Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My favorite quick bike route in Austin (so far)

Saturday, my sister and I checked out Shoal Creek Trail for the first time, and we LOVED it! I made a MapMyRide route of it and then went back yesterday to do almost the same loop, with some video. The only difference is that instead of turning left onto 12th and then taking Lavaca north to 15th, I actually rode my bike through the Capitol complex, and it "felt" like less of an incline (or maybe I just had more to distract me visually) in addition to being fun.

Saturday, my brilliant diversion was to take us in front of the Governor's Mansion, but the steep climb on 11th unfortunately killed my sister's new-to-her bike chain mid-shift, so we ended up coast/walking the rest of the way home.

I called this route "Very Varied" because you start out at West Campus, which is a student area with housing, fraternities and sororities, and trailer food. Then you hit Shoal Creek Trail, which feels for all of the world like it's in the middle of nowhere, even though it largely parallels Lamar. You get glimpses of the high-rises downtown and can sometimes hear the traffic, but a lot of it is wooded and in the shade, even at 2:00 PM.

Near the south end of Shoal Creek, you have to come off of the trail because of construction as the power plant is renovated for the opening of, among other things, Trader Joe's. At that point, we're back into the city, just for a bit, as we detour down San Antonio to Town Lake Trail. As I noticed the first time I rode the north lake trail, it's not nearly as popular (and therefore populated) as the south trail. This is great for biking! I feel like a jerk, slowly pedaling behind runners, looking for a safe spot to pass where I won't hit oncoming joggers.

You could take the lake trail out further east, but I exit where the construction cuts it off at the actual lake at Waller Creek Boathouse. Then it's just a matter of looping back north through downtown however you choose. If you want more of a work-out, you can take Trinity further north than 2nd and wait to turn west until 8th or so. Those hills are not my favorite, as I try to avoid hills where there is a lot of traffic both for safety and because if the hill kicks my rear, I don't want too many witnesses to my shame of having to push the bike.

So, in this short 7.4 miles, we have urban, wooded park, university, and even some regular business and neighborhoods.

Also, this is the first video I've put together using Adobe's Premiere Pro since we subscribed to Creative Cloud. There is a learning curve, but I'll get there.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Festive Easter Cake

This is really a review of sorts of three different recipes. First, I saw this pinata cake somewhere and thought it was kind of a cool idea. But I didn't like the idea of loose candy spilling out of the cakes when they were cut into. When you watch the guy eat the cake, you can tell it looks pretty challenging. My idea was to create a filled cake and incorporate some Easter eggs into the filling. Fortunately, I have had the Betty Crocker Bake n' Fill set for years. It's really neat, and I love having the opportunity to use it. (I actually like the rounded pan as a solid cake; I used it to make an unfilled Snitch cake once, and the fondant was perfect on top of it!)

So... to start, I knew I needed a heavy cake; a pound cake. I went with Paula Deen's Mama's Pound Cake recipe.

Mixing the butter and shortening.

Added the sugar.

After the milk and flour were incorporated.
I did use plain soy milk for this cake, for no other reason than I had some left over and needed the space in my refrigerator. It worked out beautifully.

Since I was going for festive, I added pastel food coloring to the batter.

I tried to shake the pans to even out the batter, but his stuff is thick! So I got to use my favorite kitchen utensil on earth: the offset spatula.

 Unfortunately, all of that mixing and color lead to this, the first of three sinks full of dishes I sullied making the cake.
*blink* *blink* Dang it; they're still dirty. *blink* Why isn't this working?
In case you haven't seen the Bake n' Fill set, it's just a cake pan with a "lid" you screw on to make sure when the cake rises, it leaves an indention for filling.

See the "fill to" line? It's practically fool-proof!

It worked! I think my oven is crooked, though... but only part of it.
I baked the cakes on the same rack, but only the bigger cake was uneven. Weird. Fortunately, I knew I could fix it with filling!

