Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Yo Ho Ho and a Cheese Puff?

Now that summer is here, it's movie time. But popcorn and chips are beginning to get old, and you'd really like to graze on something a little bit healthier, right? Pirate's Booty to the rescue. These savory treats are baked, not fried. They contain all natural ingredients with no preservatives or colors and supposedly contain half the calories of potato chips. Gluten free and trans fat free, you can munch guilt free.

Even more important, though, they taste great. The puffs have a nice crisp crunch. My favorite is the Aged White Cheddar, with a pleasantly salty cheese flavor that isn't overwhelming. I admit I am not a fan of the Veggie flavor. But Aged White Cheddar gets five cupcakes from me!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Wedding Gifts

Last week someone asked me what would be a great, but inexpensive, wedding gift. Naturally, every gift should be bought with the particular recipient in mind, but my top pick is a set of martini glasses.

Martinis are back in vogue, and there's just a touch of James Bond classiness about a martini glass. They look chic. The array of variations on martini glasses is astounding. And very nice martini glasses can be found for reasonable prices at Pier 1 and Macy's. It's an elegant and useful gift.

What's your pick for a great, but inexpensive, wedding gift?

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Radler

One of my favorite summer drinks is a mixture that brings on looks of confusion and sometimes, downright revulsion. It's very refreshing, though.

Here's the recipe:
Fill a Pilsner glass or beer mug half way with beer.
Pour Sprite in and fill to the top.

That's right. Half beer and half Sprite. In Germany, it's called a Radler (Rrrod-ler) and can be found in restaurants and bars all over the Alps. I understand the British and the French have their own version of this curious mixture.

The surprising part is the taste. The beer cuts the sweetness of the Sprite and the result is simply delicious. No ice needed, but it's best served cold.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Submersible Floralytes

Have you heard about submersible floralytes? These cool little lights come in a rainbow of colors and can be used in water and wet locations. They're meant for one time use only, but they only run about $1.90 to $2.10 each, depending on the quantity you buy and where you buy them. Just Google submersible floralytes and you'll be amazed by the number of places that sell them.

These wireless lights run on two tiny batteries. They come in a disposable version and a reusable version with an on/off switch.

Use them in vases, ice sculptures, centerpieces -- let your imagination run wild. They are not, however, recommended for use in drinks. What fun for an evening poolside party! They're inexpensive enough that it won't break the bank to buy a box for an informal summer birthday party or a bridal shower.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Avoiding the $6 Pepper

I refuse to pay $6 for a pepper. Which means I walk by them wistfully in the winter. But right now, my grocery store is loaded with gorgeous peppers for $1. Red, orange, and yellow and they're positively mouthwatering.

And in the garden, the peppers are growing fast. It won't be long before I have too many peppers. So what to do with them?

Freeze them. It's almost as simple as freezing blueberries. Wash the peppers and dry them thoroughly. I sometimes leave them on a towel to air dry for a couple of hours.

Next, slice or dice them. I tend to use peppers in strips a lot, so I usually leave them in generous half-inch strips. Slide the strips into a quart-size freezer bag, press out the air and seal. Freeze.

When you're ready to use them in the winter, if they were really dry when you froze them, and if you didn't pack too many into one bag, you'll find you can sort of break off the amount you need, or just put the entire package into your stir fry or dish. I don't even bother thawing them. I have been able to thaw a few pieces for a decorative touch of red on top of a salad, but they're not the same as fresh. However, in a pasta sauce or other cooked dish and they're just as flavorful as fresh peppers. And you can turn your nose up at the $6 peppers.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What's In Your Mayonnaise?

One of my good friends has a soy allergy. She was stunned to discover recently that her favorite mayonnaise is based on soybean oil. A lot of us are avoiding soybeans these days, for a whole host of reasons, but few people are aware that it's the primary ingredient in mayonnaise and 99% of salad dressings.

But you don't have to give up your mayonnaise addiction. After all, it's summertime and what's potato salad without mayo? Hain makes a Canola Mayonnaise that tastes the way we expect mayonnaise to taste. Even my very pickiest eater has approved the flavor of Hain. It's not organic, but it contains no genetically engineered products, and to top it all off, uses vitamin E as a preservative, so it's all natural.

