Sunday, November 15, 2009

Let the holiday cooking begin: Sweet Potato Casserole

As soon as my birthday rolls by in September, my mind immediately turns to the food extravaganza that is the Holiday Season. Sure, Christmas is great and Halloween is fun. (It finally dawned on me this year that Halloween, in its current over-commercialzed form, must have been created as an excuse for adults to gorge guilt-free on the subsequent kid-collected haul. Brilliant!) However, my favorite part of the Holiday Season (yes it's capitalized - it is that important) is the food, which is why Thanksgiving is my knock-down-drag-out favorite holiday of the year.

When I was in the Navy and stationed in Hawaii, my friends and I would take turns hosting Thanksgiving at our homes. Every year provided a new logistical challenge, as our quaint (read: tiny) military housing became increasingly cramped as we tried to pack in our growing broods. Still, we didn't care - after all, the holidays are about the closeness of family right? We were a family, and we loved sharing our favorite stories, jokes and dishes with each other.

Now that we've moved to Virginia, we have new Thanksgiving traditions. Every year, we drive out to share Thanksgiving dinner with my husband's family, then drive home so that I can prepare my own turkey the next day (otherwise, we wouldn't have Thanksgiving leftovers! The horror!).

Every year, even though no one seems to eat it but me, I prepare Sweet Potato Casserole. My grandmother taught me how to make it when I was very young; I've been making it for so long that I can't remember a Thanksgiving or Christmas when I haven't had it on the table.

It's not the Sweet Potato Casserole that has been buried under a mountain of marshmallows. This is a more traditional Southern version with an amazing brown sugar-pecan topping. I plan on making this in the next day or two, you know, just for quality assurance purposes in advance of Thanksgiving. I posted this recipe on Facebook the other day for a friend in need (I hope it turns out ok for her!), so I thought I might post it up here. If I'm sharing the love with my family at the Thanksgiving table, I might as well share the love online too!

Sweet Potato Casserole
Courtesy of Grandma Edna, who always called it "Sweet Potato Souffle"

3 cups cooked/mashed sweet potatoes
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup milk
½ stick butter, melted (DO NOT use margarine!)
½ tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp pumpkin pie spice (or a mix of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg)

1 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped pecans
½ stick butter, melted (again, DO NOT use margarine!)
sprinkle pumpkin pie spice (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray baking dish with Pam or other non-stick spray (I prefer the butter flavored one!).

Mix first eight (8) ingredients and pour into a 9"x13"x2" baking dish. Mix remaining ingredients in separate bowl and crumble over top of sweet potato mixture.

Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until bubbles appear around the edges. Serve warm and enjoy!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The tradition continues...

Unfortunately, my string of having lousy birthdays continues! Not because of my hubby or family (they've been great!), but because of other uncontrollable circumstances.

For example, the original plan was to go on a lunch cruise around the Potomac. First Day of Fall cruise and all that. So what happened last week? Cruise got canceled. They wanted to "upgrade" us to the dinner cruise, but as we have small kids and no babysitter, that didn't exactly pan out.

So far: Birthday Gods 1, Shauna 0.

Next example: The back-up plan was to go on a tour of the US Capitol and have lunch downtown so I could get my history geekness on (and get my husband some culture!). Everything is looking good so far, except for the fact that the lunch place I'd picked out has a "business casual" dress code - not good news for tourist activities. That's ok, we can improvise and just find something, right? WRONG! That would have required that we actually MAKE IT DOWNTOWN. Couldn't find a parking spot at the Metro, and had we driven in, we would have missed our reserved tour time at 1010, and the next one wasn't until 1430. The tour is 1.5hrs, so we wouldn't have been able to make it back home in time to pick up the kids and meet my uncle for dinner (who called yesterday to say he's in town).

Updated score: Birthday Gods 2, Shauna 0.

So, hubby and I decide we're just going to wing it. First attempt at merriment wasn't too bad; beautiful drive (despite the low, dreary clouds) out to Winchester for some apples and a shared apple cider doughnut (YUM!!). Ok, we're doing better! When we finish, we drive through Winchester and stop at a little antique place. We find a teacup and saucer that matches the MIL's china set. Yay!

Visiting team scores! - Birthday Gods 2, Shauna 1.

