Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Baby Prep: HypnoBirthing + "Labor Inducing" Eggplant Parmesan

When Steve and I started discussing our preparations for baby, we decided that we'd skip the traditional classes that are offered for first time parents. This may have come as a shock because everyone knows I love to plan and prepare.

But as I mentioned in several of my other Baby Prep posts, pregnancy has been an exception to the rule when it comes to my obsessive planning and organizing traits. I realized very early on that trying to control this process would lead to nothing good. People have been having babies for millions of years; I felt comfortable relying on nature's process and calling it a day. {Especially because I had done a lot of reading before pregnancy.}

These days, there is SO MUCH information available to parents who are embarking on this adventure. It can be overwhelming. And you know what I've seen? A lot of meltdowns that occur when pregnancy, labor, delivery and the itself doesn't follow the typical route, leaving parents feeling like they're spiraling out of control early on.

Don't get me wrong; I think it's great to be prepared, especially if it gives you peace of mind. But I also think we've been bombarded with so many parenting methods and techniques in the last decade that it can hinder rather than help our plight. We've forgotten that it may be helpful to MEET our babies and get to know them before we decide how we will "handle" them. That's always made the most sense to me.

There's a lot to be said for a mother's natural instincts. My decision to keep things simple came from a desire to keep my brain unclogged and let nature dictate how things will fall into place. I didn't want to learn too many things that would confuse me or make me feel pressured to do something that maybe wouldn't come naturally had it not been suggested by one of the nation's "leading experts." The truth is, these experts have never met MY baby. I haven't even met my baby! So how am I supposed to decide what will be right for him before he even arrives? It just seemed a little backwards to me.

Though I wasn't jumping at the chance to sign up for baby care classes, breastfeeding classes, birthing classes or any of the other courses that are suggested for new moms and dads, I also didn't want to feel unprepared for the task that lay ahead -- especially the grand event of labor and delivery, which is what I had the most trepidation about. I mean, it is the first step in the process, right?

After my first OB visit, I came across a pamphlet for something called HypnoBirthing. I looked it over and almost immediately wanted to roll my eyes; it seemed a bit "crunchy" for me initially, I won't lie. But the weeks progressed and thoughts of giving birth circled around more often. I kept coming back to what I had read on the flyer about it helping to release the fear and negative images that are often attached to the birthing process. It also mentioned learning to relax and allowing the body to do its job naturally when the time of delivery comes around.

So, I talked it over with Steve and he was on board for signing up for a local HypnoBirthing class. {I think he would have agreed to anything that claimed it could potentially make labor easier on me... and on him!} The classes, as it turned out, were 2.5 hours long, meeting once a week over the course of 5 weeks. A bit of a commitment, yes, but worth a shot.

I looked over my course materials. They included a folder with lots of informational packets containing visuals of the philosophies discussed, some anatomical/biological diagrams, the course book and a "conditioning" CD called Rainbow Relaxation. Oh boy. This was going to be interesting for sure. Can we say, "Kumbaya?"

Because of a scheduling conflict, the first class we attended was with a different group than the one we would eventually join locally. We arrived and found the instructor seated cross-legged with special seats that were meant for floor sitting all set up for the attendees. By each seat, there was a small container of Play-Doh, which we wound up using to create model cervixes later in the class. Yup. So far, this was exactly what I had envisioned.

In the first session, we talked a little bit about the history of HypnoBirthing and how the founder, Marie Mongan, came up with the method as a result of being unhappy with the standard of treatment for pregnant and birthing mothers in the 1950's. In short, women were thought to be in a delicate state that required adequate medical care all throughout their pregnancies, culminating with a pretty violent birthing scenario when it was time to deliver their babies. This included strapping down of arms, general anesthesia and devices for removal of babies from the mother. Nothing "natural" about that.

