Life in the West

We moved to Idaho in June and have spent the summer alternating between settling in and traveling on weekends! We were able to head out to Washington two times to spend time with David’s family, and we also had the pleasure of hosting David’s sister & her husband, and later, David’s parents. We also spent a super fun weekend in Los Angeles for our friends’ wedding, so all in all, it’s been a pretty busy summer! Yesterday, we kicked off the fall season with a day-long Hogwarts Express Day celebration.

Life in Idaho has been a real adjustment, and I’m sure there’s plenty more adjusting to be done. But there are many lovely things about our life here : our apartment is in the most perfect location. Our next-door neighbor is super kind and helpful. My best friend Lindsey lives in town (!!!) so we get to hang out ALL THE TIME, which after years of always being in a long-distance friendship is pretty awesome. David is doing well at his new job. And I have access to bazillions of beautiful, hilly running trails. During summer I ran usually six days a week, but I’ve just begun training for a half-marathon in October, and I’m running three days a week and lifting weights three days (plus one rest day). I miss my trails, though, so I often add a long walk on lifting days. (Sometimes I add a long walk on running days, too.)

I’m working on navigating the counseling licensure system here, and in the meantime just housewife-ing to my best ability. Cooking, cleaning, you know. Recently, I’m most proud of my frozen bean-and-cheese burritos that David can take to work for lunch, crockpot steak fajitas, and the “sorting hat” cupcakes I baked for our party yesterday. I’ve also had plenty of time to read and get to know the local public library system.

 

Thoughts on Harry Potter and Hogwarts Express Day

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I made this post two years ago on an old blog, but today is Hogwarts Express Day once again so I am reposting it. In the last two years, my friends Lindsey and Peter and I have made a tradition of releasing a “family cookbook” each year on Hogwarts Express Day. I’m the coordinator of this project, so I’ve been hard at work editing the book for a few weeks and just released it to the two of them early this morning. I love how traditions in my own life are growing and developing as I get older! Anyway, here’s what I wrote on September the first, 2014:

Today is a holiday that very few people actually observe or even have heard of. My best friends and I, however, are all about it. Today is Hogwarts Express Day, the day on which the Hogwarts Express takes students to Hogwarts each fall. As dedicated fans of the series can tell you, each year a scarlet steam engine picks up all Hogwarts students at Platform 9 ¾, Kings Cross Station, London at precisely 11 o’clock in the morning. The long train ride through the English and then Scottish countryside is a chance for students to catch up and eat sweets from the trolley as they approach the castle.

My boyfriend-turned-best-friend, Peter, and I, began observing Hogwarts Express Day when we were first dating. We would “create a feast” – usually including a frozen pizza, some fancified leftovers, Harry Potter themed candy, and always pear jelly beans, and watch the first movie in the series. Several times, I have observed it by myself, and several times with my mom, Peter, or David. Today I am celebrating in Bloomington with David – we have some great food lined up (that will produce the week’s lunches in leftovers!), a Harry Potter shrine that I created in the living room, and soundtrack music is playing. I’m donning my Hermione t-shirt (“Keep Calm and Try Not to Get Killed, or Worse, Expelled”) and a pumpkin-orange cardigan. In a few hours we’ll be curled up on the couch, sipping pumpkin ale and watching Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s faces as they see the Great Hall for the first time.

Obviously, I love Harry Potter. It is a book series that I have been reading and growing with since the age of 8. I got the last few books at midnight-release parties and saw the final film at midnight with Peter. My best friend and her girlfriend took me and David to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and to LeakyCon, an amazing Harry Potter convention, as an early wedding present. I volunteer on the side with The Harry Potter Alliance, a pretty awesome nonprofit. But my love of Harry Potter is so much more than a childhood comfort or a crazy obsession. It is a really meaningful thing.

For me, Harry Potter was a consistent friend through the inconsistency of my adolescence. Teenage years are rocky for everyone, but for me, they had an especially rough edge: my father, with whom I was quite close, was diagnosed with cancer when I was 13 and died when I was 20. Through those years, I read and reread my Harry Potter books until they fell apart. I identified with Harry’s pain and loneliness. Once my father passed, I watched the films and read the books literally every day for months. I raged with Harry when Sirius Black died, I wept while he looked at old wizarding photos of his dead parents, and I held his hand when he visited his parents’ stone in the cemetery in Godric’s Hollow. Harry Potter was both an escape to a fantasy land where my geeky enthusiasm was valued and a really true and honest exploration of the struggles I myself was facing. It brought me together with many people, including my best friends Lindsey and Peter – both of whom used Harry Potter in similar ways in their childhoods and adolescences.