Aaaaaand that's when tragedy hits. We drive out to Middleburg looking for lunch. First place we try isn't open on Tuesdays. Second place we try wants $8 for a grilled cheese sandwich (!). Third place we try has several outside tables full, so we decide to see what's up. We grabbed a table and waited for the waitress.

And waited. And WAITED.

Finally she showed up to get our drink order: "What do you want to drink?"

No, there wasn't a "Hi, welcome to the Red Horse Tavern! My name is _____, and I'll be your server today. Can I start you off with some iced tea or a glass of wine?" She just went straight to "What do you want to drink?" and tossed the menus on our table (which, btw, was dusty and had cobwebs - EW!). When she returned more than five minutes later with our iced tea in cheap plastic picnic cups (seriously, I have bought better cups at Costco!), she was "ready to take [our] order." Nice.

A little while later (while we were marveling at the women nearby fawning over their dog that was sitting in a chair at their table), she arrives with the daily special of "breaded calamari" that we had ordered. Three words: STALE RUBBER BANDS. As Drew appropriately stated, he would have expected about the same fare from the batch of "fried calamari" that the bowling alley buys in bulk from Sam's Club.

The next disappointment was when our "entrees" were delivered. Plastic shallow baskets, wax paper too small to really fit the basket, and small, pathetic sandwiches accompanied by stale potato chips. Drew's "Cuban" was an insult to the communist country that bears it's name, and my "wrap" was stuffed with lettuce that was, conveniently, not listed on the menu. Did I mention that the chips were STALE?!

The waitress didn't even bother to make any kind of effort to earn a tip - she clearly couldn't have cared less about being there or about having us as customers. Sucks for her, because we are usually very generous tippers (having been a waitress at several restaurants in a past life, I know how hard the work is and how bad the pay can be!). All told, our horrible meal cost us $30.52. In an effort to escape (and hope to avoid getting my credit card # stolen), I paid in cash: $31.00. Drew said that I was overly generous in my tip, but I was simply too lazy to count out exact change from my wallet.

So, the new score: Birthday Gods 3, Shauna 1.

We did have a high point immediately following: In an effort to rapidly remove the taste of the food from our mouths, we stopped at an ice cream shop down the street. It's run by the Middleburg Humane Society, and it was terrific! The ice cream was delicious, the shop was cute and quaint, and the server was very friendly. Super awesome points for the ice cream shop for being a major bright spot in our day!!

Final score (thus far today - it's only 3:30p): Birthday Gods 3, Shauna 2.

I'm hopeful that tonight will greatly improve so that at least I can break even on the score. I think wine and chess with the hubby might do the trick! :)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A little chip of heaven

Sometimes, we all have to cave in to the demands of a 5-yr-old. You know what I'm talking about: You take him to the store, he's a good helper and can point out all the important vegetables ("Look, Mom - carrots! Spinach! Asparagus!!"). So when he looks up at you with those big brown eyes and bats those long eyelashes and asks if we can make chocolate chip cookies while he's presenting you with a bag of your favorite 60% cacao Ghiradelli chocolate chips, how on earth are you supposed to say no??

You can't, so you cave in.


This is what happens when you cave in - a couple of hours later, you somehow find yourself halfway through a batch of chocolate chip cookies.


These are not just any chocolate chip cookies, mind you. These are cookies straight from Williams-Sonoma's Essentials of Baking. You know the one - the recipe titled "Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies" on page 32. The one you modified with triple the amount of your favorite 60% cacao Ghiradelli chocolate chip cookies, because you don't have any milk chocolate chips and you don't like white chocolate. The kids don't like white chocolate either, so it's okay, right?

Don't worry - the cookies still love you. See that adorable little mound of cookie dough right there? The one shaped like a heart? Yeah, that's proof that the cookies still love you.


An hour later, you're looking at these. Can you resist? No, you can't. Good thing the cookies can't put up much of a fight, especially with that glass of milk just waiting to wash it all down.


Life is good.
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Friday, July 24, 2009

A Fortnight of Fun

From 13-24, I was out in Lansdowne, VA at the National Conference Center taking a leadership course titled "Preparing for the Challenge". To be perfectly honest, I was pretty apprehensive about the course, especially as I have taken numerous courses on the topic and even re-vamped a 5-day leadership course for junior sailors back in my Navy days (a whole two years ago - seems like a lifetime!). Still, I really needed a break from the office drama and welcomed a chance for a breather, even if it did mean that Drew had to deal with our three little munchkins by himself for nearly two weeks (it was an overnight thing).

