time of year. Some of very best Valentine’s Day memories are shared with friends, especially one where a feast was prepared that ended in chocolate lava cakes! Such good memories and, truly, reminders that friends can be the greatest loves of your life. I feel that way about a few of mine.

My gift ideas here span budgets and interests, but I’m particularly drawn toward the cotton napkins from CuteBrightThings for any friend or loved one that likes to cook and entertain. This orange floral set is so bold and gorgeous and at $18 for four, it’s a great gift idea. I’m also loving the jewelry box in bronze from H&M. It comes in a few colors, but the bronze is so pretty and chic. Who doesn’t need an extra holding spot for all of their baubles? Amelia Morris’ cookbook is another idea for the cook in your life, but it’s also supposed to deliver a really lovely story. It comes out next week and I absolutely cannot wait. I’ve been a reader of her blog, Bon Appétempt, for years and her writing is always funny, familiar, and touching. I haven’t bought a cookbook in a long time – I mostly check them out from the library – but this is definitely one I’ll be buying for myself and a friend!

What are you gift ideas for friends on Valentine’s Day? Do you have any friend memories from V-Day’s past?

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Valentine’s Day 2015 Gift Guide

Valentine's Day 2015 Gift Guide

1. Herschel Supply – Little America Backpack  |  2. Snow-Covered iPhone Case by Sarah Montour
3. Classic Wisdom for the Good Life by Bryan Curtis  |  4. Montblanc – Legend Eau de Toilette
5. Foil-Stamped Washington, D.C. Map (other cities available)  |  6. Timex Weekender Watch in Camo
7. Prism Diamond Limited Edition Print  |  8. Milk Glass Cake Plate  |  9. Dessert for Two by Christina Lane
10. Electric Gardens Statement Studs  |  11. Julep’s Glycolic Hand Scrub & Vanish Cuticle Remover
12. The Two-Color Color Block A Satchel from Kate Spade Saturday

I honestly think that 50% of the hype around Valentine’s Day is based on the fact that we all need a little pick-me-up, a little reminder of love, a little sparkle, this time of year. Not only are there now several weeks between us and the holidays – a sad realization that yes, we’re back to the grind for another year – but for many of us, we’re also at least ankle-deep in snow, slush, and the brown-gray dreariness of winter. Just earlier today, I looked out our living room window and gazed upon the street and sidewalks of Minneapolis and compared it to what I can only imagine 19th century city life was like in, say, London – sooty, muddy, messy. I’ve been watching a lot of BBC period dramas lately, guys.

At any rate, with the news that Valentine’s Day is a mere four weeks away, it’s time to start thinking about what you might surprise your great loves with. Flowers and chocolates are all well and good, but something a little bit more personal, maybe even a little glam, is just the thing to turn someone’s February frown upside down. Starting today, I’m releasing three gift guides over the next week to help you navigate the holiday with ease. Each infographic offers fool-proof gifts, across a variety of budgets, for your main squeeze, your bestie, and anyone else whose very presence in your life you want to celebrate. After all, while sold to us as a day for romantic loves, shouldn’t Valentine’s Day really be about telling anyone with permanent residence in your heart how much you adore them? My third infographic later this week will even feature the very best DIY Valentine’s Day gift ideas in a show of solidarity with those that believe the holiday should be detached from consumerism.

In the meantime, though, how about these gift ideas for your main squeeze? How excited would your sweetie be to open that gorgeous foil-stamped map print from Minted (the prism print and the cake plate are from there too – they have such beautiful gift ideas, let alone stationery!)? Or to crack into Christina Lane’s new cookbook featuring small-batch sweets for you and yours; her blog, Dessert for Two, is such a happy, inspiring, and tasty place to visit online. Bear stands by the Timex Weekender watch as a great gift that keeps on ticking – a present from Mom & Dad this past Christmas – and I don’t even bother giving myself a manicure anymore without using the hand scrub and cuticle remover from Julep. They truly improve the lifespan of my nail color and the neatness of the application – special thanks to my friend, Charlotte, for gifting me that duo last summer! Of course, for the purse-carrier in your life, is there anything more gorgeous than that Kate Spade Saturday A Satchel? It’s even on sale right now, though it remains pricey. That fuchsia leather though…droooooling.

Got any great gift ideas I’ve missed? Let me know what you’re eyeing up for Valentine’s Day 2015 – whether for yourself or a loved one!

Up next: Valentine’s Day gift ideas for your best friends! Stay tuned!

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Bagel and Lox Cheese Ball

Bagel & Lox Cheese BallAs an only child who lives halfway across the country, it’s safe to say that when I go home to visit my family, it’s a pretty big deal. If you’re an SNL fan, you couldn’t have missed this year’s Thanksgiving sketch by the ladies of the cast about heading home for the holidays – Back Home Ballers – which feels like an only slightly exaggerated version of my reality. What can I say? My mom misses me a whole lot (it’s mutual, Mom! Promise!). While home a few weeks ago, I was greeted two Saturday mornings with the biggest perk of being a long distance daughter – fresh-baked Jersey bagels! Still slightly warm in the center, they were perfectly chewy and heavily covered in a dense “everything” style mix of sesame seeds, poppy seeds, coarse salt, garlic, and onion. Gah, so delicious!Bagel & Lox Cheese BallThese bagels reached true “baller” status, though, when my mom broke out the surprise of lox and cream cheese to go along with them. We bonded over this treat when I was little; when the sight and smell of lox saw my dad scurrying from the kitchen with his nose pinched and me following suit just because it seemed the silly thing to do. Left to enjoy her luxe bagel alone, my curiosity eventually got the better of me and I returned to the table one morning and asked my mom for a bite. I had never tasted anything so savory and so delicious! I was hooked and from then on it became a special, once-in-a-blue-moon treat shared between mother and daughter – my dad stayed firm in his position on the matter.

