Friday, August 31, 2012

The Best Cake Mix Cookies

I feel like the superhero of lazy cookie making. I've used cake mixes for cookies before (like, all the time because I'm, well, lazy) but they've never turned out so good. Apparently, the key is the cake mix. I usually use Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines, but this time Pillsbury was on sale $10 for 10 and I just went crazy and bought a whole bunch.

And then dumped two boxes of it in a bowl thinking it was brownie mix and went, "Ah crud. What am I going to do now?"

Best mistake ever.

These cookies... these cookies are the best cookies I've ever made or even had. So soft and chewy. So good. So... right.

Chocolate Cake Mix Cookies:

1 box Pillsbury Chocolate Cake Mix
2 Eggs
1/3 Cup Veggie Oil

(To double, I used two boxes, 2/3 cup of oil, and three eggs and the texture was perfect. In fact, I recommend doubling because one batch makes only twelve cookies at best.)

Preheat oven to 350 F
Mix ingredients until combined
shape into 1 inch balls (I used a mini ice cream scoop)
Roll in goodies and place on baking sheet.
Bake for ten minutes. 

When you roll in powdered sugar, roll it good (I'm talking multiple layers) or else it will evaporate after it cools.

Have any cake-mix cookies tips?
I'm seriously going to buy ten more boxes and bake these throughout the holidays. 
Orange sprinkles for Halloween? 
Yes, Ma'am!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

My New Exercise Routine

I've discovered the beauty that is the squat. I always shied away from them as part of my workout regime because I thought they would over-bulk my already muscular quad muscles (the muscles on the top part of the thigh). Dancer don't want big quad muscles since large ones tend to make legs look bulkier and shorter; we aim for strong inner thigh muscles as their shape elongates the leg.

But after countless attempts to give my derrier a little lift to no avail (I think I have writer's butt), I resorted to the squat. Maybe it's psychological, but I saw a difference by the third day. I'm not saying everyone should be doing squats, but I thought it was worth noting how effective they are. 

So, here's my good morning calisthenics routine:

50 squats
50 demi plie pulses
20 full plank pushups
1 minute of belly pulls 

What are demi plie pulses? 
You stand as pictured below  (with or without the weights) and do small pulses up and down. Go as low as you can without sticking out the bum.
image via Whole Living

What are belly pulls? 
They are the only thing that gets my abs defined without making me look so 'straight up and down'. When I did Jillian Michael's 30 Day Shred, I saw a lot of definition in my abs but lost the small ounce of hourglass shape I had. Doing belly pulls helped get it back, and more so.

How to: Get on all fours, hold in your stomach as much as possible, hold for a minute. Do not let your belly release even the tiniest bit. In fact, you should feel like your pulling your muscles in more as the minute progresses and you have to fight gravity (and fatigue).

I know this exercise routine is not extensive, nor effective, for everyone, but it certainly has helped me in surprising ways. Have my quads gotten bigger? Not as far as I can tell. But my butt does look a lot better and I think that's pretty fun (wink).

What's your go to butt move?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sweet and Savory Nectarine Tarts

Some things I learned last weekend:
1. Anything tastes good with puff pastry.
2. Nectarines taste best with said puff pastry.
3. Gouda cheese and nectarines should be best friends.

Nectarine and Gouda Tart

Step 1:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
Step 2:
Line baking sheet with parchment paper (super important).
Step 3:
Slice 1 nectarine and Gouda.
(about 18 slices of each)

Step 3:
Alternate nectarines and Gouda like so.

Step 5:
Bake in oven for 15 or so minutes, until crust is golden brown.

The nectarines might give off a lot of juice, making your tart look really soggy.
No worries! When it cools, the juice will gel into a nice, beautiful glaze.

 It's best when served warm and the cheese is a little gooey.

 Vanilla Nectarine Tart

Step 1:
Do everything like the previous tart without the nectarines. 
Step 2:
When it's cool, melt 1/2 cup white baking chips and drizzle.

There you have it:
A super easy appetizer and dessert.

photos by Dancing Branflake

Monday, August 27, 2012

Writing Quotes

I love writing quotes. Nothing inspires me more than to hear other writers talk about their process of writing. While looking around for quotes to pin to my Reading and Writing Pinterest board, I didn't find a whole lot that spoke to me. So I decided to create my own set of inspirational quotes and pictures so I can have them up there anytime I need a little morale boost.

I think I'm going to keep adding to the collection because, as we all know, inspiration never stops until you let it.

Happy writing, my friends!