Five cupcakes for Hain Canola Mayonnaise!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Fancy Cupcakes Without a Lot of Effort

I am not always as creative as I'd like to be. So when I see something that dresses up a simple thing and isn't a lot of work, I get very excited.

The most basic cupcake will be the star of the birthday party for your little princess in these filigree cupcake wrappers. Even your book club or bridge party will be elevated if you cluster cupcakes as a centerpiece in these clever cupcake wrappers. Not to mention how stunning they would be at a wedding. They simply take cupcakes to another level.

The wrappers aren't inexpensive, but they won't break the bank, either. You can find them at Paper Orchid. One dozen run $13.00 and fifty wrappers cost $50.00. http://www.paperorchidstationery.com/modules/cart/products.php/keys/filigree/page/1/id/778/name/FiligreeCupcakeWrapperWhite

Friday, June 19, 2009

Jack Torres Martini

This has to be the easiest drink to make. It's very elegant, and would be a perfect after-dinner drink any time of year. Absolut Raspberri is clear, so the gorgeous color, even the hint of a reddish hue, comes entirely from the Godiva liquor. Be forewarned, though -- contrary to what one might think, this isn't a sweet, creamy bon bon type of drink. It's all liquor and there's no ice or mixer to cut it or make it sweet. Definitely a choice after-dinner drink for those who like their liquor straight.

Jack Torres Martini

Absolut Raspberri
Godiva Chocolate Liquor

Pour equal parts of the raspberry vodka and the chocolate liquor into a martini glass. Garnish with a raspberry.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dulce de Leche

Have you noticed that dulce de leche seems to be turning up everywhere? Apparently Starbucks has a dulce de leche latte, and I think I heard it mentioned on the last episode of The Next Food Network Star.

Essentially dulce de leche (dool-say de lay-chay) means sweet milk. It's a very close cousin of caramel, and I noticed that Haagen Dazs added the word "caramel" to their delicious dulce de leche ice cream (probably to clue in those of us who aren't familiar with it?). I was first introduced to this treat a long time ago by a woman who made her own dulce de leche. It can be found ready-made in stores featuring hispanic foods, but she made it by cooking an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk in water. After cooking, the runny white milk inside had been transformed to a caramel-colored gooey treat. She ate it every day spread on bread for breakfast.

For most of us dulce de leche falls into the desert category. It goes well with ice cream, and there are loads of recipes topping old favorites with it. One bit of caution, though. Dulce de leche is really sweet. If you like caramel, you'll probably like dulce de leche, but if you don't have a sweet tooth, this isn't the flavor for you.

Five cupcakes for dulce de leche ice cream.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Horseradish Mustard Duel

The array of mustards in our grocery stores is nothing short of mind-boggling. We must eat a lot of the stuff to keep all those companies afloat.

Now I happen to like a little horseradish in my mustard. Yum, it adds a little extra zing to an ordinary ham sandwich. Horseradish mustard can be used anywhere you use ordinary mustard. It's not hot or unpleasant, it just adds a spark.

But which one to buy? Tough decision. As you can see, I've tried two and compared them. I have to admit that both are fine mustards. I have no quibble with either of them. However, for someone who likes just a bit of that horseradish bite -- Annie's Horseradish Mustard beats Jack Daniel's. The horseradish in Annie's is distinctive and comes through with a clear flavor. I don't get enough horseradish flavor from the Jack Daniel's version, but don't worry -- it's still good mustard.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Out, Out, Darned Char

It happens to all of us. A distracting phone call, someone at the door, or just plain juggling too many things at once -- and when we come back to the stove, not only is the food ruined, but the pot looks like it might be ruined, too. There is a way to rescue your pot without scrubbing until your arm breaks.

It's a little bit counter-intuitive, though. Put it back on the burner. Add enough water to cover the bottom about an inch. Let it come to a boil. If it's a really bad scorch, you might want to let it boil a few minutes. Remove from heat and add baking soda. If you add the baking soda before you boil it, it will bubble up and overflow. No damage done, as long as you catch it before you have a second mess on your hands. Leave the water in the pot and let stand. Again, if it's very bad, you might want to let it stand overnight. Then just wash it. Good as new.