Bagel & Lox Cheese BallWhen I returned to Minneapolis after Christmas this year, I brought back with me some fresh bagels for Bear and I because that’s the kind of girlfriend I am. One who travels with food in her luggage to bring you a familiar taste of home. We gobbled them up in just three days (what? they go stale fast!) and each time I bit into one, I sighed and spoke about the bagel and lox of weeks ago. Laying in bed on the night of the last bagel, I fantasized about the bagel and lox plate at a cafe I used to get here in Minneapolis that was truly a tasty feast, save for the hard, dense bagels they served with it. The Midwest has many perks, but bagels aren’t one of them. At any rate, this bagel plate came with a mound of garlic and dill cream cheese, capers, thinly sliced purple onion, and tomatoes. Mixing and matching ingredients between bites of lox and everything bagel was an indulgent pleasure, but one I’d foregone in recent years because of those disastrous bagels that accompanied it.

Bagel & Lox Cheese BallBut wait – I had cream cheese and purple onion in the fridge…and capers too! I even had, after examining the specifics, all the spices and seeds I’d need to make an everything bagel. All I was missing was the lox itself and that certainly wouldn’t be hard to find. I was onto a re-creation of sorts as I drifted off to sleep. Thing is, though, I knew even as my dreams found me that night that I didn’t want to be bothered making bagels – and anything store-bought out this way was just going to be a cruel, doughy joke even if it was to be smeared with all the right fixin’s. Enter: the bagel & lox cheese ball that came to mind the next morning. Sleep really *is* good for the brain!

Bagel & Lox Cheese BallIf you’ve spent any time on Pinterest lately, you’ve seen that the humble cheese ball is having a renaissance right now and truly, thank goodness! Why did cheese balls ever go out of fashion? While they might not necessarily be the most chic thing, I’m willing to bet that there’s never any left at the end of a party, no matter what you add to them or what you roll them in. A bagel & lox cheese ball seemed like a natural next step, adding in all the familiar toppings and flavors within the ball itself and covering the whole thing in the crunch reminiscent of my favorite bagel.

It sounded so good in theory, but the execution was tastier than I could have even imagined! All of the flavors I dreamt about, enjoyed around the table with my mom, are right here in this cheese ball. The perfect bite, but wrapped up into one adorable, party perfect sphere! Served with bagel chips or rye crackers, this is the perfect cheese ball for a brunch spread or an afternoon tea party. Won’t you give it a try?

Bagel & Lox Cheese Ball
Yields one cheese ball, approximately 3 inches across

Ingredients
1 8-ounce block of cream cheese, softened
2 Tablespoons of thinly sliced green onions
2 Tablespoons of finely minced purple onion
1 Tablespoon of nonpariel capers, roughly chopped
3 ounces of lox or smoked salmon
Fresh cracked black pepper
1/4 cup of toasted sesame seeds
3 Tablespoons of poppy seeds
2 Tablespoons of dehydrated onion flakes
1 teaspoon of garlic powder
1-1/2 teaspoons of coarse salt (I go a little light on the salt because of the salt in the ball itself)

Directions
Leave the cream cheese out to soften for a few hours or microwave for 30 seconds or until soft to the touch and set aside. Slice the green onions, the purple onion, the capers, and the lox. Add all aforementioned ingredients to cream cheese and crack in about half a teaspoon of black pepper. Combine thoroughly together. Put bowl directly into the refrigerator, uncovered, and allow to sit for 30-45 minutes. In the meantime, cut a 14″ piece of plastic wrap and lay on a flat work surface. After the time has passed, remove the cream cheese mixture from the refrigerator and spoon into a big mound in the center of the plastic wrap. Draw sides and edges of the wrap up together toward the center, shaping the mixture into a ball and twist the plastic wrap tightly shut. Finish shaping the plastic wrap-covered ball into as round a shape as possible. Return to a clean bowl where it will help hold the shape and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

While the cheese ball is resting and firming up, prepare the “everything” bagel coating. Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine the sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dehydrated onion flakes, garlic powder, and salt in a bowl and than pour, in a single layer, onto a baking sheet. Bake in oven for 4-5 minutes or until the mixture is toasted. Keep an eye on these, as they go from toasted to burnt in a second. When finished, remove seeds from pan immediately and allow to cool completely.

When the topping is cooled and your cheese ball has had time to firm up, remove the latter from the plastic wrap and roll in the the toasted “everything” mixture, being certain you cover the cheese ball completely in the topping. Serve immediately.

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Curried Carrot & Sweet Potato Soup

Curried Carrot & Sweet Potato SoupHappy New Year, my lovelies! Here’s hoping the first few days of 2015 are treating you very well indeed. I had so many plans for holiday posts – a cute jewelry DIY, a recipe or three – and I got to none of them! Zut alors! While this makes my overachieving brain feel a touch guilty for being neglectful of this space, I also realized that in not doing these things, I spent a lot more time being present with friends and family and just enjoying the season. While this may not bring me blogging fame any time soon, it did lend itself to a restful time, which I was sorely in need of after my teaching wrapped up.

Curried Carrot & Sweet Potato SoupThe time I spent visiting my family was such fun and omg-so-decadent. As Italians generally do, we stuffed our faces with some absolutely delicious grub. There were homemade rice balls, giant antipastos, surf & turf, cookies, cakes, an unforgettable banana cream pie. We visited family in southern Jersey and had mozzarella so fresh it was still warm when it hit our tongues! We traveled to see friends in New York and were treated to homemade gyoza that were simultaneously tender and crisp – not to mention porky & gingery! There were cheese balls, charcuterie, towers of pastries, piles of candies! Guys, in the words of Rayanne Graff, “it was a time!”