I wept when I got on the ‘Hogwarts Express’ at the theme park in Orlando for the first time, and again when I saw the castle. These amusement park rides represent real homes that really exist inside my heart and mind, and seeing them brought to life was overwhelming. I know that I always have a safe place to turn in this world of fantasy, magic, friendship, grief, and good triumphing over evil. I always have role models for whichever ‘hat’ I am wearing: Harry when I need to be strong in the face of my pain, and I need to make the choice of what’s right. Hermione when I need to buckle down and study or make a careful decision. Molly Weasley when I am finding a nurturing, mothering part of myself. The list goes on.

So Happy Hogwarts Express Day, everyone! Take some time to think about what this amazing series means to you, and enjoy a Butterbeer or a Chocolate Frog. You deserve it!

Chocolate Shortbread Hearts

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This is genuinely one of the best cookie recipes ever. In fact, it might be my favorite cookie I’ve ever baked. I found the recipe last year on the blog Two Peas & Their Pod and made them to take to a Saturday class I had on Valentine’s Day. They’re amazing! Made with Dutch cocoa (the pricey stuff) and dipped in semi-sweet chocolate at the end (with some cute sprinkles), they look gorgeous and taste phenomenal. I made them again this year to take to a meeting at work and they were a huge hit (my officemate ate another three after the meeting since the leftovers were sitting in the office — they’re that good). David & I are working our way through the last few now…and I miiiight make another batch on Sunday.

I made only one edit to the original recipe, which I’ll share later.

Also, I know the Dutch cocoa is pricey but I really think it makes the difference — these babies are so chocolatey and lack that occasional bitterness/sourness that chocolate cookies sometimes have. I bought a box of Dutch cocoa last year for this recipe and very slowly used it up over the course of the year, running out only last month. If you want to, you can sub in regular cocoa powder, but I’ve never tried that so I can’t speak for their flavor. Anyway, without further ado : chocolate shortbread hearts.

Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup Dutch cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 of a big bar of semisweet baking chocolate, melted
Sprinkles

Directions:
Sift the flour, cocoa and salt together into a mixing bowl

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my new sifter! we finally found a “crank” style one, which I greatly prefer. also note the dutch cocoa box

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter (room temp!) and sugar until light & fluffy. Add vanilla extract and mix. Gradually add in the flour mixture, occasionally stopping the mixer and scraping down the sides of the bowl. Mix until it forms into a ball of dough (for a while, it may appear piecey or crumbly, but keep mixing and it will combine). (Note: Whenever I am gradually adding a mixture this way, I use one of the measuring cups I’ve just dirtied with flour or cocoa powder or whatever to scoop it up and add it gradually. It’s an easy way to ensure you don’t accidentally add too much at once, and I don’t dirty any extra dishes.)

Lay out two sheets of waxed paper on a baking sheet, set the dough between, and roll it out to about one-quarter inch, trying to keep it even.

Place rolled-out dough in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Remove dough from the oven and slide off the baking sheet. Line two baking sheets with silpats or parchment paper. Cut out the cookies with a cookie cutter (I used a heart because Valentine’s Day, but you can use whatever! If you don’t have any cookie cutters, use an upside-down glass or jar). Arrange cookies on baking sheets. (Note : because the dough is chilled, the cookies hardly spread at all so don’t worry too much about that.)

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lovely heart-shaped beauties, awaiting the oven

If the oven still isn’t heated (like my crappy apartment oven), place the trays of cookies back in the fridge to keep them chilled. Once the damn thing has heated up…

Bake the cookies for 15 minutes.

Let cookies cool on baking sheets for two minutes and then transfer to a wire cooling rack (I find a slim metal spatula to be best for the transfer) to cool completely.

While cookies are cooling, melt chocolate! The recipe calls for chocolate chips but I prefer semi-sweet chocolate as I think it melts more evenly. I chopped an entire bar of semisweet chocolate, but I had more than I needed — three-quarters of a bar should do it if you’re only dipping corners like I did.

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this is what I mean by a baker’s bar of chocolate. I always have lots of baking chocolate around because uh…that’s how I make hot chocolate, I melt baking chocolate into milk and cream. future post?

To melt the chocolate you can use a microwave I imagine, but I don’t have one so I do it on the stove. I also don’t have a double-boiler — I chop the chocolate (baker’s chocolate sort of splinters as you chop so it’s really easy to chop it finely) and pour it into a Pyrex measuring cup, then set that in a saucepan of simmering water, like so :

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I stir a bunch with this adorable tiny spoon.