Monday, June 15, 2009

If It’s Better Than It Has To Be, It’s A Shark

A warm welcome to Kim H. Striker, who is kind enough to join us as a guest blogger today. Kim resides in far northern Maine (so far north that if Canada ever invades, she'll be speaking French), with her husband, five cats, and the odd visiting moose and deer. Kim has had many short stories published, including romances in the Trues magazines and anthologies, the most recent A Cup of Comfort for Cat Lovers, and is currently hard at work on a mystery, Zoned for Murder, the story of a small town with big secrets, greed, lust, adultery, extortion, murder and the foreclosure crisis in a tropical paradise.

I’m a Guppie, and proud of it, but I have a confession to make. I’m in love with a Shark, several Sharks actually. Why? Well, I have cats, and anyone who has cats needs to know and love Sharks. No, not those sharks, not the swim in the ocean man-eating kind. Although as a SCUBA diver, I like them too. The sharks I love are the cleaning Sharks!

It started casually, the way most love affairs start. I’d used a cleaning product on my floor that my vet thinks resulted in one of my cats going into kidney failure. After weeks of reading labels, finding nothing that would guarantee it wouldn’t hurt my cats and living with kitchens and bathrooms smelling like salads because vinegar and water were the only items I trusted, I saw an infomercial. A man directed a woman to zip over floors of tile, linoleum and sealed wood with, get this, a steam cleaner. Ah ha, I thought, steam, nothing to hurt the critters. Steam, nature’s own sanitary cleaning system. My second thought was, infomercial, modern man’s half-hour definition for we will suck your wallet dry, send us money, we will send you cheap Chinese junk that won’t hold together long enough to leave the box. But, I have cats, and my floors smell like vinaigrette, and my whole house smells like a salad shooter spit up. At least steam doesn’t stink and maybe, just maybe, I could enjoy a salad again without thinking of dirty floors.

My Shark arrived confirming my worst fears. The assembly directions were none too clear. By following the illustration on the box, I got it together only once having to assume a yoga pose to keep the parts in line. Not bad for me, I have the reputation of putting things together backwards and not being able to get them apart, or stripping screws. Fortunately, Shark assembly has no screws. I vacuumed my kitchen, filled the little water reservoir, pumped the handle a few times, listened to the satisfying hiss of steam which sent my cats to the far corners of the house and cleaned my floors. Really cleaned my floors, scuff marks came off like magic, stuff that I thought was part of the linoleum pattern turned out to be stains left from prior owners and that lifted off, easy stuff like coffee stains lifted off. At the end of the event, I ripped off the handy dandy microfiber cleaning cloth, tossed it in the washer and voila, I was ready to clean again.

That led to my second Shark purchase. I figured my floors were spotless and sanitary, but cats use litter boxes. Cats track littler from littler boxes and I don’t even want to think about what’s on their little paws from what was in the litter. Little paws that are now walking on my sanitary Shark cleaned floors. The problem with vacuums and litter, even my turbo charged wind tunnel variety, is litter is light, and more blows away than gets sucked up. So, I saw an infomercial for a Shark sweeper…and I ordered. On television it picks up nails, tacks and spaghetti without any of it flying away, it cleans edges with the edge cleaner and plain old dust and dirt. In my house, it has cleaned up spilled baby pasta shells (note to self – do not leave open boxes of pasta on top of the fridge ever again), dust, cat hair and, drum roll please, litter, all without causing it to fly away. Best of all, it cleans flat surfaces and carpets, without a cord, and it’s got a flat head and a bendy bar on the handle so I can actually get all the way under most of the stuff in my house.

When my hand vacuum died, I looked for and bought a Shark, when my iron died, I looked for a bought a Shark. When it comes time to replace my car…Oh Shark engineers, are you listening? Here’s a new product line for you. Yes, I confess, I’m a Shark-a-holic and I owe it all to my cats!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Orange Lion

It's Friday again. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and we'll all be outdoors this weekend, manning our grills. This week's cocktail selection is the Orange Lion. Couldn't be easier or quicker to make. The Mandrin vodka tames the sweetness of the peach schnapps. Very refreshing and summery.

Orange Lion
1 part Mandarin vodka
1 part peach schnapps
1 1/2 parts orange juice

Add crushed ice to a glass. Pour in the vodka, schnapps and orange juice. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Finding Local Produce

The hottest trend in cooking this year is buying local. It makes sense in this economy. We need to support our local businesses and that certainly includes farmers.