Luckily for me, I actually really enjoyed myself! Once people started to connect and open up, things went very well. We had a great time one day out at the National Training Center doing outdoors-y type activities, and we had some phenomenal guest speakers (one of my favorites was the guy who taught "Leadership Lessons from Star Trek" - my inner geek loved it!).

However, I think the best day of all was our trip out to Antietam Battlefield. Our guide, Greg, does historical reenactments pretty much full-time these days, and it was an amazing experience. He taught us about some of the leadership choices made on both sides of the battle by taking on the persona of various soldiers present during the battle. Greg had a book with letters and personal accounts from many of the solders there that day, and you could feel and see what they went through as you stood at sites around the battlefield.

Each of us also selected a person to be that day (I was Maj Gen Fitz J. Porter) and we were responsible for conducting research in advance on our characters so that we knew what choices they made and why. As a Historical and Political Studies major as an undergrad with a focus on American History, I had a fantastic time with this evolution. I took some pictures, which you can see here. It was a humbling and heartbreaking experience, and one that I hope to have my children experience one day.

All in all, it was a great experience. I've made some wonderful friends, some of whom I have already bumped into at the office! We're planning to hold "reunions" quarterly so that we can keep in touch, which should be interesting from a VTC scheduling standpoint as some of my classmates are not located in the DC area. I was planning to bake brownies - maybe I should send some to my geographically dispersed classmates...? ;)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Newest obsession

One of my projects lately has had me out in the garden taking pictures to document the progress of my veggies, fruit and herbs. I've been very surprised at just how well they're doing. The tomatoes are getting bigger every day, I'm always finding new cucumbers on the vines, and some of my strawberries are just about ready to be picked. But that's not why I'm posting here, I've got a whole other blog for that.

No, photographing flowers/plants/etc is my newest obsession. I took a picture a few days ago of this amazing flower that is now happily blooming along my front yard. (Check out my profile picture or this blog entry for more details.) What I discovered in that picture was a need to replicate the amazing success I had with that one picture. Yes, I'm aware that it was probably just a flash in the pan (found out what that means in Williamsburg!!), but that doesn't make me any less determined to find a way to repeat it. So, I've been roaming the yard, armed with my trusty Canon PowerShot SD1000, looking at the blooms that have popped up in the last few weeks. Oh yeah, and discovering that I want a much better camera for my birthday. ;)

I have to admit, some of these pictures turned out pretty nice. I really love the first one, because it's presence was a complete surprise in our yard. I'm not even sure what it is - it's this amazing three-tiered lily that just popped up amongst the vinca that we're trying to eradicate. I like the second shot too, because Taylor and I had just watered these flowers and you can see the droplets clinging to the petals.

So what do you think? Should I continue to take more pictures or should I direct my energies elsewhere? I know, I know, that mountain of laundry ain't gettin' any smaller...
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Sunday, June 21, 2009

My first tomato!

To be honest, I was really beginning to worry about my tomato plant. It was becoming quite the monstrosity; it had grown nearly five feet tall, and was threatening to overtake my spinach, carrots and cucumbers (until I pruned it, that is). It also had any number of beautiful flowers, but they were all dropping without so much as a hint of things to come. But just as I thought all hope was lost, there it was - my very first little tomato!! I was so excited that I actually ran inside to get my kids to show them the tiny thing (and to grab my camera, hence the picture). I even called my mother to share in the good news. You called your mom when you discovered your first tomato, didn't you?

So the question now is: What do I name it? It needs a name. Not a boring name, like "Bob" or "Tomato #1". It needs something with flair, character... Any suggestions?
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Friday, June 5, 2009

Field trip madness

I am currently sitting on a charter bus with 40 4th graders (there's another bus following us) on our way to Williamsburg and Jamestown. The kids are generally well-behaved (must be the parents strategically located around the bus), but VERY loud. Taylor has actually been very good; I'm hopeful that will continue all day.

It's a little crazy that I actually volunteered for this, but I think it will be a lot of fun today. Well, the weather is terrible, but I'm excited about where we're going. I'm such a history nerd, and I'm really looking forward to sharing some of my knowledge with Tay and her classmates.