After educating herself on the body's process of birthing and the history of how "modern" practices came to be, Marie decided to take birthing into her own hands and have her children naturally {gasp!}.  This was a big no-no back then. In fact, they thought she was nuts! Her doctor mocked her and, even throughout her laboring, they told her they'd wait to hear her screams before administering pain meds. Those howls never came. Though she labored calmly and peacefully {in relatively no pain} for her first two children, she was still subject to the abrupt removal of her babies in the integral moment of childbirth, leaving her feeling very ticked off. For her third child, she finally convinced her doctor to let her birth her baby the way she had always envisioned, and he was shocked at how serenely and smoothly she did so. And so, not only was her daughter born just the way she dreamed, but so was The Mongan Method.

I'm going to stop right there because I can already see many of you making faces at me and thinking I drank the hippie juice. It is not as it seems. HypnoBirthing does not claim to be completely painless or magical. It simply suggests that learning to relax your mind and body completely during those integral moments of birthing can make the experience so much more peaceful and comfortable than we imagine it to be. And doesn't that sound like a nice idea? I thought so.

Over the next few weeks, I learned about releasing fears that have been instilled in me by society {and even loved ones}, about the body's process of birthing, and about different methods of entering deep relaxation. In order to do this, I had to listen to the conditioning CD daily. Though I wasn't fond of the idea at first, it was amazing how quickly I began to enjoy this part of my evening -- it became my bedtime routine and I'd be out like a light within minutes once I learned to let tension melt away and get in "the zone." {Hence the "Hypno". As in "hypnosis", except minus the swinging pocket watch and clucking like a chicken.}

See, self-hypnosis is actually a useful technique that we can all benefit from whether we are trying to get through a tough time, learn to relax a little more or give birth to a baby. It's a natural method of intense relaxation that we do all the time without even knowing it, and it has all kinds of benefits for us.You know the times when you find yourself in a groove? Maybe while you clean, iron, shower, cook or drive to work? That's a form of hypnosis. Some people just become better at focusing it through methods of visualization and meditation, using it as a healing property. During this deeply relaxed state, our minds become more absorbent of suggestions, leaving preconceived ideas and cynicism at the door and allowing positive thoughts to take hold.

There have been scientific studies that show that hypnotism can benefit people with all kinds of traumas, injuries, psychological hurdles and stresses. In fact, my own mom underwent hypnosis after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Though she was pretty doubtful about it, she said it helped her feel better almost instantaneously -- and she's a tough nut to crack! {I had get my stubbornness from somewhere.}

Whether or not HypnoBirthing will ease the "pain" of childbirth, I can't tell you. But I can tell you that it has made a big difference in how I view my body and the process that is about to unfold in just a few weeks!

I've been asked if this means that I will refuse an epidural, and the truth is...I don't know. I can't really know until that moment comes, but I plan on using every technique possible to be as comfortable as I can possibly be, hopefully leading to a healthy and smooth delivery. This response often gets uncomfortable giggles from people, and I've become used to it. Their knowing smiles and raised eyebrows speak volumes. Some even go as far as to say something to the effect of, "Have fun with that!"

When I asked one person why she thought women like to regale each other with stories of pain and horror being the inevitable end to childbirth, she said, "Well... probably just to warn each other so they're not caught off guard." Noted. But really, do you think any woman that has a tiny idea of what birthing entails thinks it's going to be a cake walk? I mean, it IS referred to as "labor" after all.

Here's what I've learned: There's a difference between sharing words of wisdom or helpful tips and sharing frightening tales and negative messages. Why not lift new moms up and give them confidence instead of filling their minds with more fear and self-doubt? I'm sure there's already plenty of that floating around in there anyway! Would you tell an athlete who is about to run their first marathon that they will get excruciating cramps and probably gas out half way through the race? I didn't think so.

HypnoBirthing has given me confidence in my body, my mind, my baby and even gave me enough gumption to switch doctors at 34 weeks so that I would feel more comfortable with my practitioner. {My new doc has worked with HB moms and said it's pretty cool. And he's a real, certified doctor...not a witch doctor, in case you were curious.} I'm now looking forward to the process that will bring my son to me rather than dreading it, which I think is a huge first step. This means that I'm comfortable with whatever may happen during childbirth, whether it's part of what I've hoped for or not. I have no unrealistic expectations, but I do have a newfound outlook that makes me think, "Why shouldn't it be wonderful?"

