Paint Chip Valentine Card

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When I saw this card on the Martha Stewart website, I thought it would be a cute idea for Pat’s birthday card.  It would also make a great Valentine!

I have a stash of pain chips that I stole from Wal-Mart, so I used them to cut out all the shapes and letters.  I accordion folded a strip of paint chip to make the fish stick out from the card a bit.

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It was quick and will definitely make him smile!

Pat’s Birthday – Chocolate Salted Caramel Layer Cake

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As we all grow into old farts with 9-to-5 (or 5:00am-6:30pm if you’re doing your surgical gynecology rotation), Monday night “sweet dudes society” has morphed from dollar domestics into dinner parties.  Pat and I hosted last week in honor of his upcoming birthday.  I really wanted to create a show-stopper cake that was as delicious as it was nice to look at.  I decided to try Annie’s dark chocolate salted caramel layer cake.  It was the perfect mix of sweet and salty, and perfectly rich.

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Annie’s Eats Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Layer Cake

Ingredients:
For the cake:
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
2¼ cups sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder
2¼ tsp. baking soda
1½ tsp. baking powder
1½ tsp. salt
6 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. buttermilk
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. brewed coffee (gives the cake richness, but you won’t taste any coffee in the final product)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tbsp. vanilla extract

For the filling:
1 cup sugar, divided
¼ cup water
¼ cup heavy cream
Generous pinch of sea salt, such as fleur de sel
4 large egg whites
1½ cup (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the frosting:
12 oz. good quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
¼ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
¼ cup very hot water
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. (18 tbsp.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp. confectioners’ sugar
Pinch of salt

Fleur de sel, for finishing

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Directions:
To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350˚ F.  Grease and flour the edges of 3 8 or 9-inch baking pans, shaking out the excess.  Line the bottoms with rounds of parchment paper.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Mix on low speed to blend.  Add the vegetable oil, buttermilk, coffee, eggs, and vanilla to the bowl and mix on low speed until well blended and completely incorporated.  Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.  Bake 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Let the cakes cool in the pans about 15 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.  Remove the parchment paper.

To make the caramel buttercream filling, place ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons of the sugar in a medium saucepan.  Mix in the water.  Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat.  Stop stirring and let the caramel cook, gently swirling from time to time, until it is a deep amber color (test a drop on a white plate or bowl if necessary), watching it carefully to avoid burning.  Remove the mixture from the heat and slowly whisk in the cream and then the salt.  Set aside and let cool.

Combine the egg whites and the remaining ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar in a heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water.  Heat, whisking frequently, until the mixture reaches 160° F and the sugar has dissolved.  Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Beat on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form and the mixture has cooled to room temperature, about 8 minutes.  (The bowl should be cool to the touch.)

Reduce the speed to medium and add the butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, adding more once each addition has been incorporated.  If the frosting looks soupy or curdled, continue to beat on medium-high speed until thick and smooth again, about 3-5 minutes more (or longer - don’t worry, it will come together!)  Blend in the cooled caramel until smooth and completely incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

To make the frosting, place the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water.  Heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth.  Set aside and let cool to room temperature.  In a small bowl, combine the cocoa powder and water and stir until smooth.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, confectioners’ sugar and salt.  Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  With the mixer on low speed, gradually blend in the melted and cooled chocolate until well incorporated.  Blend in the cocoa powder-water mixture until smooth.

To assemble the cake, level the cake layers if necessary.  Place one of the cake layers on a cake board or serving platter.  Top with half of the caramel buttercream and smooth in a thick, even layer.  Image

Place a second cake layer on top and smooth the remaining caramel buttercream over that.  Place the final cake layer on top.  Cover the top and sides of the cake with the chocolate frosting and smooth with an offset spatula.  If desired, use additional frosting to pipe decorative accents on the cake.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.  Before serving, sprinkle with fleur de sel.

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Kari’s Bridal Shower – Vanilla Bean Cupcakes

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For Kari’s shower, I also made vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting.  Bridal white frosting with purple sprinkles and cupcake wrappers to stick with the purple theme of course!  Recipe and photos are below.  Please excuse the wonky lighting, I was in a hurry to get these babies out the door!

TIPS:

~If at all possible, weight the dry ingredients for this recipe!  It will ensure that your cupcakes turn out light and fluffy!

~Use an ice cream scoop to put the batter in the cupcake liners to ensure uniform cake sizes.

~To get extra white frosting, use clear vanilla extract

~Room temperature eggs are critical!