Just wish me luck in staying sane (such as it is)!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Never forgotten

We visited Grandma and Granddaddy yesterday, and they've been in my thoughts all day today. I can't think of a better place for them to rest than Arlington National Cemetery, especially as it affords us the opportunity to visit often. They, along with the countless men and women who have served and sacrificed for our country, have earned a place of honor. I, for one, will be forever grateful and will never forget.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I've died and gone to caloric heaven...

I had some (all too brief) free time this afternoon before I had to pick up the kids, so I decided to fit in a long overdue haircut. As I'm walking to the salon, I see a cute little cafe table outside a new store next to the salon, where three young ladies were chittering over cupcakes. My interest piqued, I wandered inside.

Lo and behold, I had come upon a place a glory - a cupcake heaven placed conveniently next door to my favorite salon! And what's more, there were adorable cake stands nearly overflowing with cupcakes of all the colors of the rainbow! Oh, it was a beautiful thing to behold. Let me tell you, it was really hard not to order one on the spot. But, my common sense actually kicked in (for once) and I decided to wait until after my haircut.

*fast forward 40 minutes*

Back in the delightful confines of Cupcakes Actually, I had an extremely difficult time deciding what to order. I finally decided on one of their signature "actually dipped" cupcakes - dreamy, light and fluffy peanut butter frosting dipped in rich fudge and then placed like a pillow from the gods upon an amazingly moist chocolate devil's food cupcake. Oh, and I got a cupcake for the hubby (flourless chocolate cake with vanilla bean frosting - yum!).

I'm not sure how, but the cupcakes actually managed to make it all the way home and into the fridge without being devoured. (At this point, you should all be applauding me for my incredible restraint. Seriously, I deserve a medal or something.) In order to avoid upsetting the wee beasties (aka the children), hubby and I waited until they were in bed before breaking out the cupcake goodness.

And oh, what goodness it was.

Seriously, if I could bake like this, I'd quit my job and open a cupcake boutique too. These things were AMAZING. They were definitely the best cupcakes I've ever had, and as my hips can attest, I've had quite a few cupcakes in my time. If you do not stop what you are doing, get in your car or hop on a plane and get yourself out to Fairfax Corner for some of these cupcakes, you will never forgive yourself. I may never forgive you. They are that good.

So now, I just have to hope that my job, my school, my hubby and my children all keep me busy enough to keep me away from Cupcakes Actually. Otherwise, I might soon find that I cannot fit through doors and I certainly won't fit into my suits for work. I will work on reinforcing my willpower and keep to this promise: I will only go out to Cupcakes Actually for major celebrations.

I just finished this post - it's cause for celebration!! Who's up for cupcakes??


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Cox Cable is terrible!!!

I've been trying to talk to my mother for the last half hour, as I know that I won't get a chance to speak with her tomorrow for Mother's Day (too much going on between visitors, lacrosse double-header and a term paper that's due). Unfortunately, she now has digital phone (they switched to one of those horrible bundle things for their cable/phone), and we were cut off FOUR TIMES. I got a tip-off each time because her voice would become digitally garbled, and then the call would drop. It happened twice while talking to her on my VoIP phone (started to think it was me!), then two more times on my cell phone. It took several minutes between calls just to stop getting her busy signal so that my call could go through. The final call lasted less than 30 seconds before it cut us off again (garbled voice upon pick-up until cut-off). Apparently my Aunt June is having similar difficulties with her recent bundled service (Mom and June both live in Tucson).

Rant for today: Cox Cable digital phone service is worthless and should not be used - EVER!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Our newest experiment!

I know I haven't posted in awhile, but we've been busy around here! I finally had a few seconds and wanted to post an update on one of our biggest projects yet: a fruit/veggie garden!

After tearing up more vinca (vines) than I thought possible, we built a 4'x4'x2' raised garden bed. I've been working for almost 2 weeks to fill it with compost (LeafGro) and topsoil, along with a layer of terracotta pot shards (Mom's suggestion). Last week, while Taylor was on spring break, we finished filling the bed and started planting our crops. We started with two rows of butterhead lettuce, three rows of spinach (which, in hind sight, was spaced too close together, so I'll have to thin it eventually) and bordered off an area with marigolds. (A friend recommended per her mother that marigolds were good companions for tomatoes, so I took her advice.)