And learning to fully relax? That has been a priceless skill that I wish I would have learned long, long ago!

I'll be sure to let you know how my practice is put into action when the big day comes... it's just around the corner!

In the meantime, I'm just waiting impatiently for this little nugget to arrive. Around this time, many women get the urge to do everything in their power to evict their tummy tenants -- it is quite exhausting to house someone for 40 weeks! At our last HypnoBirthing session, our instructor gave us a recipe for Scalini's Famous Egglplant Parmesan. It's a recipe served at an Italian restaurant in Georgia that is said to have sent hundreds of full-term mamas into labor within 48 hours of eating it.

Now, I don't know how true this is {I actually ate it 2 days ago and have had strong contractions but no other signs that he's coming}, but I can tell you that the dish was very good! And I don't even care for eggplant.

Though the recipe calls for stacking the eggplant lasagna-style, I made my version in single portions, sort of like Chicken Parm would be served on individual cutlets. Maybe that's why its magical properties haven't worked on me! ;)

So, moms-to-be... if you're full term and at the end of your rope, you may want to give it a go. Even if it doesn't work, you'll have a great dinner for you and your family to enjoy!

Scalini's Famous "Labor Inducing" Eggplant Parmesan
Adapted from Scalini's Restaurant, for the authentic version, click here

For Eggplant:
1 large eggplant, cut lengthwise into 1/4 inch pieces*
Sea salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
3 eggs, beaten
1 8 oz. container ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 cup grated Romano {I actually used an aged Havarti because that's what I had, but feel free to use your favorite cheese}
1/2 cup grated mozzarella {I like the Polly-O kind or fresh, the grated stuff in the bag is too rubbery}
Olive oil

Lay eggplant pieces out onto a large baking sheet lined with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt, then cover with another set of paper towels. Place another baking sheet on top and anchor with something heavy. Set aside for about an hour. This will remove the excess moisture from the eggplant.

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray two 9x13 inch dishes with olive oil. Have one large baking sheet set aside for placing breaded eggplant as you go, and line another large baking sheet with paper towels for blotting cooked eggplant. Set aside. Head about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

2. Set up your breading station: In 3 separate dishes, have flour, egg and breadcrumbs ready. For each piece of eggplant: dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Dip into egg, allowing excess to drip off. Finally, coat in breadcrumbs. Set each piece onto lined baking sheet as you go. {I find that letting the breading "set" actually makes it easier when sautéing.}

3. In several batches, pan-fry breaded eggplant on each side until golden brown and crisp. You may need to add extra oil to the pan in between batches. Place cooked pieces on paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain of excess oil.

4. Ladle about half of the marinara sauce into each baking dish to cover the bottom. Place as many eggplant slices as will fit side by side on top of the sauce. Spoon about 2 tablespoons each of ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese and Romano cheese on top of each piece of eggplant. Ladle the other half of the marinara over the eggplant slices. Top each piece with mozzarella. Sprinkle with extra herbs if desired.

5. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is melted.

*For the traditional version, you may slice the eggplant into rounds and "stack" the slices lasagna-style.

For Marinara:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans diced tomatoes, blended to desired consistency
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped {or 1 teaspoon dried basil}
1 teaspoon oregano
Pinch of rosemary
Pinch of thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large skillet, sauté onion in olive oil over medium heat until onions are tender and translucent. Add garlic and continue to cook for about a minute.

2. Pour in blended tomatoes and stir. Bring to a bubble.

3. Add in the rest of the ingredients, stir, and allow to simmer for about 20-30 minutes or until sauce has deepened in color and thickened slightly. If your sauce thickens too much, add a bit of water or broth to thin it out.

Set aside until ready to use.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Pumpkin Caramel Brownie Pops

I have never been one to have issues with jealousy. It's just not natural to my personality as {most times} I'm genuinely happy for others' fortune and success.

"You got a raise?! Fabulous!", "Your husband bought you a 3 karat diamond ring? It looks gorgeous on you!" and these days even, "She had the baby?! How exciting!" are all things that I would feel authentic excitement over.

But last week, I was bombarded with a major case of envy...food envy.