Sweetapolita’s Bakery Style Vanilla Cupcake

Source: Magnolia’s Vanilla Cupcakes from Food Network

Yield: 24 standard cupcakes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups (190 grams/6.5 ounces) self-rising flour

1 1/4 cups (160 grams/5.5 ounces) all-purpose flour

1 cup (2 sticks/227 grams/8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups (400 grams/14 ounces) white sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup (250 mL) milk

1 teaspoon (5 mL) pure vanilla extract

Method

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 standard muffin tins with cupcake liners of your choice (24 total).

2. In a small bowl, combine the flours and set aside.

3. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.

4. Add the dry ingredients in 3 parts, alternating with the milk and vanilla. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated but do not over beat. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl to make sure the ingredients are well blended.

5. Carefully spoon the batter into the cupcake liners and bake in middle of oven until tops turn golden brown and toothpick inserted into center comes out just clean (a few crumbs is okay), about 18 minutes.

6. Cool the cupcakes in tins for 15 minutes. Remove from the tins and cool completely on a wire rack before icing.

Sweetapolita’s Whipped Vanilla Bean Frosting

Ingredients

1 pound (454 grams/2 cups/4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened and cut into cubes

3 3/4 cups sifted (600 grams/1 lb + 5 ounces) confectioners’ sugar (icing, powdered)

4 tablespoons (60 mL) milk

1 vanilla bean, scraped

2 teaspoons (10 mL) pure vanilla extract

pinch of salt

Method

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip butter for 8 minutes on medium speed (I use “4″ on my KitchenAid). Butter will become very pale & creamy.

2. Add remaining ingredients and mix on low speed for 1 minute, then on medium speed for 6 minutes. Frosting will be very light, creamy, and fluffy.

3. Best used right away (for ideal spreading consistency reasons).

4. You can eliminate the vanilla bean and use 4 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract.

Kari’s Bridal Shower – Wedding Dress Sugar Cookies

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I “catered” my little sister’s wedding party this past weekend.  Thanks to the help of a couple of girlfriends, I managed to turn out cupcakes, wedding dress cookies and chocolate dipped pretzels!  Pictures and recipes for the cookies are below.

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Sweetapolita’s Perfect Sugar Cookies

Yield: Approximately 30 medium/small mixed shape cookies

Ingredients

6 cups (750 grams/1 lb +  10 ounces) sifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon (6 grams) salt

2 cups unsalted butter, (1 lb, 454 grams, 16 ounces) in cubes, softened for about 20 minutes at room temperature

2 cups (400 grams/14 ounces) sugar

2 large eggs (straight from refrigerator)

2 teaspoons (10 mL) pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon (1.25 mL) pure lemon extract

Method

1. In large bowl, sift together flour and salt. Set aside.

2. Use an electric mixer to cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs.

3. Add flour mixture and mix on low speed until thoroughly combined. Stir in vanilla and lemon extract.

Steps to the perfect rolled dough:

4. Remove 1/2 of dough from bowl, make a ball, and place on a large piece of plastic wrap on counter.

5. Wrap the sides of wrap over the ball, then press down with the palm of your hand and make a disc about 2″ thick. Finish wrapping the disc with the plastic wrap. Repeat with 2nd half of dough.

6. Chill both discs of dough for about 45 minutes.

7. Remove one disc and remove plastic wrap. Place on top of a large piece of parchment paper (I use a silicone rolling mat underneath to ensure it doesn’t slip while rolling, but you can even dampen counter so the parchment sticks a bit.), then place two 1/4″ wooden dowels on either side of your dough, then another sheet of parchment paper.

8. Roll dough (this will require a bit of elbow grease for the first few minutes until it softens up a bit) so it’s flush with dowels–they will ensure that your dough is even thickness.

9. Preheat your oven to 350 F. Slide your parchment paper and dough onto a board, then place in refrigerator for about 15 minutes.

10. Remove from fridge, and cut your shapes using the cutters of your choice, placing them on a baker’s half sheet lined with a Silpat Mat, with 2″ clearance around each one and the edge of sheet.

11. Place sheet with cookies into freezer for 15 minutes before baking. Then bake 10-12 minutes, or until edges are golden brown.

12. Cool sheets on wire racks for 10 minutes, then gently remove cookies and place on wire racks to finish cooling.

May be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. They also freeze well.