But it makes sense on another level, too. Food that is local is fresher, and more likely to have been grown naturally. It probably wasn't picked and packed green. It hasn't spent time in a shipping container, and it most likely hasn't been treated with chemicals to last longer.

Farmers' Markets are a great source of local produce, cheeses, meats, and baked goods. But don't stop there. There's a wonderful website to help you find local farms no matter where you live. Local Harvest not only clues you in about markets in your area, but also about special events. http://www.localharvest.org/ Click on "farms" and enter your zip code. Farms in your area will pop up, complete with five star ratings. While you're on that page, select restaurants to learn about the ones in your area that cook with locally grown produce and meats. Hit events and take the kids to pick berries, or go on a romantic cheese tasting adventure with your new huggie. If you don't have time to get out (and you should make time, you know), you can order direct from Local Harvest farms, just select "shop".

Five cupcakes for Local Harvest!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Freezing Blueberries and Raspberries

They're here! The price on blueberries is swiftly coming down in grocery stores as they come into season. If you have blueberry bushes, you'll be picking them soon, with raspberries coming along in about a month.

But what to do with all those gorgeous berries? There's only so much jam your family can eat. Turns out blueberries and raspberries are very easy to freeze. Buy extra berries and pop them into the freezer for the winter. It's so easy that your children can help you. But watch out, they'll be sneaking berries!

One pint of berries fits perfectly in a quart-sized freezer bag. Here's the catch -- they can't be wet. Make sure there aren't any reject berries, pour them into a freezer bag, lay flat and spread them a little bit so they're not bunched together and the excess air is out, close and freeze. It's that easy. Wash the frozen berries just before you use them.

And that's it. I store four quart size bags inside a gallon bag so they're not all over the freezer. When it's cold outside again, and someone feels like a blueberry pie or cobbler, or pancakes with berries in them -- they're a wonderful treat.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mosquito Swallow

I'm excited to welcome Kaye George as a guest blogger today. Kaye is the author of many published short stories, the most recent HANDBASKETS, DRAWERS, AND A KILLER COLD in the January 2009 issue of “Crooked” ezine and RETRANSFORMATION in the Summer 2008 edition of “Mysterical-E” ezine (first place Muse contest). She recently completed DEATH IN THE TIME OF ICE, a Neanderthal thriller.

I got one of these last year and LOVE it. Hubbie and I like to sit out at night and chat and relax and he’s one of those delicious people. Mosquitoes adore the taste of him. They don’t like me so much, but even I get bitten when they’re thick, as they are when it’s rained recently.

When I saw this product advertised on television, I ran to the computer and ordered one. The next year they sent out a replacement part to improve the design. No charge! We now sit and relax with no sprays or fogs, just our lovely Mosquito Swallow. It uses nothing but water and a dead leaf. It has to be refilled every week or so, since the water will evaporate, but that’s it for upkeep. At the end of the season you can clean it out. (Or the beginning of next season, like I do because I forget.)

It’s not a beautiful thing, but it’s unobtrusive. And it works! The company’s website is

This product is designed for a specific mosquito, which occurs in the SE, but seems to be spreading rapidly. We live near Austin, TX, in prime Asian Tiger Mosquito Territory. The map shows where this pest lives.

Monday, June 8, 2009

No Squirrels Allowed

On one of my writing lists, the conversation has turned to keeping pesky animals out of gardens, and squirrels out of bird feeders. Squirrels are very resourceful little guys, and seem to figure out a way around most of our efforts to guard bird seed.

A few years ago, our squirrel problem became so bad that we installed a special pole with a squirrel proof baffle. If squirrels try to climb the pole, they climb into a dead end. There's nothing to grab hold of on the outside, so they can't reach the top. In the photo to the left, the baffle is hollow and open only to the bottom. It's a simple concept, but it really does work!

There are a couple of caveats, though. The pole and baffle cannot be placed closer than eight feet to a tree, bush, or structure. Apparently, squirrels can jump about eight feet horizontally, so the pole can't be close to anything they can climb and use as a launching pad. The height of the baffle can be adjusted, but it must be five feet off the ground, since the clever little beasties can jump five feet into the air.

