Friday, August 29, 2014

Nutella Brownies... Three Ways, 'Cause That's How I Roll

A couple of weeks ago, I'd bought this giant thing of hazelnut cocoa spread at Randall's because it was on clearance.

Last night, I had this idea that I'd make brownies out of it, so I "googled" "Nutella Brownies." I found a few recipes, including a regular brownie-type recipe that included Nutella at the end, and then another recipe that said, "Easiest 3-ingredient Nutella Brownie." I anticipate it including brownie mix, but it didn't. Instead, it was Nutella, eggs, and flour. Beyond that, there was a TWO-ingredient brownie recipe, and it was just Nutella and eggs.

None of the recipes was exceptionally difficult, but I wondered whether the two- or three-ingredients versions were good enough to hold up to a genuine brownie. I'd read that Nutella (and, I'm assuming, knock-offs like this one) have as much sugar as cake frosting, so it stood to reason in my bean that we didn't need to add sugar to make the brownies tasty.

Solely in the interest of science, I decided to prepare all three recipes today. You can find the recipes here:

I did halve the recipes, and I made them all in loaf pans, so each brownie would have a side and a middle, for comparison's sake.

Here are the results:

1. Nutella Brownies

Multi-tasking with the multi-ingredient recipe. I've been binge-watching season five of "Drop Dead Diva" since I have a month-long Netflix free trial.

A pretty standard brownie recipe, and after it's mixed, we just add in the hazelnut cocoa spread.

Ready for the oven!

The first batch as it came out of the oven. Looks pretty delicious, doesn't it?

2. Two-Ingredient Nutella Brownies

Blurry photo of the two ingredients. When they were mixed up, they looked like this. Very runny!

It went from being really runny to super spongy.

3. Three-Ingredient Nutella Brownies

Just eggs, flour, and hazelnut cocoa spread.

It was super thick.

It came out pretty bready.

The multi-ingredient brownies were obviously more voluminous, as they had about the same amount of Nutella and then the other stuff on top of it.

This meant that the brownies on the left were undercooked, despite the fact that I cooked them as long as I was supposed to cook the full recipe. I think this has to do with my oven, because potatoes take years to cook. I wanted to compare cutaways, so I only used the edges, as those, at least, were all the way done.

Super gooey brownie deliciousness with the full-out recipe. It was definitely our favorite. Daphne agreed, not knowing which was which.

Daphne thought the two-ingredient brownies were super spongy, but they tasted good. This was my second favorite recipe, and in a bind, I'd certainly use it because it's very, very easy.

The three-ingredient brownies turned out super cakey. I don't like cakey brownies. These would probably be great with peanut butter on top, as the flour cut through some of the sugar and made these thick enough to stand up to spreading peanut butter on them.

Since the batch of "real" brownies was still raw inside, I used my delightful cake transfer metal to put it back into the pan and nuked it for five minutes. It ended up looking like this:

Still fudge-y. I will definitely make these brownies again. They are delicious.

The second-place contender. Dense and tasty and spongy.

Now that I think on it, these could be delicious with 4 ingredients, to include peanut butter chips. Or white chocolate chips. Since the brownies aren't too sweet, the white chip would be balanced out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: Citrus Lane, Initial Box

For some time, I'd thought it might be neat to subscribe to Citrus Lane and get fun little toys and books and products every month for a year. I decided finally to do it because I had another serendipitous happening that I believe now is a programmed "thing" I plan to exploit again in the future:

Just like when I ordered the Graze box, I'd actually filled out most of the subscription information, but stopped because I don't actually know my baby's birth date yet. When I was in the process of subscribing, I had a coupon code for 50% off of the first month, which was a good enough deal.

But after I backed out without completing the form, I received an email offering the first entire box for free. That did it! I signed up.

My annual membership parses out to $17.17 per month, and I plan to review these every month so we can all see whether, over time, the deliveries are worth it.

Today, I received my first box!

First thing you should know: After I subscribed, I started receiving an annoying number of emails encouraging me to add stuff to my order, no extra shipping. I ignored those. The one thing I did like was that I was able to personalize a bit. There was going to be a stuffed animal-type thing in the box, and there were three from which to choose. I picked the one I liked the best and just automatically send everything else from Citrus Lane into my trash. (I do pause a lot every time they offer 20% off and free shipping of their Strider bikes, but they do that often enough that I'm convinced they'll have another special next year when I can actually use it.)

Tissue papered!

Here is what was in the box (cat not included):

Monkey chime ball, lotion, paper mobile, glass baby food containers, and a 25% off code on a babysitter from Sorry, sitters, but not my newborn. Not gonna happen.

