Sunday, September 27, 2015

Simple Pleasure Sunday: Michelle Time at My Favorite Coffee Shop

On a beautiful Wednesday morning, I drove out to my favorite coffee shop a couple of towns over. I enjoyed some "me time" there, playing around on my phone while savoring a delicious large cappuccino and chocolate croissant. A cappuccino never fails to remind me of Italy. And since my trip to Paris, a chocolate croissant is a pain au chocolat! This is what happiness looks like...

I rarely patronize this place due to not owning my own car and trying my best to adhere to a strict budget. The items you see above cost $7.50, an amount that could also afford me five days worth of lunch. And so every once in awhile, I truly value each visit. I love this "me time." This frequency could change as I saw my brother's new car with my own eyes today, so now I'm the only one who shares a vehicle with my mother and have the opportunity to borrow it more often than before.

In addition to the product, I also love the atmosphere. The down-to-earth staff give this cafe a friendly vibe. On my last visit, Mark, one of the owners, was chatting with two patrons on their way out in front of me and held the door open for all of us. As I was exiting, I thanked him and threw out a casual "see ya." He replied, "Goodbye, Michelle." His using my name caught me off guard. He had thanked me for an online review a long time ago and must have remembered my name from that. Like I said, I haven't been a regular for a couple years now, maybe visiting once every other month at best. In fact, the last time I was there was on a first date five and a half weeks prior. Plus, I'm a quiet individual; I tend to keep to myself. Anyway, the personalized experience he provided makes me feel a true part of their business, their community. I love good customer service. It's such a special place for me and I'll continue to go back as much as I can.

I have written about this establishment before, at least herehere and here. I say the same thing in these posts, but don't want this series to get old for you, readers. It's more than just this particular pleasure too, I repeat so many of them in real life. I don't think a couple of days go by when I don't savor at least one Lindt dark chocolate truffle! This summer, I didn't even bother snapping a picture of my blood orange margarita when my mom treated me to lunch at Outback Steakhouse, my professional pedicure done in Red Hot Rio by OPI, nor the tub of Dolle's caramel popcorn I celebrated with for surviving the busy work season of summer, for example. Even though they could have been among the highlights of my week, I didn't think I would say anything different in a post than I did previously. Even though I know I need a break or something, getting rid of the simple pleasure series would be wrong because I feel it is important subject matter and each post epitomizes what I want this blog to be about: being passionate about life, elevating the everyday, making the little things in the day-to-day a big deal. As an INFJ, I adore the details, but always see the big picture.

So... I've made a decision. I will introduce a new series next Sunday. On this particular day of the week, you can expect either this new series or a Simple Pleasure Sunday post. It will just have to be a surprise which series I will go with each week. That way if I luxuriate in a few of the 80 previous simple pleasures one week, I can still write about something else, something new, and as a result, won't bore my readers with the same old, same old. Posting a regular feature once a week with other posts published whenever I can works well for me. I'm excited about this new series and already know what I'll going to write about first. Join me here next Sunday to find out what it is!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

New Recipe #14: Brownie in a Mug

Since I live alone, I wanted to make a single-serve dessert, the kind you can make and bake in a mug. I decided to try a brownie one day. That you actually bake in the microwave. The recipe I tried was good, not great. Good enough to repeat a few times though. The brownie wasn't very sweet and not as silky a texture as brownies done normally. Definitely a cake-like brownie rather than a fudgy one. Maybe I just need to try a different recipe... It certainly satisfies a chocolate craving however. The serving size is actually more than I want! Taking under five minutes, it is so quick to make!

Such a recipe can be easily up whipped with ingredients you have on hand. This statement was not something I could have written before I began this cooking commitment. Little by little, I have accumulated items. Now my kitchen cabinets plus a shoebox in my table linen/serveware/entertaining closet (Marie Kondo would be proud) are filled with basics. For example, I have several little jars of spices including red pepper flakes and cinnamon. With several ingredients, I have two or three varieties of one thing. Not only do I have all-purpose flour, but also the bread and cake varieties! Plus, two kinds of sugar, granulated and powdered. Then, I own light and dark brown sugar. Plus, two kinds of salt, regular and kosher. Unsalted and salted butter are kept in the fridge. And those are just ingredients! I have also increased my kitchen inventory with equipment, pans, for example. I just bought a 9 x 5 loaf pan so I can try a new recipe before making it again for an October birthday. I usually have a new ingredient or utensil/pan/other piece of equipment on my shopping list. With my pantry now well-stocked, I feel like I'm finally starting to have a grown up's kitchen! Furthermore, I can now depend upon my pantry for last minute dishes such as this brownie in a mug.