*Just as an FYI, due to copyright laws (and moral issues), the photos I used were my own. If for any reason you want to use them, go on ahead! You know, as long as you give me a lil bit o credit. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Summer: Indulging in Your Passions

Some fun things have been going on in the Branflake world...

My sister-in-law, Steph, and I had a girl's day of macarons, Greek food, and shopping.
Yes, those are macarons hanging from the ceiling. Love that!

This summer we all learned how to play bocce ball.
It's actually really addicting and so fun when you play boys against girls.

My friend, Tony, rented a competition sized barbecue and smoked two hundred pounds of meat for fun.
We went home with a lot of meat.
Ps... smoking a turkey is amazing.

Mr. Branflake picked up a few donuts before one of our roadtrips.
I'm a glazed girl all the way.
I thoroughly enjoyed and took advantage of cherry season this year.
I'm quite sad to see it leave because they're the one fruit I love to eat.

If you can't tell by this post, I've been on vacation this month. Well, sort of. I've been teaching a few classes and having rehearsals, but for the most part my days are spent with the Triple F: family, friends, and food. I've been trying to eat clean whenever I can because I know I can't resist a fluffy donut or shaved ice with sweet cream when they come my way. Sometimes I think balance is about having extremes in your life.

In the good news department, I emailed that agent who requested my manuscript. I hadn't heard from her and I feared I was lost in the pile (or she never got it. Eek!). She emailed back saying I was still being considered and they needed more time to decide. I was so happy I emailed her back and basically said, "Heck yes! Take all the time you need!" I figure it's good they didn't say 'no' right away and that means there was something they liked in there.

Speaking of writing, despite all the fun times seen above, I had some not so great things happen in my personal life and was super stressed these last few weeks. It was so bad I couldn't concentrate on anything and it would take me days to write a single blog post. DAYS! I just couldn't focus at all. One thing that soothed me was writing. I started another story and everything was so peaceful as I wrote scene after scene. It's rubbish but it felt good to do it. Ideas were flowing and things started to click in ways they haven't before.

I'm beginning to think the things we're passionate about are what stays with us in the darkest hours.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I can do stuff

I had another post scheduled for today, but I wanted to deal with these negative feelings head on. Because why wait to make yourself feel better, right? Right.

I went bra shopping on Tuesday and it wasn't the most pleasant experience. 
Thoughts of, "Ooh... maybe I should budget for a little surgical oomph" 
and "Oh no. Oh no oh no this is bad" came into my head a few (hundred) times.

I get it: I'm a horrible role model of body image and I need an attitude adjustment.
It's a slow and at times frustrating process, but I'm trying.


After a day of Greek food, macarons, and bra shopping (real bad combination)
I came home and looked at these photos from Monterey and thought: 
"I can do stuff. I like that. I probably can do a lot of stuff I don't realize."

So instead of focusing on how my body looks, I thought I would focus on what it can do.

My body can:

do the splits
jump high in the air
spin and not fall
do handstands
out push-up most people
bowl left-handed
recover from illnesses
give amazing back rubs
dance on the beach in skinny jeans

What can your body do?

Nothing tastes as good as...

Oh man, this photo is all over the internet and I hate it. 
So, I thought it'd be funny if we played our own game called,
"Nothing tastes as good as..." and then you fill in the blank.

For instance:

Nothing tastes as good as cotton candy feels on your tongue.

Nothing tastes as good as a hug from a cute boy.

Nothing tastes as good as laughing so hard you burp.

yeah, I wish I made this one. Got it off of Pinterest.

So complete the sentence:
 (Sorry for sounding so bossy!)

Nothing tastes as good as _____________

The person with the best answer gets to feel good about being so awesome.
And then deserves to eat a microwaved doughnut.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

I See Love Stories Everywhere

I am such a sucker for a good love story. Even when they don't exist, I like to create them in my head. Here are a few I've been mulling around for a while.

~There's a news story about an FBI agent who infiltrated a Muslim mosque as an undercover agent. In my head he meets a Muslim woman, they fall in love, and the conflict begins.

~A woman is at an airport. She forgets her bag in the terminal. She comes back to get it at the exact moment her high school crush comes off the plane. Even after fifty years and a lifetime of living in between, he still gets flustered around her.

~A man and a woman witness a horrible car accident. As they become separately involved with those in the accident, their lives become tightly woven through chance encounters and undeniable feelings.

~A man is at the beach. His normally well behaved dog runs loose and befriends a woman lying under an umbrella. He, a soldier still fighting his own battles and she, a cancer survivor, fall in love and find peace among the turmoil in their lives.