There I was, minding my own business -- well, ok, minding other peoples' business while scrolling through my Instagram feed -- and I noticed these wonderful posts from some of my favorite food bloggers with the hashtag #BBRetreat. As it turns out, that stands for "Better Blog Retreat", which is a very exclusive retreat for some of the top food bloggers out there. {As a side note, I'm not sure how they'd make these blogs better... they're already pretty good if you ask me!} This year, it took place at Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah and it looked like a wonderful time from the social media bits and pieces I gathered.

The food blogging world has grown pretty extensively over the past few years, and yet, sometimes it seems like such a small world. When you start following bloggers and attending food blogging conferences, you start to notice that there are groups of bloggers who often go to the same events and hang out together. That means that repeats of very similar pictures are bound to crop up on your news feeds.

At one point during the #BBRetreat weekend, my Instagram feed was filled with not one, but SEVEN different pictures of this drool-inducing creation:

Clockwise from top right: Julie of The Little Kitchen, Sandy of Reluctant Entertainer, Jenny of Picky Palate
Shelly of Cookies and Cups, Lindsay of Love & Olive Oil, Amanda of Kevin and Amanda
And that's when the green-eyed monster set in. Um, enough of the content, "happy for you" version of Dianna. GIVE ME THE BROWNIES, PEOPLE.

I blame it on pregnancy. Those hormones will do funny things to you.

So, what did I do? I marched into the kitchen and made my OWN version of these brownies. Because I needed my own little retreat right then and there.

Remember these Pumpkin Paws I shared last week, a copycat version of Williams-Sonoma's seasonal candy? And remember how I said the Pumpkin Caramel recipe makes an awful large batch? Well, I figured out what to do with it when I got into the kitchen to whip up these brownie pops...

I used my favorite brownie recipe, which happens to come directly from the back of the Nestle Cocoa Powder container. Two layers of brownies filled with a layer of pumpkin caramel, skewered onto a stick... and then coated with dark chocolate and a drizzle of a little extra caramel & a sprinkle of sea salt. Yes.

Of course, I ate like one of these over the course of a full day and then wrapped up the rest to give away... that's the safest thing to do when something this seductive is staring at you.

But I slayed that green-eyed monster. With a popsicle stick. And all is right with the world again.

Feeling a little jealous yourself? Get into the kitchen and make these babies!

Pumpkin Caramel Brownie Pops
Inspired by the ladies of the Better Blog Retreat
Makes 9 Brownies on a Stick

For Brownies:
Adapted from Nestle Chewy Cocoa Brownies

1 1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup {1 1/2 sticks} butter, melted
2 tablespoons milk {I just use almond milk because that's what I have on hand}
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 8x8 inch pans with foil or spray with non-stick cooking spray. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine sugar, butter, milk, eggs and vanilla extract until smooth.

3. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.

4. Slowly add dry mixture to wet mixture, mixing until just combined. The batter will be stiff and sticky.

5. Divide batter evenly between two prepared pans, smoothing the top with an offset spatula. Bake for 18-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Try not to overbake.

Remove from oven and cool brownies for about 15-20 minutes in the pan before removing. Cool completely before proceeding to next step.

For Pumpkin Caramel:
Click here for the recipe!

For Coating:

About 5 oz. good dark chocolate, melted

{I'd hate to sound Ina here, but it's true that the good stuff is the easiest to work with. I used 1 1/2 bars of 70% cocoa Lindt chocolate. It melts like a dream and is easy to pour. You can use whatever chocolate you'd like, but good chocolate makes life easier.}

Break chocolate into pieces and microwave at 30 second intervals, stirring until completely melted.

For assembly:

- Place one layer of brownies {smoother side down} back in a foil-lined pan {flaps hanging over make for easy removal}. Pour about a cup or more of pumpkin caramel directly over brownie. Smooth out into an even layer with an offset spatula and makes sure it gets all the way to the edges, they'll be trimmed so it's ok if it's messy.

- Carefully place the second layer of brownies {smoother side up} over top of the caramel layer. Push down lightly to affix to caramel. Your caramel will most likely still be warm and will need to set. The fastest way to do this is to refrigerate for a little while - 30 minutes to an hour should do.