Inside my kitchen cabinets.
(Following summer commission, my cabinets are only this full in September.)

I used this recipe from Simply Recipes that I found on Pinterest. I skipped the "tiny pinch of cinnamon" though. Click the link to see a picture of each step.

Brownie in a Mug
One serving

1/4 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa
pinch of salt
1/4 c. water
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1-2 drops vanilla extract
1 small scoop vanilla ice cream, if desired

1. Pour flour, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a microwave-safe ceramic mug. I use the Essential Mug from Crate & Barrel.
2. Stir with a fork to mix well and break up any clumps.
3. Add oil, water and vanilla and stir until smooth.
4. Microwave on high until pretty solid yet moist, at least 1 minute 30 seconds. Check. Microwave at 10 second intervals until done. I find that 1 minute 50 seconds is good for my microwave.
5. Cool for a minute. 
6. A small scoop of vanilla ice cream on top is optional.

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Goodbye, Summer. Hello, Fall!

Today is the last day of summer. To honor this in a fun little way, I thought I would share some snapshots of the food and drink I enjoyed this past season. A lot of people adore the holiday season, but summer is my favorite time for food.

When my friend F was in town, we hit a new restaurant specializing in... meatballs. You customize your meal, choosing your meat, vehicle, sauce and topping. I selected beef meatballs on rigatoni with tomato sauce topped with red peppers. It was solidly good. The meatballs were well-seasoned. The whole thing is a fun idea and at a decent value. I plan to return.

The two of us also sipped blood orange margaritas on my balcony. I drink this special cocktail throughout the summer. Pink and delicious.

Also on her trip and on our way to Annapolis, I showed F my favorite coffee shop. I love both bringing friends as well as having some "me time" here. This is my usual: a large cappuccino in a mug and a chocolate croissant. They're very well done.

In downtown Annapolis, this is my French Dip for lunch at a place called McGarvey's. I rarely dine out due to budget, so when I do, it's a special occasion to be relished.

I adore antipasti... And it's such an easy, breezy meal for a laid-back summer evening. I think this was the one for me and F. It can be cheap (like it was here) or an extravagant indulgence.

This is my favorite sandwich, pit beef. I picked this one up at the local carnival and then savored its smoky taste at home.

Read about these two scoops of gelato here.

I am writing a few blog posts, some concerning these seasons. First, sometime this week, I hope to publish a couple of posts on new recipes, one I have tried and the other I plan to do. I have written one, but want to make this quick dish again so I can take a halfway decent photograph when I have morning sunshine. The sliding glass door and windows of my apartment face northeast so I get a bit more natural light in the AM. Plus, it's been cloudy lately. In addition, I need to wrap up the summer in other ways. I haven't forgotten about reviews of the books on my summer reading list! Expect a post about how successful my summer capsule wardrobe was, including any additions, subtractions, and replacements. Also, I have been working on my capsule wardrobe for Fall 2015 and hope to get it up later this week as well. I will reveal a surprise on an upcoming Sunday. Definitely stay tuned!

I prefer fall to summer. It's not as hot outside. I'm drawn to the image below from my affinity for walking. I would enjoy taking an autumnal stroll on this sidewalk. Shoulder season is recommended for (cheaper, less crowded, more pleasant) travel. Plus, I love the clothing... A 3/4 sleeve tee and jeans with a jacket, scarf and ballet flats is a personal uniform and finally weather-appropriate. I hope you have an amazing autumn!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Simple Pleasure Sunday: Forbidden Chocolate Double Thick Milkshake

I'm on vacation. I'm off from work today through Thursday. My parents are out of town, so I am helping my siblings with shifts of dog sitting (Minnie) as well as taking care of my grandparents. I'm typing this at my parents' dining table and will likely stay here during the day for about four days and two overnights. So far today, I've been productive with chores. I drove to the grocery store, Target, liquor store, Goodwill donation drop off, hair salon and Hallmark for errands. I also shopped at my favorite store, HomeGoods for a birthday gift and for fun too. I picked up a new laundry bag and a package of cranberry pistachio biscotti. I spontaneously carried out lunch, a delicious pulled pork sandwich from Mission BBQ, which is in the same shopping center as HomeGoods. I did my laundry and even put it away at my place. With the exception of dropping three items off at my dry cleaner/tailor on a weekday, it's nice to have all my errands done during the first half of my first day of vacation. Now the fun can begin, right?