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Sweetopia’s Royal Icing Recipe

6oz (3/4 c) warm water

5 T meringue power

1 tsp cream of tartar

2.25 lbs (1 kg) powdered sugar

1. Add water + meringue power, whisk 30 sec.

2. Add cream of tartar, whisk 30 sec.

3. Add all of the icing sugar and mix with paddle attachment on low for 10min.

4. Add a tsp of clear vanilla if your meringue power has no vanilla

Tint with food color and use a damp towel to prevent drying.

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Assembly

1. To make the wedding dress shape, I sketched one on a piece of paper, cut it out and used a knife to trace around the cookie dough.  In order for the cookie to keep its shape, the dough should be chilled as mentioned in the directions above.

2. For the frosting, I made the royal icing thick with a little extra pwdered sugar.  I then piped a thin outline in both white and then purple in the middle for the sash.

3. I thinned the remaining royal icing with a few drops of water (add slowly, it doesn’t take too much!) and “flooded” the outline.

4. I bought little cellophane bags and tied each with a purple ribbon (my sister’s wedding color) so they looked extra fancy (and didn’t dry out overnight or stick together, which I was more concerned about)!

The cookies were a huge hit!  They almost looked too pretty to eat – but were delicious.  Definitely the best sugar cookies ever.

One Night in Bangkok, Thailand

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We spent one day and one night in Bangkok at the end of our trip.  Our flight home left at 2:00 in the morning!  Per the recommendation of a fellow traveler, we stayed at Saphaipae hostel.  When we arrived, we found that they had booked us the wrong room – two twin beds in a boys dorm room!  They didn’t have any of the correct room available, so we were upgraded to a premiere en suite room, which was basically as nice as a boutique hotel room.  Score!  The beds were comfortable, it was quiet and they had hot showers.  What more could you ask for?

We spent the day taking in a few “must-see” tourist destinations – Wat Po and the Royal Palace.  Wat Po is famous for the Reclining Budda figure.  It is 50 feet high and 143 feet long.  It was incredible!  The picture doesn’t even do it justice.

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We also visited Chatuchak Market, a huge outdoor market that runs on Friday nights and weekends.  It is so large, they actually publish a map book that is available for purchase.  It had everything from art to furniture to hand goods to food.  Apparently there is even a secret section that specializes in endangered animals.  We also came across a section with pet stores.

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For dinner, we ate at Cabbages and Condoms.  This famous restaurant was started to raise money for family planning in Thailand.  A Thai-run NGO recognized that large family sizes in rural Thailand (7 children average), was threatening to cause too much resource use.  The idea behind the same is that condoms and birth control should be as widely available and accepted as cabbage.

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All the decorations inside were made out of condoms.  There was a condom Tiger Woods, Santa Claus, Christmas three and more.

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On the way out,  a group of Thai schoolgirls stopped us.  They were doing a school project to benefit flood victims.  They designed a canvas tote to raise money.  I scored the one of the last limited edition, only 500 produced, totes!  At least that is what they told me?  Come to think of it, saying there are only 3 left is a great way to drive sales.  Maybe these girls are master business minds!

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Our food at Cabbages & Condoms.  Coconut milk soup:

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Duck in red curry sauce:

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Our room at Saphaipae, the biggest hostel in Bangkok:

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The Bangkok Airport:IMG 2348

Travel Tip: Booking a Place to Stay

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Our first night in Ko Lanta, we didn’t have a place to stay, so we tried our luck at a place recommended by a travel agency by the ferry.  We told them our budget was $15 and we wanted a place within walking distance of a sandy beach.  Within minutes, an employee of “Merry Beach Resort” was on his way to pick us up to take us to our bungalow.  I highly recommend going through a local travel agency if you don’t have a reservation when arriving at a new place.  They are usually on every corner, especially near bus stations, ferry stops and airports.  We tried a guidebook a few times during the trip and were disappointed as a rule.  Either the places were fully booked, more expensive, or of lesser quality than noted in the guidebook.  Basically, a guidebook mention seems to mean you don’t have to upkeep your place as you are guaranteed a constant stream of travelers.  You also don’t have to pay booking fees from reserving online and you don’t have to worry about being charged if you break a reservation.  You have a place to stay for your first night and if you don’t like it you have time to find a new place for the next night.

Ko Lanta, Thailand

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The rain cleared as we neared Ko Lanta, a beautiful island in the Andean Sea on the west coast of southern Thailand.  As we stepped off the ferry I knew I’d be much happier here than in Ton Sai.  Ko Lanta is clean, has beautiful long beaches and has plenty of accommodations for all price ranges.