- Once the caramel is set, remove the whole brownie from the pan carefully. Using a sharp knife, cut the very edges off to make clean sides. Cut the brownie into 9 equal pieces. Insert a popsicle stick into each brownie and place onto a cooling rack.

- Pour about a tablespoon of melted chocolate over each brownie pop to coat, allowing to drip over sides. Refrigerate to set for about 10-15 minutes. Remove from fridge, flip, and coat the other side. Refrigerate until chocolate is set.

- Drizzle the tops with melted caramel and immediately sprinkle with flaked sea salt if desired. Allow caramel to set.

You're all done! Now share... because that's the right thing to do. ;)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Eau Spa | Manalapan, Florida + Turkey Meatball Flatbread Sandwich

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you may have seen some pics of a few spa days I've given myself as a reward for making it this far in my pregnancy without having a complete meltdown. {I kid. Honestly, it really hasn't been that bad.}

My obsession with luxury spas started a while back when I treated myself to a spa day at The Breakers around the time of my 29th birthday. What can I say -- go big or go home. My birthday spa day became a tradition and for the past few years I've continued to visit The Spa at the Breakers for a pedicure and a day of relaxation. It's lovely.

This year I switched things up and decided to check out another spot - Eau Spa - with a group of my girlfriends to help me celebrate the last birthday I'll have without a little one running around.

Eau Spa is located at Eau Palm Beach in Manalapan {south Palm Beach}, a beautiful property that was given a multi-million dollar makeover in the past few years. Though they manage to maintain the hallmark luxurious vibe of other Palm Beach hotels and spas, Eau Hotel does so with a cheeky, modern twist that sets them apart.

Upon arriving at Eau Spa, we were checked in and brought back to a stunning rotunda with high, domed ceiling and a "wishing well" marking the center of the space. We were offered drinks {champagne for the girls and spa water for me, of course. Rats.} and each given a small votive candle to release into the wishing well and set our hopes adrift. How charming.

Our appointments started early to accommodate our large group {6 gals}, so no time was wasted. We were whisked back to the salon where we each had our nail services done while chatting, sipping {and nibbling on some pumpkin chocolate chip muffins I happened to bring with me... early morning pregnancy insomnia has its perks}. Once we were scrubbed, polished and moisturized, we were lead to the best part of Eau Spa -- a spa wonderland, of sorts.

After slipping into cozy robes and comfy flip flops, we each found a spot to soak in some of the serenity offered within the 42,000 square foot sanctuary.

My zen was found in the "Self-Centered Garden", where whimsy and tranquility unite in the lavish outdoor space. Soft, plush loungers punctuate the beautifully landscaped oasis; water walls create soothing background noise that could easily put you in your happy place. Hanging chairs suspended over a shallow pool of water are pure perfection for toe-dipping reflection time.  A Wonderland-esque chessboard not only makes a pretty visual element, but also serves as yet another distraction for an indulgent playtime.

Inside, the options for relaxation are endless as well. Tons of places to perch speckle the cool, airy surroundings filled with gauzy drapes and deluxe décor. Their "Scrub & Polish Bar" features an array of aromatic ingredients where you can create a custom blend of exfoliating body scrub. Get steamy in the sauna or luxuriate in the stunning whirlpool, complete with rain shower and oversized rubber duckies to accompany you as you "Pause, Play & Perfect" {the spa's mantra}. I loved their warm tiled loungers and could have napped there for hours, but food beckoned from another part of the spa.

Because what's a day of ultimate spoiling without cupcakes?? I mean, these people really know how to make a girl happy. Every single inch of Eau Spa seems to be utilized for maximum pampering. Even the lighting -- a custom chandelier made of crystal wine glasses -- is all about opulence and extravagance.

Though it was difficult to pull ourselves away from the enchanting environment, we gathered our things and headed over to Temple Orange, their onsite restaurant, for lunch. I'd had the privilege of sampling some Temple Orange fare a while back when I was a judge for the Flavor Palm Beach kickoff event, so I knew I was in for a treat.