Is this worth $17? Not to me. But I'm willing to see how it averages out over time.

The monkey is very cute, and the chime it makes is soft and soothing. One wing is crinkly, which means Daphne's cat will fall in love with it.

The baby food containers seem like a weird choice for someone who is still pregnant. I can see sending them the 4th month or so, but then again, other customers might not have the same lack-of-storage concerns that I do.

The paper owl mobile is cute enough, and I was able to use it in a corner I felt was otherwise pretty bland.

Still far enough away from the bed that the baby can't mess with it.

One thing everyone seems to want to give you when you're pregnant is lotion, like I or the baby are at risk of being scaly train wrecks. However, I like that this is mild, and the "aromatic cherry butter" smell is rather delicious, without being overpowering or perfume-y.

Although I wasn't hugely thrilled about how much packaging this was, Rudy was pretty excited about it. Glad we have a good recycling program here in Austin and that we can now recycle corrugated cardboard.

Stay tuned for the second box next month!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Austin Real Estate

We love our little lot here in the middle of the action. The only negative: because it's owned by someone else, we are not masters of our own destiny here. Well, and it's expensive. When our lease renewed in July, we were granted an increase of "only" 10% instead of the apparently typical 20% because we're such good tenants.

We'd love to buy a house in this ZIP code, but here's why we can't...

Yep, those are the only six properties for sale in this ZIP right now, and the cheapest one is $450,000. For a 1300-ish square foot condo.

We're not in the market to buy right this second, but I like to keep an eye open, both to have an idea of what's "out there," and on the slim chance that the most perfect, amazing fit opened up, we might be persuaded to jump on it.

There are lots of reasons not to move right now, but the two biggest are: 1) Our lease just renewed, and I prefer not to break leases (though I would for the perfect opportunity). 2) I'm about to have a baby. I did move when my daughter was 2 months old, and again when she was 8 months old, and I don't recommend it. Very stressful.

Also, my mother-in-law is visiting in a month or so, and we got her a hotel really close to our house. Plus, we have a vacation planned for late this winter, and I'd love to get that paid for and enjoy it before we have to think about the financial stuff related to moving. Plus, you know, the actual moving.

There are lots of reasons I don't necessarily care to own a home again (I've owned three and it's been hit-or-miss as to the financial benefit): 1) It's an anchor. 2) If you need to sell, you're at the market's whim. 3) Maintenance is expensive. 4) Property taxes are expensive, and mean you never actually own your home.

Anyway, we have looked at three properties in the past three or four months, because they were in areas we liked and were good deals, or the houses looked really neat (a lot of the houses on the market are absolute dogs, because it's a seller's market and they know they can get away with it). Twice, we have dealt with Realtors and once directly with the homeowner. We much preferred dealing with the homeowner, and I'll tell you why, in case you're a real estate agent and want to know what we're thinking after we interact with you.

The first house was one that was gorgeous online, but up close and in person needed a LOT of work. I mean, like $50,000 just to make it livable, and it was already at the top end of what we can afford. But I got in touch with an agent and said that we wanted to see the house, and made an appointment. When we got there, I realized that I'd left my phone at home but it didn't seem like a big deal. We knew that there were a lot of showings that day, so we just walked around the yard as there were already people inside the house.

We waited until about 10 minutes after we were supposed to meet the agent, and could already tell from walking around that the entire fence needed to be replaced; it was dangerous. We went ahead and walked into the house and realized it was a mobile home. That's not a deal-breaker, but the asking price was typical for a standard permanent home. The floor was rolling, and what we'd thought was maybe stained concrete (from the pictures) turned out to be old linoleum that had been painted white. The hall had drywall work that needed to be done, and they'd patched it to look "cool" using old newspapers. It was just a mess.

After about half an hour, we left because we knew we didn't want the house and because the real estate agent who'd been showing the house said she had to leave and lock up. I felt kind of bad about not meeting the agent, but he hadn't shown up, so it must not have been too important to him.

When we got home, there was a message waiting for me on my cell phone. It was the agent, and I called him back. He asked, "Was that you in the purple van?" Um, yes. He had watched us walk around the property and hadn't bothered to get out of his car because he figured if he called me, he'd see me answer the phone. That seemed crazy to me. How could you not just say, "Excuse me, are you...?" or even, "May I help you?" when people are walking unaccompanied around a property you have an appointment to show?

