What I've Tried Recently

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Only Thing Better than Pumpkins is Pumpkin Cupcakes!

For the first time, I baked pumpkin spice cupcakes with cinnamon cream cheese frosting.

There are so many things I love about the fall-- hot chocolate, snuggling under the covers, boots, holidays, the the smell of cider and pumpkins ... I could go on and on. One of my favorite fall pastimes, one that I am sadly not taking part in at the moment (see 17 Day Diet blog post), are the sweets. From thick-crusted pies to Christmas sugar cookies and everything in between, this season just isn't the same without these cavity-inducing, body-bloating bits of sugary goodness. And I decided that just because I'm not indulging at the moment doesn't mean I shouldn't spread the joy of seasonal sweets to those around me. Plus, I'm pretty much down for any excuse to bake cupcakes.

This particular recipe has been very well received by everyone I pawned my cupcakes off on so I wouldn't eat them myself, so I thought I would share! I mix-matched two recipes I found at allrecipes.com (that's enough to call it my own, right? .. okay fine. I stole it. Sue me.) They came out perfectly moist and fluffy, so I at least take a little credit for that part (Lesson number 1 of cupcake baking: Burning them is never good).

If you're in the mood to bake, get ready to Apron Up! I'm trying to coin "Apron Up". It's like Suit Up, or Saddle Up. Cute right?

Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes:

4 eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
1 (15 oz) can of pumpkin
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup corn starch
4 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (I think the next time I make it I will use 5 teaspoons to punch up the flavor even more)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend together eggs, oil, sugar, and pumpkin. In a separate bowl mix together flour, corn starch, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add dry mixture in to wet ingredients and blend until smooth. Fill a cupcake pan with cupcake liners (bonus points if you have cute fall-themed liners), and fill each to about 2/3 full (sometimes I push it and go to 3/4 full because I like my cupcakes to have junk in the trunk). Bake for 25 minutes.

Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting:

1 (8 oz) package of cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
3 cups confectioners sugar (if you like a frosting that's less sweet, I would recommend 2 or 2 1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I put more like 2 teaspoons and it was fabulously cinnamon, but 1 teaspoon is good too)

Beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth. Add in the confectioners sugar a little at a time, and finally add in the vanilla and cinnamon.

WARNING: Frosting is highly addictive, and nibbling while baking will likely occur.

Here are mine:

My pumpkins look like basketballs.. but I decided not to care because I was running late.

And there you have it! It's a pretty simple recipe, and SUPER delicious. Plus thematically they last all the way through Thanksgiving, so get baking kids!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Who doesn't love dieting? Oh, wait, EVERYONE.

For the first time I tried the 17 Day Diet. This diet is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Moreno aka "Dr. Mike," who apparently did his residency at the hospital I was born in in Fontana, California (No, that's not why I tried the diet. That would be weird. Just a fun fact!).

The diet consists of four consecutive cycles , each lasting for-- you guessed it!-- 17 days. Now I didn't buy the book so I'm not 100% positive I am following the rules correctly, but I get the main gist of what you are supposed to do. The first cycle basically limits your diet to lean meats, fruits, veggies, yogurt, and cottage cheese. You can eat as much of these food items as you want as there is no calorie-counting involved. The cycles then get less limiting as you go, slowly adding back in healthy carbs, low calorie snacks, meats with a higher fat content, and limited amounts of alcohol. By the time you get to cycle 4, you should be able to have 2 or 3 "cheat" meals where you have whatever you want. Since you're eating healthy the rest of the week, it shouldn't cause weight gain. However, if you do feel like you are starting to gain some weight back, or if you get to cycle 4 but want to lose more weight before you start maintaining, you can choose to go back to cycle 1, 2, or 3. Each cycle may seem tough for someone with no will power (like me), but Dr. Mike's argument is that anyone can do anything for 17 days.