Curried Carrot & Sweet Potato SoupI bet for many of you, though, there is a glaring absence here of fruit and vegetables and while I didn’t at first care too much about this – vegetables with spinach dip count, right? – by my final days, I was a bit alarmed at how meat-cheese-and-sweets-heavy our diets had become. Understandably, my body felt cranky and tired, so when I returned to Minneapolis my first stop was the grocery store where I loaded up on all the produce I could carry. Seriously, the whole bottom shelf of my refrigerator is stuffed full with vegetables and fruit – a sight for the sore eyes of Bear, too, who had eaten a criminal amount of Tostino’s pizza rolls in my absence.

Curried Carrot & Sweet Potato SoupAs I stared at my bounty that first night trying to figure out what it was I wanted to eat, I realized that not only did I want something nutritious, I also wanted something well spiced and flavored; something different and brighter than the heavy foods I’d been enjoying the past few weeks. I spied the 5lbs of carrots awaiting me and suddenly was off on a monochromatic dash through the kitchen that found me grabbing sweet potatoes, curry paste, and an orange in tandem with the usual hosts of any savory meal – onions, garlic, and olive oil, among others.

Thirty minutes later, I had this hearty, delicious soup promising to bring me back from the brink of what I can only assume was nearly scurvy and oh goodness, was it just the ticket! Try this curried carrot and sweet potato soup with a drizzle of plain yogurt or sour cream and a garnish of fresh cilantro. It’s a sure pick-me-up and a great, flavorful start to the new year. It got me back on track and welcoming the next 360 days or so and all the splendor they’ll surely bring.

Curried Carrot & Sweet Potato Soup
Yields approximately 4-6 servings

Ingredients
2 medium sweet potatoes
2lbs of carrots
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons of butter
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
1-1/2 Tablespoons of curry paste (or 1 Tablespoons of curry powder)
1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
1/2 an orange, juiced (approximately 3 Tablespoons)
8 cups of chicken or vegetable stock, separated
1/2 cup of plain Greek yogurt (I prefer Chobani) or sour cream, plus more for garnish
Cilantro, for garnish (optional)
Salt and pepper

Directions
Peel and roughly chop sweet potatoes and carrots into chunks; try to cut them a similar size to one another so that they cook evenly. In a soup pot, add the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until they’ve begun to soften, approximately 5 minutes. Add garlic and sweet potatoes and sprinkle with some salt and pepper. Sautée for about 5 minutes and then add carrots. Continue cooking for 3-4 minutes. Stir in the curry & the cayenne pepper and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add 7 cups of chicken or vegetable stock, raise the temperature to medium high and bring to a boil. Give the soup a good stir, add the orange juice, lower the heat to medium low and simmer the soup for approximately 25 minutes. At this point, check the vegetables. If they are soft, you’re ready to move on to the next step. If they still have some resistance to them, cook until done. You want them to be really soft so that they blend up easily.

Remove the soup from the flame and prepare to purée the soup. You can do this a number of ways. I use an immersion blender, but you could also process this in batches in a blender or a food processor. For each, fill your vessel only half full and give it a few pulses before really letting it whirl. Hot liquid expands quickly when agitated and if you don’t use caution, you could burn yourself. If you don’t have any of these appliances, you could also remove all the vegetables from the pot and mash them with a potato masher or use a ricer. When finished, return them to the pot with the liquid and stir until combined. Your soup won’t be as smooth as if you’d used a blender of sorts, but don’t fear – it will still be very delicious!

Once your soup is puréed, check it for salt & add any if necessary. Additionally, consider its thickness. If it’s too much like a purée for your tastes, add the remaining 1 cup of stock in increments until the soup reaches the desired consistency. Next, stir in the yogurt or sour cream and watch your soup take on a new level of velvety. Yum!

Ladle into bowls and garnish with a swirl of yogurt or sour cream and a bit of cilantro. Gobble up.

*Note: This is easily made vegetarian (use vegetable stock instead of chicken stock) & vegan (use vegetable stock, replace butter with oil, and sour cream/yogurt with a dairy-free, soy yogurt).

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Cranberry & Clementine Conserve

Cranberry & Clementine ConserveWell, it’s been a minute, hasn’t it? One moment I’m making pumpkin french toast & the next I’m gone for weeks! It’s been a rough almost two months, but with the end of the semester nearing and the holidays upon us, I have every reason to make it through and get back to spending some time here with you all. Good riddance, first colds of the season, stomach flu, ailing relatives, antibiotic allergies, clogged up kitchen sink, hives! I’m telling you, we’ve had a rotten few weeks around the Femme Fraîche Fortress! Our survival, though, just serves as added material to consider around our Thanksgiving table this week.

Cranberry & Clementine ConserveI’ve been organizing and cooking our Thanksgiving dinners the past few years, often with the help of friends, and this cranberry & clementine conserve is a tried and true staple. I’m such a fan of this stuff, that I make it at all different times of the year (it’s totally acceptable to hoard cranberries while they’re fresh & freeze them, didn’t you know?) and pair it with so many other dishes other than the glory that is roasted turkey. It is, perhaps obviously, amazing alongside chicken and also pork, but it’s also delicious used as a jelly, spread on wheat toast that’s been topped with cream cheese. I’ve garnished oatmeal with it, swirled it into yogurt, and even had it on vanilla ice cream once. My grandmother, who is not the best judge of how to pair foods, also swears by eating it with meatloaf. I can’t vouch for that one, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s strangely delicious – it seems to be the perfect topper or side to many different kinds of meals.
Cranberry & Clementine ConserveWhat’s behind its versatility? I think it’s the very way in which it is such a mélange of flavors and textures. It is tart from the fresh cranberries and Granny Smith apple, yes, but it’s also sweet from the clementine juice and golden raisins, citrusy and fragrant from the zests, and crunchy from the toasted walnuts. When paired with something savory, it is, in fact, a perfect bite. Try this delicious take on cranberry sauce for your Thanksgiving meal. It will be the perfect addition this year and for those to come, though I’m willing to bet that once you try this, it will finds its way into your fridge – and heart! – all throughout the year. Cranberry & Clementine Conserve
Cranberry & Clementine Conserve
Yields approximately 4 cups; adapted slightly from here.