But to make matters worse, he said, "I had a whole list of properties in that area that I wanted to show you." So I told him the truth: We were not really in house-hunting mode, that most of the houses in that area did not appeal to us, and that the reason we wanted to see that house is that we liked THAT house. It spoke to us in pictures, even though the reality didn't turn out to be the same. It had been painted bright yellow with orange trim, and the living room was purple with wood accents. It was just quirky and "different" but they'd managed to weed out the icky stuff in the sales material.

He wanted to send us some emails, anyway, even though I told him it would probably be wasting his time as we weren't actually in the market to buy a house in general. Sure enough, everything he sent was inappropriate. So after we signed our lease renewal, I was able to tell him we'd committed to another year and he could stop sending us emails.

I have been a Realtor before. I was fortunate enough that I was a property manager and my pay wasn't dependent on sales or even rentals. I might have gotten a hundred bucks or so if I showed a house that was eventually leased, but it wasn't enough that I felt like I had a huge stake in whether or not someone rented the home I'd showed them. So I understand only in theory what living on commission means. Still, when someone tells you what they want (a particular property) and don't want (any old other property), it seems like you could avoid wasting your time by listening to them.

Here's the deal about me: I know my own mind. I will not add an ear of hot buttered corn on the cob to my order at KFC just because the lady at the drive-through suggests it (which is why I would not suggest it when I was in high school, and I got consistently poor reviews during my six-week employment). I can look through listings myself and know what might fit and what definitely won't. You can't plug in "3 bedrooms, 2 baths, good walk score" and automatically come up with properties that are going to fit my family. I can weed them all out and call you and if you would like to take time out of your schedule to show us exactly one house, then that's great. If not, I'm totally okay with being told, "No, I'm sorry. I only show houses to clients who have signed a contract" or whatever.

This last weekend, it was worse.

We went to an open house at a house in a neighborhood I have no idea why I even saw the house. I guess I was just trolling around James' work. The area does not excite us at all. It has a pretty restrictive HOA, which James HATES. But we actually liked the house quite a lot. The problem was the Realtor hosting the open house. She would not leave us alone. She was asking us every sales question in the book:

"What is to you the best feature of this house?"

"What is one negative feature of this house?"

"Can you imagine yourself here?"

When James found out about the HOA, he basically stated that was a deal-breaker, and she practically chastised him. She said, "Sometimes, we have to make sacrifices when we find a home we like." James said, "Honestly, I'd prefer to sacrifice the home than my ability to have chickens if I want." She said, "Well, sometimes we have to make compromises."

Then she started asking other questions. "So, you don't want an HOA, but you do like three bedrooms? Can I get your email address and send you some other listings in this area?"

We told her flat out that we were not interested in that area; we had only been interested in that house in particular. She said, "I understand. But if I can find out what you are looking for, I do concierge. I don't sent out automatic listings. I weed through them and only send you the best ones."

Ugh. So we told her we were not in a position to move right now and gave her the practically impossible parameters we were looking for here in town. She said that where we were looking was more expensive than we are willing to spend, but that one house we really liked that is currently not on the market as it's being renovated... the one where we dealt with the owner directly? It's right at the top of our spending budget and it's in an ideal area... AND I FOUND IT MYSELF.

After we left, we talked about it and its proximity to James' work plus the house itself really appealed to both of us. We actually made an appointment to go see it again, privately, with a different agent. I explained to him that the host had turned on the sales when we were there (a family came in and just wanted a flyer, but she said she'd be with them in a moment, and they got tired of waiting for her to finish talking to us so they left empty-handed).

Anyway, we realized as we talked last night and this morning that there is some paperwork we can't get until after the first of the year, so we won't be in a position to buy until 2015 (frankly, it's a load off, as far as I'm concerned).

Today, I received an email from the lady who hosted the open house we attended yesterday. I wrote her back to tell her that we weren't going to be able to buy for a few months, and she responded that she understood, "In a meantime I'd like to ask you for giving my information to your family, friends or neighbors. Probably somebody close to you is looking for a home to buy, sell or lease."

Um. No. I like my family and friends and don't want to refer someone who is getting on my nerves. It would be funny to give her card to the neighbors we know best, all of whom are homeless. But I respect them too much, as well.

Basically, if you're a real estate agent, I get it if you don't have time to show me one property. Just tell me. And I'll be honest and up front about where we are in the process. I don't want to waste your time OR mine, so if you can trust me that I know my mind and what I want and where we are in the process, I think we can avoid annoyances and frustration.

Besides, right now Austin is truly a seller's market. I'd think they could chill the heck out a little bit.

For what it's worth, I will say that if we do need to involve a real estate agent in the future, I will definitely use Redfin. Their agents are salaried and get a commission based on customer service feedback, not sales. Here's their listing and reviews of Austin agents.