Originally, I had planned to use a whipped cream filling, but it's gotten warmer in the past week or so, and our refrigerator, you might remember, is full to the point of our having to strategically brace ourselves whenever we open the door. So, after following several internet rabbit holes from "non-refrigerated cake filling," I came across something called "Mousseline buttercream." Oh. My. Goodness.

Egg whites, sugar, and vinegar (because I didn't have cream of tartar; vinegar is an acceptable substitute).

Now for the tricky part: The recipe says to transfer the sugar/water syrup to a glass bowl to stop the cooking, and they aren't kidding. I thought I could just drizzle the syrup quickly from the saucepan because it has a spout, but in the time I put it on the counter and got the mixer ready to go again, the syrup had solidified into a sugar tablet the size of the bottom of the pan, and reheating it did not help.

The second time, I poured it into a jar because I don't have glass bowls. It was MOLTEN. I had to use a silicone glove to hold the syrup whilst pouring it.

It says to avoid the beaters when you're pouring, because if you get the syrup on the mixer, it will crystallize and might make the icing chunky, too. Even doing it "right," I wasn't quite fast enough to get ALL of the sugar mixture before it became hard candy.

It worked, though!
Then, we add the ONE POUND of butter, one tablespoon at a time.

You have to wait until the syrup and egg mixture is completely cool, because if the butter melts, your icing will be a runny, gloppy mess. You can't salvage it. I didn't mind losing 1/4 cup of water and 3/4 cup sugar to my mistake, but 5 egg whites and a pound of butter would have been an expensive do-over.

Just so you know, when you get about halfway done with the third stick of butter, the ratio of butter to other stuff shifts, and the butter might start clumping together. Don't freak out. After you add all of the butter, you can just turn up the mixer and it will smooth it all out.

One of the best things about this "frosting" is that it's not very sweet at all. It's mostly buttery. So I felt like it was fine to add...

I filled the hole in the cake, like spackling a hole in the drywall. It filled it up perfectly, and I'd saved some to put on the rim of the cake to attach it to the solid base. I was able to even out the cake this way, instead of cutting the cake down.

The final, un-iced result:

Finally, I wanted a chocolate icing. Another rabbit trail and I found this recipe for chocolate buttercream that looked perfect. 

I did make a couple of changes: I used half shortening and half butter (again with shelf-stability). I used cinnamon because we didn't have any instant coffee. And I used a minimum of heavy cream. If you use more, you can make the icing glossy, but I wanted a "matte" finish because I didn't want to wake up to the cake having slipped, or the filling spilled out, or the eggs having fallen off of the cake.

Nice hat.

The finished product, or "ugliest cake ever," according to a Facebook friend.
I thought it was pretty! Plus, it was a thick matte frosting out of necessity. I loved it! :) Besides, when it's cut in to:

*angels singing(

The left-overs went into the freezer, because one piece of this every month or so is MORE than enough. My daughter, whose sweet tooth is only slightly less potent than mine (and is in second place behind her meat tooth) couldn't even polish off one tiny piece.

We didn't do an official egg hunt (I think that Daphne wasn't well, plus, you know, she's nearly a teenager), but I did hide eggs... in my cake! I will definitely use the individual components of this cake again individually. Together, it's a LOT going on! Maybe too much, but it made me happy. :) 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Park Focus: Palma Plaza

Today, I thought we'd do something a little bit different. There is a park in our general area, and every time we drive past, I itch to explore it.

This afternoon, I rode my bike over, and first of all, I don't recommend doing that if you live east of the park. We've walked once before and it's not much better. Accessing it on foot from the south, we had to walk up Castle Hill. I didn't want to do that, so I accessed it from the north, which meant riding my bike on 15th, which was only marginally better and nearly killed me.

But it didn't! And so, without further ado, my maybe second video and very first single-focus video I've done on this site. Hope you like it and that it inspires you, too, to explore our magnificent city park system!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

2014 Bloggin' Mama Social

Thanks to Free Fun in Austin, I got connected with LiveMom and Orange Wall Collective, leading to both the See's Candies event I attended Thursday night and the great Bloggin' Mama Social I thoroughly enjoyed tonight.