Ingredients
12 ounces of fresh cranberries
1-3/4 cups of white, granulated sugar
1 cup of water
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
4 Clementines, zested & juiced (may substitute 1 orange)
1 Lemon, zested & juiced
3/4 cup of golden raisins
3/4 cup of toasted walnuts, chopped

Directions
In a dry skillet, toast walnuts over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are lightly browned and fragrant (you can always tell when nuts are done toasting by the amazing smell!); approximately 5 minutes. Be sure the walnuts are in a single layer in order to get even toasting. If you are working with pre-chopped walnuts, this process may take less than 5 minutes. Once your walnuts are toasted, remove from heat and allow to cool before chopping roughly if necessary. Set aside.

In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the cranberries, sugar, and water and heat over medium heat for about 5-7 minutes, or until the cranberry skins are mostly all popped. Stir this mixture occasionally and don’t be alarmed if a bit of pink foam forms; this is just the berries releasing their pectin, which will help the sauce gel up. Next, add the chopped apple, the zests, the lemon & clementine juices, and stir together. Cook for another 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately add the golden raisins and the toasted walnuts. Stir to combine and allow to cool fully before transferring to a storage container. Serve chilled.

Cranberry & Clementine Conserve keeps well in the fridge for over a week and takes very well to being frozen and thawed when next you need it.

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Pumpkin French Toast with Cinnamon Sugar Cornflake Crust

Pumpkin French Toast with Cinnamon Sugar Cornflake CrustWhew! That title is a monster! You might be asking, are all of those things really going to be in this recipe and will it really be good or just plain overwhelming? Fear not, dear readers! This recipe is as every bit delicious as it is a mouthful and I promise to never steer you wrong. If you’re looking for a lovely little Fall-inspired breakfast to have this weekend or later on in the season once the leaves have all wrapped themselves in ochre, this is it. All the flavors of Fall and home in one dish!

Pumpkin French Toast with Cinnamon Sugar Cornflake CrustPrior to moving to Minneapolis, I’d never seen French toast dipped in anything other than your standard egg custard. All of that changed, though, when I found my favorite local brunch spot, Sunnyside Up Cafe, where they rolled their French toast in crushed cinnamon-sugared cornflakes – what a surprising and delicious treat! Their Cowboy French Toast, as they called it, was unmatched in its crunch and caramelization – cornflakes and sugar browned up in butter? Help me, Rhonda!

Pumpkin French Toast with Cinnamon Sugar Cornflake CrustSadly, my beloved Sunnyside Up went out of business a year or so ago and ever since I’ve been thinking of trying my hand at recreating their French toast. I’ve hesitated though because, truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of sweet for breakfast. Sweet and salty, yes, please, but a whole plate of sugary, syrupy breakfast makes me feel off the whole rest of the day. Last week, though, I found a beautiful cinnamon bread at the store and while we’d had a few slices for a late-night sweet treat over several days, it was starting to get a bit dry. As I made my way back through the kitchen en route to the bedroom on Saturday night, I passed it on the counter and it clicked – we could have French toast tomorrow morning! With a plan in place, I left 8 slices out on the counter, took a package of bacon out of the freezer to defrost, and off I went to slumber.

Pumpkin French Toast with Cinnamon Sugar Conflake CrustThe next morning felt like Fall, with a cooler breeze in the air and the first turning leaves spied from the kitchen window. As I began to gather my ingredients, I came across a lone can of pumpkin puree in the back of my pantry. My initial thought was “You’d better use this remaining can up from last winter before you start stockpiling cans for this season!” and as soon as the thought was complete, my stomach & brain sung “pumpkin french toast!” in unison. The rest of this story is history!

Pumpkin French Toast with Cinnamon Sugar Cornflake CrustThe pumpkin custard here is simple, but tastes like the loveliest of pies – cinnamon, vanilla, & cardamom all join the milk and eggs to round out the flavors of Fall. Rolled in a mixture of crushed cornflakes, sugar, and some more cinnamon, the French toast takes on this hard, crisp exterior that holds up well to a pat of butter and your best maple syrup. In fact, you don’t even really need the latter as this recipe is so delicious on its own, but why stop at pumpkin french toast with cinnamon sugar cornflake crust? A drizzle of maple syrup, a slice or two of bacon, some fresh berries and this is the stuff of dreams – autumnal dreams! Serve this to your favorite wearer(s) of plaid & enjoy!

Pumpkin French Toast with Cinnamon Sugar Cornflake CrustNote: Exciting news at Femme Fraîche – I was able to upgrade my camera just last week, which means I have a bunch more megapixels to capture and play with. While these photos were taken with the new baby, it was less than 24 hours after its arrival, so they might not look so great while I get up to speed on all of the new bells & whistles. Prettier (less grainy?) photos to come!

Pumpkin French Toast with Cinnamon Sugar Cornflake Crust
Yields 8 slices of French Toast

Ingredients:
8 slices of a sturdy bread, such as brioche, that has been left out on the counter overnight or is a few days old
3 eggs
1/2 cup of whole milk or half & half
1 teaspoon of vanilla
2-1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon, separated
2-3 shakes of nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon of cardamom
5 Tablespoons + 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar, separated
1/3 cup of canned, pureed pumpkin; not canned pumpkin pie filling
2 cups of cornflakes
Small pinch of salt
4 Tablespoons of butter, plus more for serving
Maple syrup, optional
Fresh berries, optional

Directions:
Set out 8 slices of bread overnight to dry out a bit so that they will absorb maximum pumpkin custard and flavor when you make your French toast. In a resealable gallon bag, pour 2 cups of cornflakes, 1-1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, 5 Tablespoons of sugar, and a small pinch of salt. Crush together until all of the cornflakes are broken down coarsely. Pour contents onto a large platter and set aside. In a mixing bowl, combine the 3 eggs and milk until well incorporated. Add the remaining cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, 2 teaspoons of sugar, and vanilla. Whisk together, then add the pumpkin puree and stir until combined.