I am currently somewhere in Cycle 3 (I kind of stopped counting, oops), and from my perspective in order to succeed in this diet, variety is key. In the first cycle you are pretty much limited to lean meat, fruits and veggies, so if you eat green beans every day you'll probably go insane. My strategy was to shop every four days or so, and only shop for the upcoming four days. That way I can buy just one of four different types of fruit, veggies, etc. Sometimes I get lazy and end up eating the same foods three days in a row, but for the most part I've been pretty good about mixing it up. It really helps in the beginning when you are getting used to eating so little.

The point of this diet is to change your eating habits, so the challenge becomes finding a way to transition from feeling like you are dieting to deciding that this is just the way you eat now. I'm still in the "diet" part, so I'm not really sure how I'll react when I get to that point. What I do know is no one can diet forever, so it will become crucial that my mental state becomes one of "this is how I eat now, I live a healthy lifestyle" rather than "I am eating this way because I am on a diet and trying to lose weight." If anyone has suggestions (other than therapy, too expensive), let me know!

In terms of results, if you can actually stick with this diet, it works (once again, whether it sticks is not something I can attest to yet). Now even I cheat a little-- I have allowed dairy products like low-fat string cheese and skim milk in my coffee/chai from the beginning because I couldn't live without a little dairy-- but sticking to the general outline of this diet will lead to results. It also obviously helps to work out along with the diet and you will see results much faster. The point is, like all diets, yes sometimes it sucks, but any serious weight loss is not going to be a walk through the park. So if that's what you're expecting, this is not the diet for you. As for me, I plan to see it through!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Playing with puppies for a good cause? Count me in!

Please adopt me, I want to love you forever!!

For the first time I am volunteering at an animal shelter. Doing volunteer work is one of those things I've been meaning to do that somehow kept getting pushed off, and since there is a no-pet policy in my apartment, I've also had trouble getting in my puppy fix (did you guys know that I like dogs?). I dog sit for my boss, but, let's be honest, she doesn't go on vacation nearly enough to satisfy my need for quality puppy time. So, I reached out to the Washington Humane Society, and lo and behold they are in desperate need of volunteers! After Hurricane Irene forced a delay in my touring the shelter (a prerequisite to volunteering), I was finally able to get started this past week.

I'm working at the smaller of their two shelters because it's a straight shot from my apartment, about a 25 minute bus ride, and the larger shelter is inconvenient to get to if you don't have a car. Space is tight, and as a result it's really important that things stay clean and organized. The cats and small animals (rabbits, gerbils, etc.) are on the first floor and the pups are downstairs in the basement. The pups live in fairly large cages with no roofs, which is great because they are a little less claustrophobic that way. There are usually about seven to nine dogs at any given time, and it's needless to say I love them all. Unfortunately I'm not really allowed to handle them yet-- I need to do 6-8 hours of general assisting (sweeping, washing dishes, cleaning cages, etc.) before I can begin my training to be a Dog Specialist. Then I can start walking, grooming, and socializing the pooches. I'm eager to get past this first hump so I can work with the dogs, but in the meantime I'm allowed to play with the kitties (I'm generally not a cat person, but surprisingly enough I really like the cats at the shelter. Maybe it's the whole I-feel-bad-they're-in-a-cage thing..). For now, I'm just enjoying getting to know the staff (it's nice to be around people that like animals as much as me) and feeling like I'm helpful.

One of my favorite things about the Washington Humane Society is they are seriously committed to giving every single animal a home. This entire weekend they are waiving adoption fees for their "Empty the Shelter" event, they host tons of off-site events to expose people to the animals, and they involve the animals in their large charity events. Every day they Facebook and tweet a "word of the day" that people can use to get 50% off on adoption fees. They are constantly coming up with new and innovative ways to get these animals in a home! It's something I'm proud to be a part of, even though it's a little tough to see the animals living in cages. It's worth it when you witness an animal heading off to its new home.

I'm looking forward to learning the ropes and becoming more and more helpful, and it's also great preparation for when I adopt my own dog someday. I'll totally be a master in training and caring for my pup by the time I get one!

And for those of you I KNOW are thinking it-- despite the temptation I am in fact not scheming to steal all the puppies and take them home with me. I swear...

