Dec 11, 2015

Christmas Baking Test Kitchen

Both my workplace and Tom's are having Christmas potluck lunches next week, so this weekend is going to be spent testing out some new recipes. I'm wavering between appetizers and squares (maybe both!) because there are always more than enough main dishes at these functions. Today I thought I'd share my favourites with you. If you have some tried and true recipes to share yourself, please do so in the comments - I'm open to anything!

These are white chocolate chip cranberry cookies from Sally's Baking Addiction. I think I might have all of the ingredients already. They seem pretty simple as well. Do you put dried cranberries in everything like I do?

white chocolate chip cranberry cookies

The fancy truffle squares below are from Style at Home. I get emails from them every day (usually when I'm at work and hungry) and then I want to make everything. I like the extra touch of adding a ginger, sugared thyme, or orange marmalade garnish to the top.

truffle squares

These are Irish Cream chocolate brownies from Nicole at Wonky Wonderful. Irish Cream whiskey in the brownie and in the frosting. I think a trip to the liquor store is in my future.

Irish Cream chocolate brownies

These might be my first choice if they turn out in testing. They're chorizo asiago puffs from Style at Home again. I've had a package of puff pastry in the freezer for months just waiting for the perfect recipe. What are the chances they'll turn out this pretty?

chorizo asiago puffs

This recipe looks simple and borders on being a main dish. They're crescent roll sausage bites from The Kitchen is My Playground. They appeal to my love of down-home cooking. This is feel-good food.

crescent roll sausage bites

And I'm throwing in one salad. My friend Megan makes this all the time and it is amazing. I could deal with amazing, I think. ;-) There is a whole lot going on here, but you can just call it butternut squash and cranberry quinoa salad. The recipe is from Little Broken (I don't know if Megan uses this one but it's close.)

butternut squash and cranberry quinoa salad

So what do you think? Do I stand a chance of replicating any of these? 

If you're looking for something new, check out my recipes for pumpkin cheesecake trifle, chocolate scotcheroos, or raspberry thumbprint cookies.

Dec 7, 2015

Hawaii Anniversary Trip Recap - October 2015

We're knee-deep in boxes right now (this weekend was the big move!) It feels like our 90-day closing just flew by. Partly because we took an 18-day vacation to Hawaii in the middle of October to celebrate our 10-year anniversary. Yes, in the midst of buying and selling houses, canine dental surgery, and fiscal year-end work responsibilities, we took off for nearly 3 weeks. In our defense this trip has been planned for a very long time, but it was a pretty hectic fall regardless.

So let me tell you about our vacation because, honestly, who doesn't want to think about a tropical island getaway when the weather outside is frightful dreary?

This was our third time to Hawaii - honeymoon and 5-year anniversary before - so we knew what we liked and what we didn't. We chose to stay in private residences rather than hotels, and made a point to eat at restaurants we'd never been to before (except Honolulu Burger, to which we will always return).

We started out on Kauai, renting a cottage across from Baby Beach in Kapaa.

Baby Beach, Kapaa, Kauai

The first time in Hawaii we only spent 3 days on Kauai (on misguided advice) and soon realized there was way too much to see and do in such a short time. This time we stayed for a week. I think both of us agree that we would have been content to just spend our entire vacation there - we have found our happy place. Kauai is so laid back - not like Oahu's North Shore surfer culture, but more like a small town. It just fit us.

We biked, hiked, went sightseeing, and laughed at the rooster next door (we named him Milo) who crowed at 2am, 4am, 6am, and 3pm every day. He was covering all his bases. He and his family would hang out on our lawn in the afternoon and we'd feed them crackers.

Milo, Kauai Rooster

The highlight of our vacation was when we took two dogs from the Kauai Humane Society out for a "field trip". You sign out the dogs, pay a deposit (in case you don't come back), and then you can take them hiking or to the beach - wherever dogs are allowed. They wear these cute, little "adopt me" vests so that the public knows they're available for adoption.

We signed out "Ethan", a lab/pitbull mix, and "Cassidy", a hound mix. They were best friends and bunkmates. We planned to take them hiking up Sleeping Giant - we wanted to make sure they got a good workout before they had to go back to their kennel. Ethan chewed on my arm the whole way there (the only way to keep him from chewing on everything else in the car), while Cassidy stared out the window and chilled. But she was just fooling us because as soon as Tom opened the back door to get them out she took off at full speed. It was a terrifying 10 minute sprint up the road - Tom being dragged by Ethan, me running in flip flops - finally cornering her in someone's backyard. It's always the quiet ones.

 Cassidy, Kauai Humane Society

Once everyone was back under control we had a fantastic hike up the mountain. These were two really good dogs. They walked nicely together, let me take hundreds of pictures of them, and let me smother them with hugs and kisses. After the hike we still had time to kill before their curfew so we took them to the beach for a walk along the pathway.

 Ethan and Cassidy, Kauai Humane Society
  Ethan and Cassidy, Sleeping Giant, Kauai
 Ethan and Cassidy, Sleeping Giant, Kauai
They both fell asleep on the way back to the shelter. I think they had a good day. I fell madly in love with Ethan. Madly. Unfortunately, pitbulls and pitbull mixes are banned in Ontario so we couldn't bring him home. I'll admit I cried when we dropped them off, and a couple of times during the week. I've kept in contact and they are both living it up on the mainland - Ethan has been adopted and Cassidy is with a foster family. I'm sure Chloe was happy that we didn't bring home another dog - she (pretends she) doesn't even like Sasha.

Ethan and Cassidy, Kauai Humane Society

So what can top that? Nothing can, but I still have lots to share with you.