In a large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat as you dip each piece of bread in the pumpkin custard. Depending on your bowl, you can submerge each piece for a minute or so, or soak each side for approximately a minute each. When your bread has absorbed a enough custard, transfer to the platter of cornflakes and coat with the mixture. Pat mixture onto both sides with a little pressure so that the cornflakes adhere well. Add to melted butter in the pan and follow suit with 3 others slices. Cook in two batches of 4 for approximately 3-4 minutes a side or until cornflakes are golden brown and smell of caramelized sugar and butter. Use remaining two tablespoons of butter to melt in the pan between batches.

When finished, allow French toast to sit for 2 minutes so that the coating hardens up. Top with a pat of butter, a drizzle of maple syrup, and fresh berries if desired.

 

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Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream with Sesame Brittle Swirl

Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream with Sesame BrittleMy teaching load is pretty heavy this semester, so I’m doing much less of all of the things I love – spending time with friends, cooking, making things with my hands, blogging, and the list goes on. Still, it’s good work, a paycheck, and it makes me really present when I am able to put time into things I enjoy. Last week, in the middle of a major tech glitch in one of my online courses, a student meltdown over confronting their own homophobia, and the realization that I had scheduled papers due in all of my classes on the same day, I quit. I closed my school’s loaner laptop for the first time in four straight days, shut my desktop off for a few hours, and just thought about what I wanted to do with my sudden window of freedom…ahem, I mean self-care!

Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream with Sesame BrittleI’ve been knocking around the idea of making Thai iced tea ice cream since last summer when I saw someone’s photos on Pinterest of it. Big, round globes of soft orange ice cream, piled on top of a waffle cone – I already knew what it must taste like! As the thought stayed in the back of my mind, though, I’ve continually thought about what I could add to give it a different spin or add some texture. When it comes to ice cream, I’m usually a purist, but I saw so much potential here for doing a little more. I had a clear winner in mind, but when I went to my pantry in order to get some serenity last week, the cans of coconut milk I thought I’d find there were nowhere to be found. Did someone make a delicious curry while I wasn’t looking? Who’s to say? But with that idea down the drain, my eyes fell on a bag of sesame seeds I had bought a few months back wanting to make one of my favorite candies of all time – sesame brittle.

Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream with Sesame BrittleLike magic, the two ideas melded and it was just the undertaking I was up for – multi-stepped so that I could successfully avoid work and give myself the break I needed and yet not so cumbersome that I’d be sorry I started halfway through. For someone not looking to cook the day away, you might want to split this up over two days, making the brittle and the ice cream base on the first day and churning and assembling the ice cream on the second. When I have the time, I prefer to make ice creams over two days anyhow because it allows the base to get really, really cold in the refrigerator overnight so that it churns faster and gets thicker once you introduce it to the machine.

Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream with Sesame BrittleSince I wanted to start and finish this ice cream on the same day, I began with the base and then put it in the back, coldest corner of my fridge and let it sit there for several hours while I made the brittle, allowed it to cool, and broke it up. Breaking the brittle to the point where it is about the consistency of store-packaged toffee chips is a tough job (so is not eating all of it before you crush it), but I relied on a trusted, vintage ice crusher to do the job. You’d have just as much success putting the brittle into a bag and crushing it with a rolling pin, of course.

Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream with Sesame BrittleThe brittle itself is nutty from the toasted sesame seeds and then sweet and caramelized from the honey. I add a little cinnamon and a little cardamom to add a some extra warmth and spice, but you can leave those out if you don’t have them on hand. The brittle is, obviously, great in ice cream, but it’s also perfect on its own. I was so bananas over it that I plan on making a bunch at Christmas and handing it out with cards. Here’s where I’d go into detail about how I accidentally semi-burnt a batch, but nibbled at it until it was suddenly gone anyway because it was sugar and butter and honey and, thus, still delicious.

Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream with Sesame BrittleIt adds a great crunch and texture to the ice cream, which tastes, as you might imagine, just like Thai iced tea, but creamier. The flavor of the tea is really pronounced, but that’s what I love about this recipe. If it seems too strong to you the first time you make, go a bit lighter on the steeping time and that should help. Without the brittle, I’d worry about the tea flavor being a little overwhelming and the base not sweet enough, so keep that in mind if you decide to make this sans brittle; you may want to increase the sugar and/or decrease the steeping time.

Such a beautiful, delicious dessert and one that is definitely worth the time spent. When chaos, inevitably, strikes this week, at least I’ll still have some ice cream to get me through. It wound up being just the thing to take my mind off classses and allowed me to enjoy being back in the kitchen with just an idea and some time on my hands.

Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream with Sesame Brittle
Yields about a pint & a half

For the Brittle
 (adapted slightly from here)
Ingredients:
3/4 cup of sugar
1/4 cup of honey
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon of ground cardamom
1 Tbsp water
1 cup raw sesame seeds
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
2 teaspoons of butter
1/4 teaspoon of baking soda

Directions:
In a heavy-bottomed pot, add the sugar, honey, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, and water and stir to combine over medium heat. Cook for 2-3 minutes stirring occasionally, then stir in the raw sesame seeds. Cook the mixture, stirring often, until it turns an amber color. This can occur anywhere between 5-10 minutes and it is very important you not only keep watch for the color to change, but that you also use your sense of scent. When you can smell the sugar caramelizing and the sesame seeds toasting, check on the color and wait until it reaches a rich medium brown. If you have a candy thermometer, the temp should be around 300°F. Once the sesame mixture has reached the desired color and temperature, remove the pan from the heat. Immediately stir in the vanilla extract and butter. Once the latter has completely melted, stir in the baking soda. This will cause the mixture to foam up a bit, but don’t be alarmed. As you stir, and as it settles down, the foam will subside. Pour sesame mixture onto a baking sheet that has been lined with a silpat or parchment paper. For the ice cream, I like to spread it out a bit so that the brittle is about 1/8″ thick or even less. If I was serving it on its own, I’d spread it to about 1/4″ thickness. Once the brittle has completely cooled and hardened (about 25 minutes), break it into pieces and enjoy or grind it up for use in ice cream.