The event was held pretty much right on the river at Alta's Cafe, so I got to ride my bike! I don't mind telling you that I was a little nervous. I rode over 10 miles in a stretch two weeks ago, but since then, I've grown a lot in the general baby area, and the last couple of rides I've taken have been significantly more challenging. I'm pleased to report that this was no problem, especially getting there, as it's mostly downhill.

Overcast skies, I presume, and a chillier-than-the-past-few-days temperature meant I didn't have to share the trail with much of anyone.

Under the First Street bridge. This is the first time I've seen it from the north side of the river.

Alta's Cafe is located in the Waller Creek Boathouse, and is a lovely place to sit and watch the action on the river. 

If you're on the Ladybird Lake trail, on the north side of the river just east of the Four Seasons Hotel, you'll see trail signs for the Waller Creek Boathouse. You'll know you've made it when you see this thing:

Conversely, if you're downtown, just take Trinity south until it ends. Literally. There is probably some parking around there, but you really should just walk or bike. It's beautiful, even on a cloudy day!

Plus, if you get there at the right time, you can watch the rowers coming in for the evening. They all put their boats up on stretchers, hosed them off, then stacked them for storage for the night. 

As the event started, I met a former homeschool mom who has a cultural event blog. It was fun talking to her before I took my seat at a table and started in on the food.

The cheeses and bread are from Alta's, but the brownie was a gluten-free one from Peoples RX kitchen... and I have to give them props, because most gluten-free stuff eventually breaks down and tastes like moist sawdust to me, but this brownie was delicious.

Meanwhile, sharing my table were three other interesting women. Araya Hildara has a Spanish-language section on pregnancy and childbirth, and she blogs on the site as well. Her friend, Gisele, a midwife, was with her. Gisele is just starting on a blog about raising children naturally. Finally, Cheryl Carey, founder of Taste and See Healthy Baby Food, is working on raising funds to give gift cards on Mother's Day to the moms who are in engaged in the family support services with Any Baby Can of Austin. Any Baby Can is a great program, and our small group adopts a family at Christmas. If you can help contribute, click here and write "Gifts for Moms" in the comment box. Also, I plan to take Cheryl's baby food class some time early next year! She has a couple of group classes a month, so check out her website.

These are the first treats I've had from Baked by Amy's. They were good, but apparently the pecan bars were the awesomest, because when I passed the table later, willing to try one because of the rave reviews (I don't typically like nuts in sweets), they were *gone*! 

Catherine Prystup, hostess, and Michael Swail, co-owner of Alta's Cafe.
Michael explained that they'd just opened this outdoor venue during one of the coldest winters in Austin history. You should totally go check it out, now that it's nice, though. Besides, check out their menu from the link above. Good stuff! I can personally vouch for the cheese part of their charcuterie plate. The meat stuff looked delicious, too, but is off-limits to me in my delicate (giggle) condition. As was the sustainable wine and the local craft beer. But I can't wait to go back and try it all very soon.

Mike McDonell of Kidventures Camps, a sponsor of the evening.

Pro blogging mamas panel.

Hilah Johnson of Hilah Cooking

Shellie Deringer of Saving with Shellie

Wendi Aarons, freelance writer and blogger
They were all insightful and interesting, but I won't go into detail here. Lots of stuff to think about, though. It was very neat that people actually care about local businesses and local bloggers and how we can help each other enough to put on an event like this. I loved meeting moms with totally different perspectives than I have, and seeing what a wide range of interests and passions we have.

About the time I decided it was time to head home before it became completely dark, it started pouring rain! Fortunately, I don't melt, but I did get pretty drenched. After my shower, though, I was rewarded with being able to riffle through the swag bag all attendees received. We have some awesome businesses around here, and I cannot wait to try the Daily Greens juice tomorrow morning!