Last weekend, Cameron and Taylor helped me to plant some mint (already established), cilantro, basil and parsley in smaller pots. I didn't want them to overgrow the plants in the bed, so I decided that pots were a better idea.

Yesterday I purchased an established "Better Boy" tomato plant, two cucumber plants, three strawberry plants and two spiral posts. The tomato plant was placed in the area bordered by the marigolds and a spiral post was placed as a support for the tomatoes to climb. The cucumbers were placed in the left corners of the bed (I'll need to go buy more spirals for them as they grow). The strawberry plants were placed in a separate pot (about 18-20" in diameter) next to our neighbor's fence. It's at the kids' height and I thought they'd enjoy "helping" them grow. Finally, the second spiral post was placed halfway between the tomato plant and one of the cucumber plants; I've got some green bean seeds soaking overnight and we'll plant them tomorrow. (The spirals were only $5 and look much nicer than the wire cages that were $15/each!)

Finally, I tilled the ground around the garden bed and mixed in some more topsoil and LeafGro, then Taylor helped me throw out some wildflower seeds. (The seeds came from a package called "Bring Home the Butterflies" and the wide variety of flowers is designed to host butterflies at all stages of life. I thought it would be something for the kids to enjoy.) I finished off with some mulch around the edges of the garden bed to hide the newspaper that we had put down before we started filling the bed with soil.

Today, Cameron helped plant three short rows of carrots in addition to watering the entire garden. He was a terrific helper, and he is really excited about our project.

Whew! As you can see, we've been pretty busy around here. We're really looking forward to watching our garden grow and truly enjoy the "fruits" of our labor! I'll try to keep posting the details of our project so that we have a record of what we did in case we want to try this again next year. I've posted a link to some pictures that I've taken during the process (mostly just the beginning and the end!). I'll also keep taking pictures and will update the album as I can.

Wish us luck!

Garden Bed

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Post-Inaugural Ball exhaustion

We didn't get back from the GWU Inaugural Ball last night until around 1am, and William and Thomas (our friends from AZ) didn't leave for the airport until 2:30am, but here I am at 8:15am updating my blog! I should still be in bed, but the kids have school this morning and Hubby has work, so someone has to be the responsible parent around here and get everyone moving. ;) I'll head back to bed in a minute, but just wanted to get a quick post out about last night. Pictures will be up as soon as I'm feeling more awake.

Our ride into DC was blissfully uneventful. There were more than a few well-dressed guests on the Metro, including an adorable Navy couple that scored tickets to the Commander-in-Chief Ball. (I gave them my email address, so hopefully they'll send me pictures of President Obama's dance with Michelle!) Once we got off the Metro, we hailed a cab to our pre-selected restaurant of the evening, Napoleon. The service was ok, but the food was fabulous! My Coq au Vin was divine, and the appetizers we ordered (Apple & Brie Crepe Chips and Croque Monsieur) were perfect matches for each other. Honestly, I think that I had a better time at dinner with Hubby and friends, having a great conversation over great food, than I did at the Ball!

The big reason that the Ball wasn't such a hit was the fact that they waaaaaay oversold the event. I read somewhere that there were 5200 attendees expected, and for all I know, there may have been more. You could barely move in most places; the coat checks were crowded (though we managed to get in and out quickly due to our exquisite planning!) and the ballrooms (several were reserved for our event) were so packed that you could not move for several minutes in any direction. There were far too many overprimped and inappropriately dressed young co-eds, though as Hubby mentioned, the painfully skewed male-to-female ratio made the evening more visually enjoyable for him (grumble!). We also felt like the old fogies of the night, as at least 80% of the crowd consisted of undergrads. It really was a prom-like atmosphere. I did manage to bump into two girls from my grad program, so the evening wasn't a complete wash. Hubby and I also got to do some dancing (if swaying in a cattle car is dancing) in the ballroom with the "swing" band. The dance floors were way too small, the areas set aside for food were way too big, and there was no place to sit down. And not only did we have a heck of a time finding the bar, drinks were $8 each! Even my tiny water bottle was overpriced at $2.

Still, it was fun to dress up with friends and have a night out, and at least I can say that I got to go to one of the many inaugural balls for the 44th President. I'm glad I did it, but unless I can score tickets to one of the "official" balls with the A-list performers and guests, I don't think I'll be going to another ball any time soon.