For the Ice Cream
Ingredients:
1/2 cup of Thai tea leaves – I used these
1-1/2 cups of whole milk
2 cups of heavy cream
1-1/2 cups of sugar
3 large eggs

Directions:
Consult your ice cream machine’s directions and plan ahead to freeze the insert if necessary. In a heavy-bottom saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the milk and 1 cup of the heavy cream. As small bubbles form around the edges, pour in the tea leaves and stir gently for about three minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and allow it to sit and cool for about 20 minutes so that the tea leaves steep into the mixture. While this is cooling, measure the sugar into a medium mixing bowl and add the three egg yolks. Beat with a whisk until the mixture is a pale yellow and the texture is almost like a paste. In a separate heavy-bottom saucepan, add the remaining cup of heavy cream and allow to warm over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Bubbles around the edge will form indicating it is getting hot. When this occurs, pour in the egg and sugar mixture and mix thoroughly until combined. Turn the heat down to medium and stir the mixture gently, but consistently, for about 10 minutes. You’re creating a custard here and while this isn’t difficult, your attention is key in making sure it doesn’t cook too far, or get too hot too quickly, creating a curdled texture. As the heat rises, the mixture will thicken into a custard. As soon as you sense this happening, remove the pot from the heat and continue to stir for a bit as it begins to cool down.

After about 15 minutes, strain the custard through a wire sieve in order to remove clumps which may have formed during the custard-making face. Place in the refrigerator to cool down while you continue with the recipe. Take your pot of Thai tea and strain it. Allow this to cool as well. When both mixtures are cooled, combine thoroughly and then keep in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours before churning. When the Thai iced tea base is completely cold, pour it into your ice cream machine and allow it to process according to the manufacturer’s directions. In the final five minutes of processing, shake in about a cup of the sesame brittle crumbles and allow the machine to stir them in. When the ice cream has finished churning, transfer to a freezer-proof container and store.

 

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DIY Chalkboard Cake Toppers

DIY Chalkboard Cake ToppersWell, the semester has begun and though I wish I was creating blog content all the live long day, I’ve been back to teaching and guiding students through their first few weeks of gender & women’s studies classes. For the first time in a long time, I’m teaching some intro-level classes, which are my absolute favorite. Observing students as their minds are being blown is just the very best feeling as a teacher. These are the perks!

Before things really got underway this semester, though, I celebrated my birthday last week with a friend whose big day is just a day before mine. Surrounded by friends and loved ones, we drank champagne and ate an amazing Italian-inspired meal, al fresco, in our beautifully decorated side yard. It was quite a time! For dessert, I made us a giant cheesecake, covered in the season’s sweetest strawberries, and used these easy DIY cake toppers I had made the week before to make it extra special.

DIY Chalkboard Cake ToppersIf you follow my Instagram feed or checked out the highlights from Charlotte & Katie’s wedding feature, these may look familiar to you. I made Charlotte & Katie a pair for their wedding cake back in July and because they were just so easy (and almost criminally inexpensive), I followed up with a set for myself. What’s wonderful about them is that they’re reusable – the white paint that spells out your message of “Happy Birthday!”, or what have you, is written on a chalkboard paint background with a chalk marker! With a damp cloth, the slate is wiped clean and they’re ready to go for your next happy, cake-included, occasion.

DIY Chalkboard Cake ToppersYou’re limited here really only in terms of what shapes of wood you can find. While I’ve come across other shapes and sizes at Joann’s, these hearts are my favorite and are most applicable to a variety of holidays and events. Chalkboard paint, though, is available in so many different colors now and what you use as an accent color for the backs, edges, and skewers is entirely up to you. Now that I’m thinking of it, I wish I had tracked down a hot pink chalkboard paint because, paired with the metallic gold accent, it would have been a femme birthday dream come true!

DIY Chalkboard Cake ToppersThis is an easy craft that you can pull together in about an hour total, that costs only a few dollars, and will add a really personal touch to any future party. Arrange them on cakes, pies, cupcakes, and even stuck in the middle of a mound of cookies. They’re a sweet addition to any dessert and something you, or your loved one, can hang onto as a memory afterward or re-use in the future.
DIY Chalkboard Cake Toppers

DIY Chalkboard Cake Toppers

Supplies:
Two wooden cut outs in any shape; I used hearts from Joann Fabrics, which were under $1 each!
Chalkboard paint
Acrylic paint in color of your choice for backs, edges, and skewers
2 wooden skewers
Hot glue sticks & glue gun
Foam paint brush, about 1″ wide
Small thin-tipped paint brush, s square tip works best
Chalk marker, or regular chalk

Directions:
On a flat surface lined with newspaper, paint the backs and edges of your shapes with your accent color of choice; I used the foam brush for the back and the thin-tipped brush for the edges. If you get a slight bit on the front, just wipe it off as best you can, but don’t fret – the chalkboard paint will cover all. After the accent color has mostly dried – about 10 minutes – apply a second coat to backs and edges. When the second coat dries either move on to the following step or add a third coat if needed. Using the thin-tipped brush follow your shape and paint a perimeter on the front of the piece with the chalkboard paint so that you create a margin and don’t risk painting over the edge that you just painted with your accent color. Using the wider foam brush, fill in the shape with a coat of chalkboard paint and allow to dry. Follow this step for the front of the shape for at least three coats in order to get a truly opaque surface. Allow to dry completely. If need be, touch up the edge with your accent color.