From my childhood home, I walked 2 1/2 blocks up and 2 1/2 over in the sunshine to Friendly's. I walked home and savored my double thick milkshake made with forbidden chocolate on a bench swing in the backyard. It was delicious, really decadent. The family dog loves hanging out outside.

I wish you a wonderful week!

I'm off to take the dog on a pre-dinner walk. Maybe burgers cooked on the grill for dinner!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

New Recipe #13: 1-2-3-4 Cake

1-2-3-4 Cake is like a pound cake. My maternal grandmother likes to make it and taught me as a child. The cake's name comes from the ingredients; there's 1 of something, 2 of another and so on. It's definitely easy to memorize. Passed down orally, this is likely why it's an old-fashioned recipe.

Just before making this recipe, I had bought a fancy bundt pan cheaply from HomeGoods. It was something that I've been wanting for awhile. Usually I am a frosting sort of gal, but I appreciate that the cake is pretty itself.  I really wanted to test out my new bundt pan and decided that I would make my grandmother's 1-2-3-4 cake in it.

I made it during the summer which I do not recommend. I noted in my planner than I baked it on August 26th. It's a decadent cake, so it's heavy and would be better suited for the fall or winter.

To aid my memory from making this decades ago, I did reference a few recipes online including the one from Paula Deenthis one inspired by Paula Deen's simplified recipe, and this one for the bake time when using a bundt pan. I can't remember if I used all-purpose or cake flour. Sorry about that! Either will work. I also added a bit of salt. Anyway, it turned out well. This was one I shared with others and everyone liked it.

1-2-3-4 Cake
Served as a Bundt Cake

1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. milk
1 c. unsalted butter, softened
2 c. granulated sugar
3 c. flour, sifted
4 eggs
1/2 tsp. salt
a bit of powdered sugar for dusting, if desired

1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
2. Grease and flour bundt pan. 

3. Using an electric mixer, blend butter and sugar well, about 6 to 8 minutes. 
4. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. 
5. Add flour and milk alternately to creamed mixture, beginning and ending with flour. 
6. Add vanilla and continue to beat until just mixed. 
7. Pour batter into prepared pan. 
8. Level batter in each pan by holding pan 3 or 4 inches above counter, then dropping it flat onto counter. Do this several times to release air bubbles and assure you of a more level cake. 
9. Bake until done, about 40 minutes. 
10. Cool in pans 5 to 10 minutes. 
11. Invert and tap pan to reveal pretty side. Cool completely.
12. Dust with powdered sugar, covering any imperfections.

Buon Appetito!

Check out my previous new recipes...

I baked my beloved brookies Monday afternoon for a family dinner that evening...

Monday, September 14, 2015

New Recipe #3 Redo: Crumb Cake

Last year, I followed an easy coffee cake recipe, one that used a box cake mix, but I didn't like how both the cake and topping turned out. Read about it here. Since I definitely want to have a 'go to' coffee cake as an option to accompany coffee when hosting friends, I wished to try again. This recipe for Crumb Cake by Cooking Classy has been on my Pinterest board for awhile. Posted online on my birthday, I thought maybe that's a sign that this will be the one! I made it Sunday morning and... it turned out well! Finally, I have found my coffee cake recipe!

This particular recipe calls for an overload of crumbs. ...and for this, I am thankful. Even though I made a substitution, trading light brown sugar for my preferred dark, the topping was still delicious. Unlike the first time, the crumbs formed easily. The decadent cinnamony topping contrasted and went well with the cake which was light. I even liked the recommended pan size of 8x8 which serves nine pieces. The entire thing looked pretty good too.

About to go in the oven.

Just out of the oven.

On a cake plate.

A slice served with a shot of espresso.

Crumb Cake
9 Pieces

Crumb Topping
1 c. + 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. packed dark brown sugar*
1/3 c. granulated sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. unsalted butter, melted

1 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
5 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 c. milk
1/4 c. sour cream