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Hunger Games: Apparently I Like to Read Books That Get Turned Into Movies

For the first time I read The Hunger Games, the newest young adult sensation in fiction novels. Like many others out there the first thing that came to mind was Battle Royale. There have been a whole slew of comparisons all over the internet, from accusations of plagiarism to defending the books’ differences to the death (no pun intended). As I have only seen the movie Battle Royale and not read the novel, I am choosing not to throw in my own two cents on this topic (even though I'm really tempted to!). Instead, I will focus on my thoughts on The Hunger Games as a unique entity. That said, for those of you that haven't read it (or plan to see the movie without reading it), beware of spoilers!! You have officially been warned.

The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic North America, where the nation of Panem has risen out of its ashes. A tyrannical and overly wealthy Capitol reigns over 12 districts, all known for a certain industry and all suffering from various levels of poverty. There were once 13 districts, but when District 13 rebelled against the Capitol it was obliterated. As a punishment for the insubordination of District 13 and a reminder to the remaining 12 districts of their inferiority, the Capitol enforces an annual event called the Hunger Games. In each district all children between the ages of 12 and 18 are entered into a drawing, and one boy and one girl are selected at random from each district. The 24 “tributes” are taken to an undisclosed arena where they must fight to the death, until one victor is left standing. By law every citizen must watch the televised proceedings, and the Capitol portrays the event as a combination of a reality show and a sporting event. There are opening ceremonies, interviews, training scores, and cameras that follow their every move in the arena, which is rigged with traps that are implemented by the Game Makers when things get dull.

The story follows Katniss, a young girl from District 12 who has experienced the deepest trenches of poverty, has taught herself how to survive, and acts as the primary breadwinner for her mother and little sister. When her 12-year-old sister is selected as the female tribute for District 12, Katniss volunteers to take her place in the Hunger Games. I think that's all the background you really need (no, I will not spoil you spoiler-lovers by giving away the end!). Now on to my thoughts and opinions (which is what you're all here for, right?)!

While some may say Suzanne Collins is a story-stealer, I instead believe she took a concept that has been visited many times before, put her own unique spin on it, and layered it with a well-crafted back story, bizarre characters and creatures, and thought-provoking insights into a bleak future that is sometimes horrifyingly comparable to certain aspects of society today. She chooses to write the story from a survivalist point of view rather than the horror-based gorefest it could have been, which makes sense to me since the whole point of the game is to survive. The novel is sometimes slow-paced as we follow Katniss hunting and hiding in trees, and I don't think Collins does this because she wants to bore you or avoid going from one bloody murder to the next. I believe she does it to build feelings of suspense, fear, and reality within the reader, thus mirroring the intention the Games have for the citizens of Panem. It was for that reason that I pushed through the duller moments and ended up reading the entire book in one day.

One thing I appreciate about this book is that it takes two been-there-done-that motifs and spins them together into the perfect marriage of disturbing. It's the combination of being forced to fight to the death and the way it is depicted as a twist on a modern-day reality show, topped with just a dash of 1984 "Big Brother is watching you" that sends shivers down my spine. The tactics used to up entertainment value are very similar to what you see in a reality show today- twists in the game, viewers getting the opportunity to affect what happens in the game (in this case by sponsoring to send gifts to the players), cameras capturing their every move. The Capitol turns it into a spectator sport and forces its citizens to watch, and even worse many of them enjoy it and place bets on who will die and who will be victorious. With all the negative drama people already love to watch on reality shows (who doesn't love a good bitch fight on Jersey Shore?), after reading this book I can't help but wonder: how far are we willing to go to be entertained, and where will we draw the line?

My final comment on the Hunger Games is that Suzanne Collins could have been WAY more obnoxious about the love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta, but she wasn't, and I thank her for that. I think she plays it just right and doesn't overdo it, so it adds a good dynamic to the story but doesn't take away from it. The love story is not the point, it's just a factor. Maybe I'm speaking to soon and she's going to go all Twilight on my ass in the next two books, but I sincerely hope not. In fact, I'm going to go knock on some wood now.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Help Hits the Big Screen

Last week, for the first time, I saw The Help in theaters. I read the book a couple of months ago, unaware they were making a movie until after I had already started it. I was excited that upon finishing the novel I would get the instant gratification of seeing it on the big screen without a long wait (Unlike my traumatizing experience with the Harry Potter movies- so much wait time between reading and watching- woe is me!)