When your shapes are completely painted and dried, heat your glue gun and ready your two wooden skewers. If you choose to paint the skewers in your accent color, painting them when you paint the shapes is the best plan, as painting them once they’re glued to the shapes is a bit awkward. Flip your shapes over so that the back side is facing up. Apply a small, 1/2″ or so line of hot glue to the back of the shape and press the top, non-pointed, side of the skewer into the glue. If the glue is not enough to encase the top of the skewer, apply a bit more glue over top so that it is covered. Do the same to the other shape & skewer and allow to dry completely. Hot glue is usually clear, so depending on your preference, you can either leave as is or, if you’d like, once the glue is hardened and cooled, you can use your accent color to paint over the glue and make it blend a bit more seamlessly. This step is optional.

Once the skewers are dried, the cake toppers are ready for use. Use a chalk marker for easy, seamless writing (or regular chalk if preferred) and spell out your message of celebration. Chalk markers can be easily removed with a damp cloth (avoid paper towel, as it catches on the paint and the wood). Allow surface to dry before re-printing.

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Easiest, Creamiest Stovetop Mac & Cheese

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseAs I plopped down on the couch for dinner the other day over a plate of this awesome mac & cheese, I mused that nothing gave me a good ego boost like mastering a bowl of this stuff. On the one hand, I was kidding, but in a way it’s also kind of true. I mean, I’ve had – and made – a lot of mediocre mac & cheese. Sorry, family and friends! So many recipes underestimate the amount of cheese you should use and have you stick to just one kind, while others have you overcook the pasta until all that is left is a very gummy or, still worse, gummy and dry, mess.

While darling Bear claims there’s no such thing as bad mac & cheese, I have to disagree. It’s real and it’s a tragedy. So, let’s start anew with this recipe, which is easy as much as it is tasty. It’s, in my opinion, the easiest, creamiest stovetop version, so whether it suits you just right, or it acts as the base for your spicier, more garlicky, ham and broccoli version, for example, then that’s just fine, too. What matters here is that we’re saving mac & cheese from all the horrible things that have been done to it and making a classic version that is worthy of all the accolades people give it as a dish.

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseI use four cheeses for this version. I know you’re saying, “whoa, girl!” but I swear it’s the blending of multiple cheeses that will get you, in part, to where you want to go. Mac and cheese, while a homey dish, doesn’t mean it’s beyond science. What kind of science, you ask? Well, the one that covers how cheeses work together, how they melt or crisp, add creaminess or thicken a sauce while adding a salty bite…and you said you hated science! This recipe relies on a blend of cheeses because we want a mac and cheese that isn’t just one note. You know why so many mac and cheeses are just blah and tasteless even though you’ve added 15lbs of cheese? Because you’re only using one kind and that, combined with a bunch of not-too-flavorful elbow noodles, is not going to bring all the boys to the yard.

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseSo, here today we’re going to use the four cheeses of American, asiago, pecorino romano, and cream cheese. Did you see that last one coming? It’s so right for a creamy, smooth sauce. You’ll never make macaroni and cheese again without it! Both the asiago and the pecorino romano add the saltiness you need to bring the cheese sauce together, but also to add some more, much needed flavor to the noodles. All of the cheese melt into the sauce beautifully while also helping to thicken it. The main cheese is regular old American though and sneer all you want, but it melts like a dream and brings a delicious flavor that is familiar. Coupled with onion, hot sauce, yellow mustard, salt, and fresh ground pepper, this mac and cheese is complex in flavor without being difficult to master or snooty. It’s perfect for a weeknight dinner.

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseTo keep it moist and creamy, this stuff never sees the inside of an oven and, really, it needn’t. Yet, how can you have macaroni and cheese without some semblance of a crunchy, buttery crust? You can’t! So, the topping is all done on the stove-top too and, in all honesty, I absolutely prefer it this way, as the panko retains all of its crunch and doesn’t sink into the macaroni like toppings tend to do when you bake it all together. Make way in your recipe boxes for this one, it’s sure to give other versions a real run for their money and, I’m guessing, will outshine most of the competition. Enjoy!

Easy, Stovetop Mac & Cheese
Yields 6 servings

Ingredients:
1lb of elbow macaroni
Water
Canola oil
1 small onion, diced
7 Tablespoons of butter, divided
4 Tablespoons of flour
4 cups of milk, divided (3-1/2 for sauce, 1/2 extra to thin, if needed)
Salt & pepper
1-1/2 Tablespoons of garlic powder, divided
12oz of American cheese, cubed
3/4 cup of asiago cheese, grated finely
3/4 cup of pecorino romano cheese, grated finely
4oz of cream cheese, cubed
Hot sauce
2 teaspoons of yellow mustard
1 cup of panko bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons of minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Directions
Fill a large stock pot with water and add a few generous pinches of salt. Bring to a boil, add pasta and stir for the first minute so that the pasta does not stick together.

While the pasta is cooking, melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a sauce pan over medium heat and finely dice your onion. When the butter is melted, add the onion and cook for several minutes until the onions start to become translucent – about 5-7 minutes. Once the onion is cooked, add about a 1/2 teaspoon of salt and pepper each and 1 Tablespoon of garlic powder. Add 4 Tablespoons of flour and stir to combine. Allow this mixture (the roux) to cook for 2 minutes or so. Next, turn the heat up to medium high and add the milk. With a whisk, stir the mixture vigorously to break up the roux into the milk and allow it to dissolve. Allow to heat through, stirring it every minute. When the roux has dissolved and the heat rises, the mixture will begin to thicken, when you notice this starting to happen, stand watch and stir frequently so that the mixture does not burn or become too thick. When it reaches milkshake consistency, turn the heat back down to medium and add all of the cheese and stir to combine. Allow all of the cheese to melt slowly, stirring every minute or so to help it become incorporated. Once the cheese has melted entirely into the sauce, add a few dashes of hot sauce to your tastes and the yellow mustard; stir thoroughly. Taste for salt and pepper and add more if necessary. If sauce seems too thick at this point, you can add up to about a 1/2 cup of milk, though I suggest starting with a smaller amount, stirring to combine, and seeing if you need more.