*I replaced the recipe's light brown sugar with the dark variety.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Butter an 8 by 8-inch baking dish.
3. Line dish with two sheets of parchment and butter parchment. (Alternately, you can just butter and lightly flour the dish if you don't care to lift out the whole cake.)
4. For the crumbs, whisk together brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon and salt in a mixing bowl.
5. Pour in melted butter (use a spatula to scrape it all out) and stir to combine.
6. Slowly add flour while mixing with a spatula, and stir until you don't see the flour anymore. Set aside to rest while the cake batter is prepared.
7. For the cake, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl for 20 seconds, set aside.
8. In another bowl, use a hand mixer (or a KitchenAid stand mixer) to blend the butter and granulated sugar until mixture is pale and fluffy.
9. Mix in egg and vanilla.
10. In liquid measuring cup used to measure milk, whisk together sour cream with milk.
11. Add in 1/3 of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and blend just until combined, then add 1/2 of the milk mixture and mix just until combined.
12. Repeat process once more, then end by mixing in last 1/3 of the flour mixture until nearly combined. Scrape down sides and bottom of bowl using a rubber spatula and fold batter to fully incorporate.
13. Pour batter into prepared baking dish and spread into an even layer.
14. Break crumb mixture into pea size crumbs and drop evenly over batter.
15. Bake for about 32 minutes, until toothpick inserted into center comes out free of batter. 

16. Cool in cake pan 10 minutes.
17. Using parchment overhang, lift cake from pan and cool on a wire rack. (Dusting with powdered sugar is optional.) Store in an airtight container.

Buon appetito!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Simple Pleasure Sunday: Reading about Living in a New Place

A few bloggers I follow have recently moved to a different city. It's such an exciting time for them and I am thrilled that they're sharing their discoveries. I would like to move myself and at the moment, I am living vicariously through them while saving money.

Cari Zhu via Style Me Pretty via Pinterest

Sarah from italy project 365 just moved from Bologna to Genoa. Check out her latest post all about Genoa here. Now I'm craving some focaccia!

Shannon of The Simply Luxurious Life is "elated" to be living in Bend, Oregon. She settled in quickly and reports that it feels like home already. Bend sounds like a lovely town. She had me at "artisanal bakeries!"

My fellow blogger who is also a real life friend, Kate from Seeking Small, just moved back "home" to England. I'm so happy for her! She is certainly busy with twin babies and a three-year-old, but it's fun to see pictures on both her personal and blog's facebook feed.

I enjoy reading about the adventures of these three women, but I also hope it inspires me to take the steps, both big and small, to make my dream of moving to a city a reality. ...especially one with a charming coffee shop, bakery and wine bar within walking distance of where I'm living.

Friday, September 11, 2015

New Recipe #12: Chocolate Lava Cake

I have been anticipating the day that I would try to make these Chocolate Molten Cakes in Cupcake Pans for awhile. I have good memories of this particular dessert. I was surprised when I cut into my birthday cake in Paris and it turned out to be one of these. During college, I relished this menu item at the chain restaurant Chili's. Today was the day to make it myself. I don't work on Mondays and since last Monday was a paid holiday (Labor Day in the US), I had to take another day of the week off. I shopped for a few ingredients this morning and then made them during the afternoon. When it turns out, the "chocolate lava" is fun. I will definitely be keeping this in mind as an option when I play hostess.

It was a fairly easy recipe to follow. With sophisticated results. On my first try, some of them turned out and I would like to make a second attempt in order to improve. You see, the timing is so delicate. I made 15 cakes. There were 12 in my first batch in the oven and at 11 1/2 minutes, the center just turned to moist cake. They were overdone. I had taken them out after 10 minutes and the outsides really weren't done at all, but unfortunately the added time was simply too much. Having learned my lesson, the second batch of three were only in for 10 minutes and they basically turned out, although they could have used 9 minutes 30 seconds of bake time or something like that. Start with a slightly shorter time and keep checking every 30 seconds. Plus, subtract some time on a second batch as the oven will be hotter. I should have tried the tin of three first! I'm happy that I'm smart enough to try these recipes out before attempting them while entertaining!

I could see these being a fun dessert to serve at a dinner party. A warm, gooey dessert contrasted with cold, creamy ice cream! This small tart cake is more of a novelty as I prefer the cake to taste more sweet. It looks impressive though. Plus, the prep can be done in advance. You can make the batter, pour it into the muffin tins and place them in the refrigerator just before starting to cook and through eating dinner. When pouring refills or serving seconds or whatever, take a second to turn on the oven to preheat. After having finished with the meal, just pop them in the oven for ten minutes or so, let them cool, plate them, and then scoop ice cream for each guest.

Chocolate Molten Cakes in a Cupcake Pan
Definitely click on my source from Everyday Occasions for a picture of every step.
This made 15 regular-sized cupcake pan cakes for me.
I served each cake with a small scoop of Breyer's Homemade Vanilla ice cream.