The top of the pole holds an assortment of hooks for bird feeders. Our pole came from a local bird shop where we were able to select the components and style it the way we wanted. But I've found two similar baffle style bird feeder poles on-line. Duncraft has one for $139.95 (http://www.duncraft.com/Squirrel-Stopper-System-P1934C63.aspx?gclid=CNDVvIfB-ZoCFQIWFQodG3qHeA) and Backyard Wild Birds has one for $79.99 (http://www.backyardwildbirds.com/servlet/the-151/Squirrel-Proof-Bird-Pole/Detail).

Squirrel baffles -- certainly worth five cupcakes!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Kick Back with a Cocktail

Summer is officially in full swing. It seems like I always fall back on the same old mixed drinks for company, so every Friday, I'm going to try out and blog about a new drink.

I'm beginning with a symbol of summer -- watermelon. Marie Brizard Liquors brought out this Watermelon Liquor in 2005. Made of watermelon and a variety of seasonal melons, the liquor is all natural and I had to try it.

The liquor does have a distinct watermelon flavor. For our first drink, I wanted to stick with something simple (though I will be trying out some blender drinks), so our cocktail of the day is a Tokyo Sunset. Not having been to Tokyo, I can't say why they would call it that -- the drink is mildly pink.

1 part Marie Brizard Watermelon Liqueur
1 part Premium Vodka
Fill tumbler glass with ice.
Add Liqueur and Vodka.
Top with tonic and garnish with watermelon wedge.

I happen to like Vodka Tonics, and while this is pink, it's basically a Vodka Tonic with a slightly fruity flavor. A good choice for people who like fruit but don't care for sweet drinks. Also a good choice for a very hot day.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Little Less Guilt and All the Flavor

I love ice cream. In my humble opinion, Haagen Dazs has the best flavors going. Ben & Jerry's chocolate does give Haagen Dazs chocolate a run for the money, but no one does coffee ice cream as well as Haagen Dazs. It has the right taste and texture.

When I saw Haagen Dazs five ingredient ice cream, I was skeptical. How could they improve on their classic coffee ice cream? Well, the improvement isn't what's in it -- it's what's not in it. Fat. They've managed to reduce the fat from 17 grams to 11 grams. Still a hefty amount of fat, but hey - you were going to eat the 17 gram version anyway, weren't you?

The great news is that I can't tell the difference. The flavor is there, the creaminess is just right. I haven't done a blind taste test, but five is terrific ice cream.

Five cupcakes for five.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Little Things That Make Life Easier

Have you ever noticed that sometimes the little things make all the difference? I started getting cranky when I couldn't find this bottle brush. It had fallen over, no big deal, but I would have been upset if I had lost it. The bristles are about two inches wide, and they're flexible enough to bend easily.

I use this little guy to clean narrow glasses, water canteens, vases, and all sorts of cake decorating items. It's gentle enough for tall crystal champagne glasses.

To be honest, I don't even remember where I bought it, but I'm sure it didn't cost much. If you look for one, be sure it has a thin wire stem, not a bulky plastic one, and take care to find one that won't rust.

Five cupcakes for clever items that speed up chores!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Chocolate Tasting

I attended a class reunion this past weekend. One of the fun activities they offered was a chocolate tasting. What a fabulous idea to perk up a party! Whether it's your book club, your church group, or your fifteen year old daughter's sleepover -- a chocolate tasting will always be a hit.

Buy candy boxes through eBay or a local chocolatier.

Select chocolate bars to taste and break them into bite size pieces. Keep them small. Print out a guide to the chocolates inside and add a festive ribbon. Be sure to include one fun chocolate that will elicit vivid responses, like a chocolate laced with chili!

This would also make a fun wedding favor that could easily be assembled well in advance of the big day.

Five cupcakes for chocolate tastings!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Inexpensive Barbecue Fun

Natasha takes great pride in her tablescapes. But Sophie thinks summer flowers and candles are perfectly adequate for a barbecue.

You don't have to be a Natasha and hand-embroider napkins for your guests. Fun paper napkins spark up the table and enhance any barbecue. From elegant watercolor grapes, to simple red and white, to funny themes and sayings -- you can't go wrong.

And the great thing is that you can usually find packages of napkins marked down at the end of every season.

Easy decorating and easy clean-up. Five cupcakes from Sophie!

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