We were all so relaxed that we opted for a casual, laid back lunch on the patio {which was great until it started to pour!}. Several of us ordered what the restaurant calls a "Baco", which is basically a flatbread that you can order with turkey meatballs or pulled pork. I can't tell you where they came up with "Baco", but I decided that it must mean "Bread Taco" because that's sort of what it made think of!

I can't even put into words what an amazing time I had at Eau Spa... it was the perfect place for a post-birthday, pre-baby shower day of pampering and I hope to visit again {and again, and again...}. If you ever find yourself in the area, do yourself the favor of stopping in and treat yourself to a day of sheer bliss!


Ok, so maybe I can't head down to Eau Spa every day {though I SO wish I could!}, but there's no reason not to recreate Temple Orange's tasty lunch whenever the mood strikes.

I "copycatted" their dish right down to the flatbread, which only took TWO ingredients and a hot griddle. Totally worth making.

The rest of the dish is simple enough -- turkey meatballs, a little cumin-scented yogurt sauce, some veggies and voila! You've got yourself a spa lunch right in the comfort of your own home. 

Turkey Meatball Flatbread Sandwich

For meatballs:
1 lb. ground turkey meat
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried mint

1. Preaheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare a baking pan by lining with foil and spraying or drizzling with a bit of olive oil.

2. Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and stir to distribute spices. Using an ice cream scoop, create even-sized meatballs and place on oiled baking pan.

3. Bake for about 16-18 minutes or until meat is no longer pink in the middle and cooked the way through.

Keep warm until ready to serve.

For flatbread:
Adapted from The Little Things

2/3 cup self-rising flour
2.5 ounces Greek yogurt
Pinch of salt

1. Heat a heavy skillet or a grill pan to medium-high heat. In a medium bowl {or in the bowl of a food processor while pulsing} combine all ingredients with a silicone spatula.

2. When the dough looks shaggy, knead it together until a ball forms. Divide dough into 4 equal pieces.

3. On a floured surface, roll out each piece of dough into a circular flatbread. Spray heated pan or skillet with a bit of olive oil or non-stick cooking spray and cook flatbreads until slightly puffed and starting to char in places, about 3-4 minutes on each side.

Keep warm until ready to serve.

For yogurt sauce:
2 ounces Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt

In a small bowl, stir together all ingredients until well combined. Set aside until ready to use.

To assemble: 
1 piece of flatbread
1 tablespoon yogurt sauce 
Tomato, diced
Cucumber {or zucchini}, grated

Spread about a tablespoon of yogurt sauce on each flatbread. Sprinkle with spinach, tomato, and grated cucumber or zucchini. Place 2 meatballs on top of each flatbread and fold over into a "baco". You may need a toothpick to secure unless you plan on diving right in!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Copycat "Pumpkin Paws": Pumpkin Caramel, Pecan & Milk Chocolate Clusters

Let's talk for a minute about the {brief} bout of guilt that I felt when I made these Copycat "Pumpkin Paws." They are in no way, shape or form healthy. Like, not even debatable. And then it dawned on me that I am far too pregnant to care about such things at this moment, and I went right on with my self-indulgence. And I'm happy I did.

I know it's been "all preggo, all the time" around here as far as talk goes, so I'm trying to appease those of you who might be getting all eye-rolly on me with treats that will make you forget that I can't talk about anything else at this moment because it has taken over my life.

I've reached the highly uncomfortable portion of the show at 37 weeks. The other day, I texted one of my friends, "If you ever decide to have a baby, I highly suggest planning nothing for the final 3-4 weeks of your pregnancy. And I do mean nothing. Like, hire someone to come wave palm fronds and feed you grapes kinda nothing."

Except, I can't seem to follow my own advice. Trying to continue normal life with a 6 pound weight in your gut and ever-widening girth isn't as easy as one would think it is. I mean, aside from feeling completely off balance and like I might actually bust open at the seams, all is well. So I keep on attending events and engagements like nothing is particularly off. My RSVPs, however, have become very conditional as I have to temper my enthusiastic, "I'll be there!" with a tentative,"... If I'm not in labor." Minor annoyance.