We went for a doors-off helicopter tour across the island and up the Na Pali coast with Jack Harter Helicopters. I was really looking forward to this tour - until they gave us our seating assignments. They position you on the helicopter according to weight so that the machine stays balanced. I was the lightest (by just 1 pound!) so I was squished into the tiny middle seat between the pilot and another passenger who had done the tour just the day before. I had no view except the instrument panel and the front windshield.

 Na Pali Coast, Kauai
I did manage to get a couple of good pictures by hanging my arm way over but I was pretty disappointed. I guess I should have eaten a bigger breakfast.

Na Pali Coast, Kauai
Jack Harter Helicopter Tours, Kauai

We drove around the entire island throughout the week. Staying halfway up the coast made it easy to go north one day and south the next.

Maniniholo Dry Cave, Kilauea, Kauai

The last time we were there we discovered Polihale Beach on the final day and only had the chance to stay for a half hour or so before the sun went down. This time we spent an afternoon there and had the whole beach - miles and miles - to ourselves. It was crazy windy that day - every nook and cranny ended up with sand in it. The waves were too high to swim in safely, but it was magical watching them pound against the Na Pali coastline.

Polihale Beach, Kauai
Polihale Beach, Kauai

After Kauai we flew to Molokai. Molokai is a tiny island that doesn't see as much tourist activity as the other islands - and they like it that way. There are no traffic lights, no big box stores or chain restaurants, just locally owned businesses and miles of rolling hills.

Kaunakakai, Molokai
Kalele Bookstore, Kaunakakai, Molokai

We stayed at a condo about 13 miles from town. Our view was of Maui in one direction and Lanai in the other. It was really beautiful.

Wavecrest Resort, Molokai

We went snorkeling on Thanksgiving and ate our lunch on Murphy's Beach (20 Mile Beach). The water is very shallow and there is coral for miles. We followed fish around with the GoPro; we even saw a few eels.

Murphy's Beach, (20 Mile Beach), Molokai
Murphy's Beach (20 Mile Beach), Molokai

 After a post-lunch nap we drove the twisty scenic road to Halawa Valley and back.

Kam V Hwy, Halawa Valley, Molokai
Kam V Hwy, Halawa Valley, Molokai

Molokai is most known for being the location of a former leprosy colony (Hansen's Disease) beginning in the 19th century. The sick were shipped to the Kalaupapa Peninsula and left to survive on their own. Father Damien, a Catholic priest, came to help them - building houses, arranging medical services, and administering the faith. He succumbed to the disease himself many years later. The peninsula is still inhabited today by a few former patients who have chosen to stay. We didn't have an opportunity to tour the town, but did drive to the lookout and got a sense of the isolation they experienced. Read here for a more in-depth history of the area and Father Damien.

Kalaupapa Peninsula, Molokai

While we were on the island there was a huge outrigger canoe race taking place, the Molokai Hoe. People come from all over the world to participate in the race from Molokai to Oahu, a minimum 5 hour journey through gigantic ocean waves. We were driving around on the west side of the island the day before the race and stumbled onto the starting point. I'm so glad we did - the sight of hundreds of outriggers ready to go was amazing. We didn't see the actual race - you had to be up and on the road by 4am to get there in time - but we did watch a bit on-line.

From Molokai we flew to Oahu for the final 5 days of our vacation. Straight from the airport we drove to the aforementioned Honolulu Burger for lunch. Huge burgers on sweet rolls and a mountain of garlic fries.

We had booked a cottage up in the hills east of Waikiki this time (Hawaii Kai). The owners have built the cottage up above their house, and it has a stunning view across Hawaii Kai to the ocean, and over to Koko Head Mountain. This cottage was amazing. Lots of windows, a huge deck with a hot tub, and did I mention the view?

The owners had a little dog named Mochi who would come visit and make herself at home. I came out of the bathroom one day and she was laying on her back on the living room rug, waiting to have her tummy rubbed. If you were sitting on the couch on the deck, she would hop up and snuggle in beside you. Then when she was bored she would run back down the steps to her house. Loved her.

We drove all the way around Oahu, but we've been there twice before so we just hit our favourite spots. The last time we were there we rented a cottage on the North Shore, so we went back to revisit the area.

Sadly, Hale'iwa (the main town) has changed a lot in 5 years - it's become more commercialized and touristy. We only stayed long enough for lunch - at Opal Thai. This restaurant is famous and the food was so, so good. Opel, the owner, does a little shtick getting you to name your favourite Thai dishes, then he takes the menus away from you and brings what he thinks you'll like. He was right though, we loved everything.

We always hike Diamond Head Trail when we're on Oahu, but this time we also hiked Koko Head Crater Trail. Diamond Head has plenty of switchbacks, handrails, and safety fencing.

This trail is completely different. It's an old railway line that goes straight up the mountain, nearly vertical at the top. No handrails, just wide open. I'm so glad I punished myself with hours on the Stairmaster before the trip, because this hike was hard.

Once you make it about halfway, across the railroad tie bridge (with a huge beehive on it), and the trail starts to get steeper, you have to stop for breath every 10-20 steps. And these aren't stair steps, they are 12 inch+ steps. Poor Tom was still recovering from a chest cold and had a hard time with it. But we both made it to the top. It's a 360 degree view of Honolulu, the ocean, and the northeast side of the island. Just breathtaking. The climb down was just as tough. You had to go sideways to keep from tipping forward, and you had to remember to keep switching sides to give your leg muscles a break. As achy as I was the next day, I loved it and can't wait to do it again someday.

The days just flew by, but we were starting to get homesick for the dogs, so it was nice to pack up for home. We've now visited 4 Hawaiian islands and have decided that Kauai is the place we want to return to as often as we can. We even have the daydream of retiring there in the future.

But for now it's back to reality - moving boxes, 9-5, and 6 months of winter every year.
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