Cook the pasta until al dente (it should still have some bite to it, as it will soften more as it sits in the sauce), then drain it and return it to the pot. If you are still readying the other ingredients, add a small drizzle of canola oil to the pasta, stir, put a lid on it and allow it to sit off the heat while you complete the other elements. If your sauce is ready to go, omit the canola oil step and add the cheese sauce to the pasta and stir thoroughly to combine. Cover with a lid while you prepare the topping; you may choose to keep it over a “warm” level flame if you’d like, though the lid should keep the macaroni and cheese hot since the topping doesn’t take long to put together. Be aware that even over “low” or “warm,” the sauce will continue to thicken, making the pasta drier.

In a frying pan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter with 1 teaspoon of canola oil over medium heat. Add bread crumbs, some salt and pepper to your tastes, and 1/2 a tablespoon of garlic powder. Stir together and toast the bread crumbs, stirring occasionally, until thoroughly browned, about 5 minutes total. Be sure to keep an eye on them, though, they go from light brown to burnt quickly! When the bread crumbs are toasted, remove from the pan and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. In the meantime, plate your macaroni and cheese either on individual plates or in a larger casserole-type vessel. When the bread crumbs have cooled, add the very finely minced parsley and stir. Top macaroni and cheese with topping and serve. To reheat macaroni and cheese after refrigeration, add it to a heavy-bottom pot with a splash of milk and cover with a lid. Apply medium heat and allow to come up to temperature, stirring every few minutes until the sauce has melted and become creamy again.

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Strawberry Lime Yogurt Cake

Strawberry Lime Yogurt CakeI love the overabundance of fruit and veggies in the summer. Not only because it means there are more options of what to make, but also because it’s a challenge to discover new recipes and create your own in using up what you have on hand. Some of my tastiest dishes have come out of staring into the deep abyss of the refrigerator, or at a dwindling fruit bowl, and thinking, “What am I going to make with these remnants?” or, shamefully/more realistically, “What should I make with all of this before it’s past its prime?” The latter is exactly what occurred a few weeks ago when I overbought on strawberries thinking I was making shortcake for a party and then changing my mind at the last minute. It’s not like it’s hard to just eat strawberries – they’re my favorite of all the berries – but they take a turn for the worse so quickly that having them around, without a plan, makes me fret. Those red beauties aren’t cheap! Strawberry Lime Yogurt CakeSeeing them looking back at me from their front-and-center spot in the fridge made me start hunting around for flavors that pair well and before I knew it, I had limes and was on my way to a baked good of some sort. Inspired by all of the gorgeous strawberry buttercream-topped desserts I keep seeing online, I knew I wanted to make a cake, but didn’t have the energy or the ingredients to go in that direction. Instead, I thought a loaf cake of sorts would be just the ticket and with the added bonus of having some yogurt on hand, things quickly took shape. The yogurt and sour cream combo in this cake keeps the crumb super moist, but also lighter than if you used only sour cream. The tang of both plays well with the sweetness of the berries and mirrors the lime, which makes everything feel so fresh and summery. Because when I think “lime,” I almost always think of “coconut,” I substituted coconut oil for the vegetable oil and put some unsweetened flakes in the batter too; the result was subtle, allowing the strawberries and lime to shine, but present enough that it gave the cake a bit of a tropical feel.

Strawberry Lime Yogurt CakeServed with a dollop of fresh whipped cream, ice cream, or just on its own, this cake is the perfect light, refreshing end to a summer meal. It also makes a great gift to welcome a new neighbor or to say “thank you!” to a friend because it’s a small, easy-to-transport cake with not a lot of frills to make it messy. Plus, it’s pretty as a picture. What a keeper!

Strawberry Lime Yogurt Cake
Yields one loaf cake; adapted from here.

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour (if you’re skipping the fruit, you can also skip the last tablespoon of flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plain yogurt (whole-milk is preferred, but non/low-fat works well too because of the sour cream addition)
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons grated lime zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup melted coconut oil, plus 1 teaspoon or so for greasing the pan
1 1/2 cups chopped strawberries
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Using approximately one teaspoon of melted coconut oil, grease an 8 1/2 by 4 1/4 by 2 1/2-inch loaf pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper and set aside. In a medium-sized bowl, sift together the 1-1/2 cups of flour, baking powder, and salt, and add the unsweetened coconut flakes. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the yogurt, one cup of sugar, eggs, lime zest, vanilla, and coconut oil. Slowly add the dry ingredients, a bit at a time, into the wet ingredients and whisk gently until all is combined. Toss the strawberries in the remaining tablespoon of flour and fold gently into the batter. Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf pan and bake for approximately 50 minutes or until a cake tester is inserted into the center and comes out clean. While the cake is finishing cooking, cook the 1/3 cup of lime juice and remaining one tablespoon of sugar together in a small pan until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Remove from heat and set aside. When the cake is finished baking, allow it to cool for 10 minutes and then gently flip it out onto a cooling rack. Put the cooling rack over a sheet pan or cutting board to prepare for glazing. While the cake is still warm, poke a few holes into the top with a fork or a skewer and then pour the lime-sugar syrup over the cake and allow it to soak into the cake. If desired, sprinkle with some additional coconut flakes – I would have done this, but ran out! Allow to cool thoroughly before serving.

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