My clothes don't fit over the belly. {See, I knew there might be a little problem down the road when I was all, "I'm barely buying maternity clothes. It's just silly.} It's even more frustrating because they fit everywhere else. It's just that midriff baring isn't as adorable with a Buddha belly. So, I basically have 3 outfits left to wear until this child enters the world. Cute.

I have also been reduced to sleeping on the couch surrounded by a nest of pillows because it is the only place I can get anywhere near comfortable. The only issue is that Farley isn't fond of mom & dad's separate sleeping arrangements; he spends half the night scaring the crap out of me checking on me or sleeping on my feet, which doesn't lend itself to much rest.

Because I don't understand the word "rest", I sent myself into a Braxton-Hicks tailspin over the weekend and had crazy contractions that lasted for 2 days straight. In a panic that this kid was going to make an early appearance, I cranked preparations into high gear and am now pretty much as ready as I'm gonna get for him to join us, so that's a plus.

It was after this incident that I decided that a little bit of candy is not going to kill me. It might actually prevent me from killing anyone else.

Since Halloween is around the corner, I thought some homemade candy might actually be fitting. But honestly, I would have justified such a thing even if it were just Groundhog's Day... because chocolate.

While lustfully browsing Williams-Sonoma's fall products a few weeks ago, I saw something that stood out to me: Pumpkin Paws. "Clusters of spiced pumpkin caramel and crunchy almonds covered in Guittard milk chocolate." I liked the sound of it.

In my own version, I swapped out the almonds for pecans, which I think taste more Fall-like. I didn't even use fancy milk chocolate. Just melted Publix chocolate chips. And guess what? They turned out pretty darn amazing.

A word of warning -- the recipe for the pumpkin caramel makes a lot. Like, enough that unless you are accustomed to eating straight up chunks of caramel on the daily {which honestly doesn't sound like a horrible thing, if we're being real}, it's going to take you a while to go through. So... I used half the leftovers to turn into homemade chewy caramels and the other half for something that you will have to see to believe. If you thought this treat was naughty, then you may want to avert your eyes. Stay tuned...

Copycat "Pumpkin Paws"
Inspired by Williams-Sonoma

Pecan halves
1/2 cup pumpkin caramel {see recipe below}
Milk chocolate, melted

On a silicone baking mat or a sheet of parchment paper on a cookie sheet, lay out pecan halves in the shape of a paw -- I used 4 pecans going vertically and one going horizontally underneath.

When caramel sauce has cooled slightly {you don't want it to be too runny or you'll have a mess}, spoon about 1/2 a tablespoon over each pile of pecans. Allow to set completely. {This goes faster if refrigerated or put in the freezer for a little while.}

Once the caramel has set, spoon about a tablespoon of melted milk chocolate over the top of the caramel and pecans. Some people like to cover them completely, but I like to see the pecans poking out -- it's up to you how you do it.

Allow chocolate to set {again, in the fridge if you'd like to speed it up} and carefully remove from mat.

Store in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Pumpkin Caramel
Barely adapted from Challenge Dairy

1/2 cup butter {1 stick, 8 tablespoons}
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 cup light corn syrup
1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk {not evaporated milk}
1/2 cup pumpkin puree

1. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, melt butter. Mix in sugar and pumpkin pie spice until well combined.

2. Stir in corn syrup, sweetened condensed milk and pumpkin puree, making sure everything is well incorporated. Lower heat to medium to prevent scorching. {You'll get little dark bits throughout your caramel if this happens. Still tastes just as good, but isn't as pretty.}

3. Allow to boil until the mixture reaches 248 degrees. {As much as I hate using a candy thermometer, it's necessary in order to make sure this reaches the correct consistency. Trust me.}

The mixture will be super-duper hot. You don't want to mess with molten caramel. Don't be tempted to stick your finger in or lick a spoon -- you'll be sorry.

If using for Pumpkin Paws, allow the caramel to cool slightly {it'll start to thicken and get less liquidy} and spoon over pecans. This would also be the time to pour the caramel into a buttered or parchment-lined pan if you plan on making homemade caramels.