Next it’s decorating time! I removed the measuring cup from the water and wiped the bottom dry, then set it on my table. Then I set up a little station : plate with several cooled cookies, spinkle-shaker, and a tray with wax paper on it. For each cookie I dipped a corner in melted chocolate, wiped off drips with the small spoon, sprinkled it with sprinkles, and set it on the wax paper to cool.

final-product
TA-DA!

Not only are these cookies unbelievably delicious — flaky texture, super chocolate taste, and a burst of extra chocolate where they’ve been dipped — but they are cute as heck and you will get showered in compliments if you manage to show anyone else the cookies. And if you just stay home and eat them yourself, you will feel a rush of pride whenever you briefly glimpse its beauty before shoving it right into your mouth. YUM.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

Giant Halloween Skillet Cookie Cake

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Ok, not the most chic and elegant of names, but uh…that’s basically what I made, y’all. Chocolate chip cookie cake is (and always has been) a beautiful thing. I started with this recipe from http://www.allthecooks.com, because it came up when I Googled for “giant skillet cookie” and had good reviews. But I wondered if I could…Halloween-ify it. So I swapped in Reese’s Pieces (fall colors! also more peanut butter = more better) for chocolate chips, and added a milk chocolate frosting border from Sally’s Baking Addiction. The result? A delicious treat made a bit more festive by the seasonal colors and the candy swap-in. I just adore cookie cakes — that childhood flavor plus the squishiness of cake.

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yeah, that’s a snitch hat. it was a birthday gift last year and I LOVE IT. what says fall more than a snitch hat??

Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (at room temperature)
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar (packed down — click here to learn how to measure brown sugar)
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 – 2 boxes Reese’s Pieces (see directions)

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350*
Grease cast iron skillet with vegetable oil (I took a clean dishrag and just tilted the bottle onto it a few times to dampen it with oil, and wiped down the inside of the skillet)
Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl (note in the first photo how I am measuring flour? This is important, y’all. Learn more about measuring flour here.)

In another bowl, cream together butter and both sugars using a hand-mixer or a stand-mixer, until well combined (you may have to scrape down sides/attachment a few times)
Add egg and vanilla and continue to beat together ingredients
Slowly add flour mixture to butter/sugar until well combined (I scooped up the flour mixture in a small bowl and added it in bits, waiting until it was creamy before adding more)
Turn off mixer and stir in one box of Reese’s Pieces using a wooden spoon or a spatula
Scrape dough into skillet and bake for 25 minutes, or until edges begin to brown (a note : this took MUSCLE. The dough was relatively thick — I may have overstirred it a bit, but even so — and getting it to spread evenly was a bit of a task. For me, it helped to use a large spatula and then a butter knife, because the dough would stick to the spatula and needed some encouraging to flop into the pan.)

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almost ready to go in the oven — all that remains is decoratively adding even MORE Reese’s Pieces. mua ha ha

If desired, open a second box of Reese’s Pieces and decoratively place extra candies in the top of the dough. Eat the rest.
Remove from oven and set skillet on wire rack to cool.
Once cool, frost if desired (it’s really good without frosting, too!)

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fresh out of the oven! note the browned edges

Frosting
Ingredients:
1 & 3/4 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon instant coffee (this is my addition — I feel it brings out the chocolatey flavor more, and I keep instant coffee in the baking cabinet for my mom’s mocha chocolate frosting, which I may just post next month — keep your eyes peeled!)

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ignore the bottle of chocolate milk — that’s not an ingredient, it’s just in the photo because I was drinking chocolate milk straight from the bottle while I made chocolate frosting. totally normal.
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I sort of have no idea what I am doing with a frosting bag, but it looks alright to me. 🙂

Directions:
Sift together sugar and cocoa to remove lumps
Beat butter with a hand mixer or stand mixer until creamy
Gradually add in sugar/cocoa mixture and vanilla & heavy cream, alternating between the two, until well combined
Add a pinch of salt (to taste, I like sweet things with a bit of salt almost always) and the instant coffee (if desired) and then continue to beat frosting for a couple of minutes (note : instant coffee is in pretty big granules, so I crushed it between my fingers as I added it to the frosting).
Decorate how you wish! I placed my frosting in a decorating bag and piped it around the edges, and then set Reese’s Pieces in it

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Cut into wedges and serve. 🙂