~A man asks a woman on date. The next day he's hit by a car and doesn't remember the woman. Two years and many failed relationships in between, they finally have their first date. That, ladies and gentleman, is a love story that will never end. (read the full version here)

I see love stories everywhere. Hopefully, one day you'll see these stories on a bookshelf.

Do you enjoy reading love stories?
What do you think makes a good one?
Conflict? Chemistry? Chance encounters?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Hot Air Balloon Ride in Napa

 On the fourth day of our surprise getaway, I had something very special planned. Yes, even more special than a wine train in Napa Valley or the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Here were the hints:

1. It would blow him away.
2. He might pee his pants.
3. Multiple modes of transportation.
4. We have to be some place at 5:30 am.

On the way to our destination (at 5 am, I might add) he asked, "Are you taking me someplace special to see the sunrise?"

I smiled. "Yes. You guessed it."

Getting ready for take-off!

Watching the sunrise over the Napa Valley.
Of all the sunrises in my life, this was by far the most incredible.
I loved looking over and seeing all the other balloons soar alongside with us.
I'm getting chills just thinking about it!

Some tips:

1. We flew with Napa Valley Balloons and loved them. They were super friendly and professional.

2. The meeting place was the beautiful restaurant Etoile, where we were served pastries, fruit, and beverages.

3. Even though it's early, the temperature in a balloon is mild, so no heavy jackets are necessary. The flight was about an hour, which was plenty of time to take in the scenery and snap a few photos (okay, a few hundred).

4. I have a fear of heights, which is why I knew a hot air balloon ride would completely take Mr. Branflake off guard. Although at times my chest felt like there was a helicopter inside, the entire ride was smooth and peaceful. Well, aside from the 'I'm going to pee my pants' feeling I had when I looked straight down.

5. Our pilot was awesome. He's been doing this for thirty years so we knew we were in good hands.

6. The most physical part was climbing in and out of the wicker basket. No doors and no step stools!

7. We were served a post-flight brunch. It was amazing: eggs, potatoes, bacon, sausage, English muffins, and cream cheese so creamy I thought it was butter. 

8. It's surreal being in a wicker basket two thousand feet in the air. Bring a friend and hang on tight!

Have you ever been in a hot air balloon?
If not, would you do it?
ps... yes, those are my socks above.
I bought them just for the occasion from Sock City!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Getaway Day 3: Napa Valley Wine Train

We left Monterey in the earliest of mornings for our next surprise destination. The plan was to arrive in Napa and hop on a wine train for lunch, something I knew Mr. Branflake would never expect. I told him the attire was business casual. His snarky response?

"Am I going to a job fair? Do I have to take a resume workshop or something?"

Oh dear...

Needless to say, he was quite surprised.

Napa is all about ambiance. Yes, the food and wine is world renown and incredible, but sitting in our plush seats, overlooking the magnificent scenery, and being surrounded by old world opulence is what makes the wine train special.

After hors d'oeuvres  (pictured above), we stepped onto the observation deck and enjoyed magnificent views. Be warned, though, that you go through quite a bit of residential areas before you get to the vineyards. But once you do get there, it's unbelievable how beautiful it is.

After taking a gazillion photos, 
we came back inside and walked to the other end of the train to the dining car for lunch.

Now for the main event....

The Food!

The bread was warm and some of the best we had in Napa. 
Grilled salmon filet on a bay shrimp risotto with wilted spinach and shaved parmesan.

Coriander seared chicken breast in a wild mushroom pappardelle pasta garnished with pesto.

Creme brulee with fresh blueberries
The most decadent chocolate truffles in the world.
It was a special gift from the Wine Train when they heard we were celebrating Mr. Branflake's graduation.

 Some tips:

~ We took the Napa Valley Wine Train. There are multiple fares depending on how nice you want to go.  Since we don't drink alcohol, I booked the Gourmet Express, which included hors d'oeuvres, dinner, and dessert. You pay for your alcohol separately.

~ There is a wine tasting included before you board, so you're paying for that with your fare no matter what.

~The trip is about three hours total.

~ There are evening rides available for those who want to watch the sun set over the valley.

~ There is a photographer who will take your photo before you board and during the ride. He used a flash so the photos came out a bit overexposed and we didn't buy them.

~ The staff was oddly unfriendly in the tasting room before boarding then super friendly while on the train.

~ People in Napa are casual. I wore a cotton maxi dress and Mr. Branflake wore a button down short sleeve with jeans.

Have you ever been on a wine train?
What was your experience like?

photos by Dancing Branflake 
(well, there were a few by Mr. Branflake- like the ones of me- but I'm taking all the glory. Snap.)