While we were there, we did a “Four Islands” snorkeling trip.  Basically, you are taken in a longtail motor boat to three snorkeling locations and one sea cave you can swim through to a hidden beach.  There were tons of fish to see at the first location and the boat driver through bread in the water, causing the fish to swarm around us.  There were so many that they ran into me, which was a slightly disconcerting experience.

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There were hundreds of stinging jellyfish in the water, so Pat and I decided to skip the cave.  Some of the other snorkelers came back with welts all over their body, so I think we made the right decision.

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DSC7008Pat’s mom was concerned that we weren’t relaxing enough, so we decided to upgrade our accommodations for the last two days in Ko Lanta.  Thanks to the great exchange rate, we could afford to stay at two beautiful places – The Houbin, a modern, sleek boutique hotel and Baan Lanta, which has luxury bungalows on the ocean.  Both were amazing.

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Other than the snorkeling trip, our three days on Ko Lanta were spent eating, laying on the beach and eating some more.  Thanks for the suggestion Mrs. H!

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Ao Ton Sai, Thailand

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After three days in Khao Lok, it was time to hit the road again.  We caught a local bus to Krabi town.  The bus was packed full and we ended up standing in the aisle for half of the three hour ride.  Our next destination was the backpacker/climbing mecca of Ao Ton Sai, which was only accessible by boat.

The first thing I noticed about Ao Ton Sai was that many, many people there were wearing dreads.  The typical local and many backpackers looked something like this:

South Thailand Dreadlocks

There were guys that had dreads down to their knees!  The next thing I noticed was that those people were also full of arm tattoos.  It seemed the longer you had stayed on the island, the more, well…homeless, you looked.  Another trend was harem pants, which I detest on either sex.  Can you wear anything less flattering or less functional?

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Unlike most of the other beaches in the area, Ao Ton Sai has stayed relatively inexpensive.  Especially when it isn’t high season, you can get a mattress in a bungalow with a shared bath for about $5 a night and meals are about $2-5.  It’s very possible to live on about $20 a day.  The problem is, the word is out on how great the climbing is and Ao Ton Sai is completely overwhelmed with tourists.  When we were there, every place was full to capacity and there was the distinct smell of human excrement all over the island.  Most of the toilet systems seem to drain directly into two ditches that line the one main road that loops through the residences on the hill above the beach.

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We weren’t able to book in advance and were a little stressed about finding a place to stay on a busy holiday.  We asked at every resort and bungalow and kept getting the same answer – full, full, full.  We talked to other travelers who were planning to sleep on the beach for the night.  We were just about to give up and catch a boat back to Krabi when a backpacker told us that there were three tents left to rent at The Forest.  For 150B ($5) we had a tent on a cement platform in a shelter.  There was no mattress available, so our strategy was to stay up as late as possible for the New Year so we would be too tired to notice that we were sleeping on a thin blanket spread over concrete.

Pat made some non-dreaded, non-tatted friends to go climbing one day.  He was “super-amped” and was tempted to stay in Ton Sai for an extra day or two.  Unfortunately, a massive storm hit the south of Thailand and it was pouring rain for an entire day and the weather reports said it would rain for three days total.  We caught a ferry to Ko Lanta in search of good plumbing, beautiful beaches and more secure accommodations.

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New Year’s in Ao Ton Sai, Krabi, Thailand

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Ao Ton Sai was a great place to ring in the New Year.  The place had a laid back vibe and there were plenty of options for celebrating.  The night started with tourists setting off traditional paper lanterns over the beach.  Every once in a while, the lantern would backfire and burn itself out on the beach while the couple who had purchased it watched in dismay.  Sometimes, a lantern would get caught in a tree and turn into a ball of fire that fell down on the heads of unsuspecting tourists.  Luckily no one was hurt.

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They looked beautiful as they drifted over the bay and eventually burned out.

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There was live music and dancing.  As you would expect if you know anything about hippies, there was also fire poi and slack lining to enjoy.  At midnight, I lead the charge into the ocean.  I found it very surprising that it wasn’t at all like in the movies.  The only person to join was Pat, because I literally dragged him and Marianne, a girl we’d met from Scotland who is doing Doctors Without Borders in Pakistan!  Response times must have been dulled by all the ganja-smoking done at Ao Ton Sai because the rest of the crowd eventually joined.

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Pat and Marianne made new friends with some local ladies.

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All-in-all, it was a great New Year’s and we stayed up late enough to get a good night’s sleep in our tent.  This guy managed to sleep until 2 in the afternoon:

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