James and I laughed because of the contents was a Cutie in a clear cellophane gift bag, tagged by McDonald's. They're trying, gosh darn it. But you can be sure that I will use the free small smoothie gift certificates!

There were door prizes given out at the event, too. I might have won a night at the Omni Downtown (where I paid half price to stay once, thanks to, or a $50 gift card to a local fine dinery, or even a gift basket from Terra Toys. Instead I won this. And, yes, I will be reading it tomorrow. I like to start my week off inspirationally.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

See's Candies North Hills pre-grand-opening Blogger Event

Dallas has 'em; San Antonio has 'em; Houston has 'em... Heck, even Killeen has one! But Austin's first See's Candies officially opens tomorrow, April 4, 2014 at 10710 Research Boulevard, or 4815 W. Braker Lane, depending on which source you trust (it's the same place, regardless). Should you try to get there in the morning at 9:30 for the grand opening? Yes, of course! If you don't, should you go any time tomorrow and spin a prize wheel and enjoy a free sample? If you know me at all, you know the answer to that. If you don't make it tomorrow, should you go sometime, anyway? Just keep reading and decide for yourself.

The shiny new storefront, located conveniently next door to H-E-B, which would be dangerous if that were my regular grocery store.

Although the grand opening is tomorrow, See's had a soft open today, and then after closing hosted some bloggers (many of us either with babies or expecting!) to introduce us (or reacquaint us) with their product.

Having lived in Las Vegas, I came into contact with See's quite a bit. There are nearly a dozen stores in the area, conveniently located in malls as well as casinos. In Dallas, I only remember seeing the one at Stonebriar, but there are several others. I was excited to learn that a See's was coming to Austin!

Not just because the first thing that happened was that they shoved a square of dark chocolate chocolate chip candy into my hand, although that certainly helped. But, listen, this is not special treatment. Each time you visit See's, you can get one free sample of your choice. Don't be shy! And don't always try the same one. Live a little, folks.

If I might be frank (speaking now in a male register), I was a little disappointed with the Austin chocolate scene, especially because I found some really cool stores in Dallas and expected more here. Sure, you can buy Dallas-based Dude, Sweet chocolates at Whole Foods, and that's cool. We do have local artisan chocolates like The Chocolate-Makers Studio and Delysia available in my very neighborhood at Breed and Company. You can also get local chocolates at some coffee shops, and in cafes... but I was expecting at least a couple of good walk-in chocolate shops when I moved here.

For the record: Yes, I know about Big Top and Lammes. I like Big Top for what it is -- which is a fun, funky candy store and soda fountain -- but they don't have *great* chocolate. And Lammes, honestly, smells like my great-aunt's house and their stuff is overpriced and tastes generic to me. Sorry, Austin natives: eat some Crack in the Box and drink some One Night Stand Potion, and then try to tell me that anything in either of those stores compares to it.

But I digress.

All of that angst is abated for now, because...

Walls of chocolate. Not fast chocolate, mind you. Good, actual, no-added-preservative chocolate.

They have a huge variety of product, and we purchased a box of the Molasses Chips. I didn't try any of the things on this wall, but their sugar free products have consistently high ratings on their website. Personally, sugar alcohols do a number on this lady's digestive system (probably because I don't tend to see 1 as a serving, but as an appetizer), but if you're diabetic and have an insatiable hankering for dark almonds, it's good to know you can get some.  

James and I both drooled over the Toffee-ettes, but we decided to save those for later.

James, enjoying the constant samples and eyeing the product.

I really should stock up for the fall. According to Chantal Coady, owner of Rococo Chocolates in London, in her book "Real Chocolate": "Chocolate is... used as a homeopathic remedy, indicated for feelings of hostility, especially when mothers feel anger and frustration toward their offspring. The effect is to restore the nurturing mother side and to promote a general sense of well-being." So, basically, a box or two from this wall is my post-partum prescription, right?

Fun treats for teachers.

We were invited to try whatever we wanted, but I never got around to this one. That'll be my sample next time!