2 tbsp. butter, melted
2 tbsp. cocoa

3/4 c. unsalted butter
12 ounce bag semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 c. heavy cream
5 eggs
3/4 c. sugar
2/3 c. flour

vanilla ice cream (if serving a la mode)

1. Prepare cupcake pans by completely coating cups with melted butter (or even cooking spray).
2. Completely coat cups with cocoa.
3. Pour a bag of chocolate chips into a medium mixing bowl that is microwave safe.
4. Add butter and cream.
5. Microwave for 30 seconds and stir.
6. Keep repeating step #5 until chocolate mixture is smooth.
7. Let chocolate mixture cool a bit.
8. Stir in eggs, sugar and flour.
9. Scoop into cupcake pan with a large ice cream scoop, filling almost to the top.
10. Place in the refrigerator for an hour or more.
11. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
12. Bake for 9 1/2 to 10 1/2 minutes, something like that, just until the outsides and most of the top have set but the centers are still liquid. Insert a tip of a knife to test. The interior should be like thick pudding.
13. Let cool for 5 minutes.
14. Set sheet pan on top and flip both over to release cakes.
15. Place cake on a dessert plate.
16. Add a scoop of vanilla next to the cake.

Buon Appetito!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

New Recipe #11: Italian Pork Chops

The Monday before last, I tried a new recipe for dinner. The Quick & Easy Italian Pork Chops turned out quite well. This dish was delicious! It was seasoned with a bit of a spicy kick. Looking great as well, the meat browned nicely. It will definitely become one of my 'go to' recipes. I may follow these directions from thekitchn and brine the meat prior to cooking to try and make the meat more juicy next time.

Noticing that I only needed to pick up red pepper flakes and rosemary for this recipe, I decided to make this dish at the last minute. As a result, I didn't plan out my side dishes. To accompany this pork chop, I should have selected more Italian sides... Something like sauteed spinach and olive-oil roasted gold potatoes. Oh well, next time. Instead, I used what I had: "Pork" Stovetop stuffing, frozen green beans, and buttered noodles (from a bit of leftover farfalle I had in the fridge). I recommend some kind of carb (bread, pasta or potato) to balance the kick from the red pepper flakes and maybe the Dijon mustard. I also had Chianti and some sweetened decaffeinated iced tea (instead of my normal water).

Quick & Easy Italian Pork Chop Recipe from the blog A Cultivated Nest. I stumbled across this recipe on Pinterest.

8-10 thin cut, boneless, center cut pork chops
2-3 tbsp. Dijon mustard
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup Italian bread crumbs
½ cup parmesan cheese
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
½ tsp. rosemary
½ tsp. oregano
½ tsp. basil
salt and pepper to taste

2-3 tsp. olive oil

1. Leave pork chops on the counter for a bit.

2. Grate the parmesan cheese. 
3. Combine flour, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, red pepper flakes, rosemary, oregano, and basil on a large dinner plate and set aside.
4. Salt and pepper both sides of your chops.
5. Generously spread Dijon mustard all over chops.
6. Pour oil in pan, just enough to coat bottom of pan and begin heating over medium.
7. Press coated chops into bread crumb mixture, flip and repeat on opposite side.
8. When oil is hot, place pork chops in pan without crowding (think three in a large pan) and fry until golden brown for 5 minutes. 
9. Flip and fry on other side for about 5 minutes.
10. Place chops on a paper towel-lined plate.

Buon appetito!

Check out my Recipes Tried and Recipes to Try boards on Pinterest for more delicious recipes!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Simple Pleasure Sunday: Reading a Book I Can't Put Down. Book Review: The Nightingale

I haven't been very productive over the past week. Over five days (and during my workweek), I read the 438-page novel The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. It was that good. I could hardly put it down! Being enraptured in a truly engaging story is one of my favorite things to do.

I highly recommend this book. The story follows two sisters in German-occupied France during World War II. These women are very different, but both join the Resistance in some way. They actually don't know what the other has done until after liberation. This page-turner is truly extraordinary. Her writing is so vivid. It really gets to you as you care for the characters. On nearly every page, I kept thinking how lucky I am not to know the horrors of war. It does get sad, but this read overall is so worth it. Pick it up and read it ...just make sure you can push off your 'to do' list for the better part of a week!

This book was on my Fall Reading List. I have already started and enjoying another book entitled Eating Rome on my Kindle.

I will also attempt to start developing a daily habit of working on blog posts in some way again, now that I've finished this book!