The co-worker I saw it with had some strong reservations about the movie. She argued that some of the relationships were not developed as well as they were in the novel and that some of the scenes were cheesy. My counter-argument is as follows: "well duh, it's a movie."  In a novel you can go on for pages and pages about the intricacies of a relationship between characters, including paragraphs upon paragraphs of inner thoughts that simply can't be portrayed to their full extent in film. As for the moments of cheesiness, it’s a Disney/Dreamworks film and is therefore to be expected. The truth of the matter is when you watch a movie adaptation of any book you love, you have to be willing to settle or you will have a bad experience.

That said, I really enjoyed the film and was pleased with how true it stayed to the book. I thought the cast was fantastic, I appreciated that they didn’t focus on the romance between Skeeter and Stuart, and I laughed and cried at the appropriate moments (I will say I’m kind of an easy target though..). If you haven’t seen it yet, see it. But more importantly, READ THE BOOK!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

No, I did not brush my teeth with Jack Daniels to pregame.. or did I?

On Sunday night I went to a Ke$ha concert for the first time. First I want to note that when I said those exact words to one of my co-workers, his response was: "What's a Ke$ha?" Alright, moving on.

I was originally meant to go with my best friend Katiri, but her task force's mission in the Middle East was extended. My friend Gio, Katiri's boyfriend, stepped up to the plate and offered to go with me, though he had no intention of getting glitter/hipsterized and dancing all night like Katiri would have. I did try to pressure him once or twice into wearing a shade of purple glitter that would have gone great with his dark complexion, but to no avail. Honestly, I just appreciate that he was willing to be a good sport so I wouldn't miss the concert. So I modestly glittered myself (I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but TRUST me there could have been more glitter involved), just my eye shadow, nails, and a sparkly shirt, and off we went.

She performed at the George Mason University Patriot Center in Fairfax, VA, which is their ginormous basketball arena. The crowd was surprisingly tame, just lots of glitter, lots of slutty 14 year olds (seriously, how are parents letting them out in these outfits??), and lots of people who didn't dress up at all. I was expecting a little more craziness, but maybe part of it was the fact that it was a Sunday night. The crowd wasn't just tame in appearance, but I'll get to that later.

LMFAO was the opener, and we waltzed in about halfway through their set (is the correct term still a "set" when I'd rather call it "catchy auto-tuned synthesized repetition" than actual music?). I will say they had a great energy and the crowd was eating up their many shenanigans, including a dancing panda and the removal of many pairs of pants (don't worry Mom and Dad, they were all wearing boxers). While I did rock out to the couple of songs I knew (okay.. by a couple I mean one), I honestly spent more time being entertained by the life-size blow-up zebra that was bouncing and gyrating its way through the crowd below. I was for the most part unimpressed, that is until Ke$ha began, and then I quickly realized I wanted LMFAO back.

As soon as Ke$ha started her first song of the night (Sleazy, also the name of her tour), I could immediately tell something didn't sound right. A couple songs in, my concerns were affirmed when Gio leaned over to me and said, "does her voice sound really high-pitched to you?" He went on to theorize that the mic was either poorly or incorrectly autotuned, and I have to agree because it almost sounded as if she had just inhaled helium. Now one of Ke$ha's main appeals is that large portions of her songs are a sexy/sleazy/bitchy-party-girl style of talking rather than actual singing, but that whole aspect is lost when her mic makes her sound like a chipmunk.

My other main complaint was that I was unexpectedly and dissapontedly bored at times. This could have resulted from a number of personal factors: it was a Sunday night, lack of Katiri meant I wasn't rocking out as hard, I wasn't wearing enough glitter.. Actually, scratch all that, I'm pretty certain it was Ke$ha. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I was kind of expecting people dressed as unicorns to come on stage and get shot with rainbow beams (if you don't get that reference, go here). And if not that, I at least expected Ke$ha to do something more entertaining than a few slutty dance moves and a glitter gun. And before you say "Now Kaytee, you're just projecting your much too high expectations as a biased reflection of how she actually did," I should mention that I was not alone in this sentient. The majority of my section and the sections around me were sitting through much of her performance. Yes, sitting! Sitting during songs where no one should be sitting! It was actually quite nice because it allowed us to sit and still be able to see. But the point is I shouldn't have wanted to sit.