Similar to jelly beans, but with non-pareil coating instead of a hard sugar exterior. They were gummy. Very tempting.

Besty, a delightful woman apart from the fact that she kept insisting we try another piece.

Soft, buttery walnut squares.

I thought this was particularly lovely, and we learned later that the icing on the Easter eggs is hand-piped. Also, for this particular egg, the Rocky Road filling is hand packed into the mold. My guess is that it's too thick and unwieldy for a depositor. 

This. This was my favorite chocolate of the night. I didn't know what "firm brown sugar" meant, but now my mouth does. The filling is creamy, but the sugar is also softly (and pleasantly) granular. For maximum enjoyment, I recommend halving the piece, positioning it with the chocolate on the roof of your mouth, and then tongue the filling. That sounds weirdly sensual, I know, but a true Candyfreak will appreciate the effect garnered by this maneuver.

If you go to the grand opening tomorrow, you will receive one of these with your purchase. What struck me about this collection was the ingredients list on the back. You'll notice that there are five different items in this box.

Notice how few ingredients! And except for soy lecithin, you probably have every one of these things in your kitchen right now! Okay, you might not have cocoa butter in your kitchen, but it's possible that you have it in your bathroom or make-up bag.

There were regional and district managers in the house, as well as marketing and store management. We learned several things, many of which you can read on the See's website. However, I think it's incredible that the company goes through twelve million pounds of chocolate per year (a description of the Guittard tankers delivering chocolate two trucks at a time with a third waiting in the parking lot across the street is included in the delightful See's Famous Old Time Candies book each attendee received).

Natalie, discussing the history of the company.
After we'd gotten caught up on the See's Candies company, which will be 100 years old in seven years, we were given a fun and maddening challenge. In 1952, an "I Love Lucy" producer contacted a See's facility in Los Angeles to get some help with an upcoming Lucy episode. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance spent time there, learning how things were done, and the result ended up being the most popular episode of the show's entire run.

Our challenge? After a brief tutorial, see how quickly we could box a 12-piece assortment. We didn't have to wrap, but used the chocolate "cups" typical of candy assortments, picking up the chocolates with wax paper. We competed four at a time.

Coordination and manual dexterity is not my strong suit.

I started strong but finished with a pppft. One of the other ladies bested us.

Still, we all won. We got to take our box home.
While I definitely did not win the speed prize, I did do my box "right": 12 pieces, 3 of each of four varieties. James, on the other hand, just kept cramming candies into his box until everyone else had their boxes sealed and it was the next group's turn. See if you can tell which box is mine and which is James'.

After our contest, we were invited to request samples of whatever we wanted. Also, we were able to purchase candy, and indeed we did.

So many choices.

I tried this Apple Pie truffle, and it was good... but the white chocolate is so sweet without the bitter cocoa to balance it out, that it, believe it or not, pushed me over the limit and I was done with candy for the night. It was delicious, to be sure. The filling reminded me of the interior of a cake ball, as though it were a crumbled up apple pie piece with the crust and all. I will stick with the legit chocolate from now on, though.

We had a very fun, very tasty, very original night, and I can't recommend See's Candies highly enough. There's a funny bit in the book about how Godiva tries to capitalize on its European heritage (likely to justify the $3.85ish per truffle they charge), but points out that Godiva USA is actually owned by the Campbell Soup Company and that the chocolates are manufactured in Reading, Pennsylvania, by its bakery division, Pepperidge Farms*. See's was born and raised in California (via Canada, and it's really a providential story about how the Sees ended up migrating to the United States), and their candy is every bit as good as Godiva's, and is less than half the price.

A pound of Godiva assorted chocolates will run you approximately $55, whereas the same amount of See's Candies is $22.50 (up from $.50 during the Depression). So go get some! Enjoy a sample first. And if you want to swing by the Nuthaus to pick me up, I'll be glad to go, too.


*The book was published in 2005. In 2007, a Turkish company, Yildiz Holding, bought Godiva Chocolates. They're still made in good old Reading, PA.