That said, I actually did have a good time overall. The highlight of the performance was when she brought an adorable gay boy from the audience on stage, had him tied to a chair with Saran wrap and duct tape, and used him as a prop during "Grow a Pear." I also had fun dancing with Gio (yes, he even danced a little bit!) and playing with the cute sparkly Ke$ha tiger he bought for Katiri!

I'll leave you with this fun fact about Ke$ha: she got a perfect score on her SATs. Mull over that for a while.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sleepless in Seattle (well, we slept a little bit..)

Last week, for the first time, I went to Seattle. My best friend Marissa lives there and I finally landed on the perfect opportunity to visit (I was already out on the west coast with work). Luckily, I brought the Orange County weather with me (according to Marissa, the first good weather of the summer). Unluckily, I also brought with me a very sensitive stomach, making it impossible to try the lobster chowder at Duke's Chowder House or the amazing donuts from the stand at the Pike Place market. Regardless, there was much fun to be had- and it was just nice to see Marissa and see where she lives (I'm kind of obsessed with and insanely jealous of her apartment). The first real highlight of the trip was surprising Marissa with the arrival of our best friend Katiri, who also lives in DC. I worked in cohorts with Marissa's boyfriend to get the three of us to Serious Pie for lunch the next day (DELICIOUS pizza, though considering said stomach issues I probably shouldn't have eaten it). I was strategically positioned to see when Katiri entered the restaurant and quickly raised my phone to take a picture of Marissa and Chris. Katiri proceeded to jump in the picture between the two of them and I captured Marissa's shock and surprise:


And thus, with our surprise plus one, our journey began. Here are some of the other highlights:

Pike Place Market. It's true that I didn't get to try the donuts, but that didn't take any of the fun and excitement out of this humongous farmers market located on the waterfront. This place was perfect for any chef seeking fresh ingredients, and lucky for me we had a chef in our midst- Marissa's boyfriend Chris. Needless to say I took advantage of his skills and the opportunity to eat fresh swordfish, one of my top five favorite foods. But the best part of the market was watching the merchants throw fish across the room to each other:


The Locks. Watching boats transfer between Lakes Washington and Union (fresh water) and the Pugent sound (salt water) via the Ballard Locks is strangely fascinating. You can look down as boats of all shapes and sizes squeeze into a chamber with high walls on either side. Then they secure the vessels to the sides of the chamber, some highly complex mechanics that I won't begin to pretend to understand are maneuvered, and the chamber fills with water until the boats are level with the body of water on the other side. You can also see tons of salmon swimming around, and we even spotted two seals!

The Seattle Art Museum. Thursday is free day at the Seattle Art Museum, and I'm not complaining! This museum had a little bit of everything, from modern structures to gorgeous landscape paintings and unique exhibits like a makeshift artistic workspace. One of the more eye-catching pieces was a giant suit of armor comprised of thousands of fake dog tags.

The Seattle Public Library.  I could seriously live at the Seattle Public Library, and not just because it's so huge that I could probably get away with it. It is by far the most impressive facility I have ever seen with bountiful resources both in books and electronic, a fabulously sleek and modern design, and plenty of open, comfortable space to snuggle up with a book. I would spend a ridiculous amount of time there.

Outdoor Cinema in the Park. On our last evening, we went to Cal Anderson park to sit under the stars and enjoy a movie from their "Rock & Roll Fantasy" series. That evening's choice was The Labyrinth, which obviously made for a fun crowd. We had a great time signing along and, as Katiri so accurately described, staring at David Bowie's package for two hours.

These are only a few of the activities we partook in during our all too short visit (we also drank, bargain shopped, and climbed trolls, but I'll save that for another day), and we had a great time doing all of it! I give Seattle two big thumbs up.