One the caramel cools completely, it'll hold its shape but retain a soft and chewy texture. Remove from the pan and cut into small squares; wrap individually in waxed or parchment paper.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Baby Prep: Gifts for Parents That Say, "Life Isn't Over" + Apple Cider Caramel Sauce

You know what's funny about being pregnant? People can't wait to congratulate you and swoon over the bump, but then -- in the next breath -- they will remind you that your life will soon cease to exist as you know it. They'll usually smile when they tell you this {like it's suppose to soften the blow} but they'll also make sure to follow up with further admonition just to be clear.

"No, really, though. You'll never sleep again. Get used to it."

Card from 9SpotMonk

Oh ok... um, thanks?

Whether or not you are "ready" to become a parent, there are still so many things to learn that no method of preparation will truly ever suffice. You realize this when you start opening baby gifts and -- though you proudly display your achievements and degrees in expensive frames on the wall -- you find that you have no stinkin' idea how some of those things work. A scary moment, for sure. {And for goodness sake, how many tubes and pieces are part of a breast pump??}

I was so very lucky to have not one, but TWO baby showers hosted in Cole's honor. And I can say pretty confidently that we have been stocked with most of the essentials we'll need for the first few months of his life, which is a wonderful blessing!

While many of the gifts we received were items we carefully chose and placed on our registry {car seat, stroller, baby swing, etc.}, there were also a few surprises here and there that seemed to say, "Hey, I know you're about to be a mama... but I also know you're still YOU!"

So, if you're looking for fun things to gift to parents-to-be that will help remind them that life is changing but it isn't over, here's a list of some of my favorites:

This necklace is from MangoJewels on Etsy.
Baubles. When one of my friends recently had her baby shower, I decided to get a little something just for her. At a local shop, they had an artisan creating custom jewelry right in the store, so I bought her a hand-stamped pendant sporting her new little one's initials on one of the charms {hers had a silver starfish & an aqua crystal}. There are also very pretty "teething necklaces" for moms that serve both as a statement piece AND a soothing teether for baby.

From Total Wine & More
Wine. I thought it was so cute and fitting that several of my friends gave me wine as a part of my gift! The sentiments attached ranged from "For when you need to stay zen." to "Let's plan a wine date together soon!" A creative twist on this was a friend who also attached a Starbucks gift card to the bottle with a note saying, "For the mornings... and for the evenings!"

From Toys'R'Us
Breast Milk Testing Strips. Wait... what? Well, if mom's going to indulge in a glass of wine or two, she's also going to want to make sure that her breast milk isn't giving baby a taste of Pinot too early in life. These handy little strips tell you whether or not the milk expressed is safe for baby, giving mama some peace of mind if she decides to pour herself a glass.

Gift cards for date nights.  Remember that guy that you liked a whole lot before your days were consumed by diapers and feedings? It would be nice to see him again, and not just when you're passing the baby back and forth! Gift cards for date nights to the movies, restaurants or events provide a reminder and a reason to hang up the "Mom & Dad" name tags for a few hours and try on that "Mr. & Mrs." title on for size again.

Original website not available, image found on Oh So Beautiful Paper.
"Me time." Many mamas forget to take some time to decompress, mostly because it can be hard to find that time. Gift certificates for manicures, massages, salon time or even just an "I'll watch the baby and you go grocery shopping... alone" pass could mean the difference between a calm, relaxed mom and a mother on the edge! She'll be grateful and you'll be a hero.

From Project Nursery
Comfy nursing wear. Let's be real: A new mom's wardrobe is most likely going to consist of spit up-covered tops and yoga pants that fit over her {hopefully} shrinking belly. Finding comfy, convenient pieces for her to wear post-baby will make her feel like she's slipping into Balanciaga. These modal camis and nighties from Gap Body are heavenly. {I can't yet speak for the "nursing" part, but I have a few comfy sleepwear pieces that I love.}

From ClosetCat on Etsy
Friendship, Support & Humor. I know that my "girls nights" will soon be very limited, but it makes me sad when friends act like they won't see me for the next 18 years. It's nice to know that, though you may be trading in gym time for Gymboree and fancy handbags for a well-stocked diaper bag, your girls will still be there when you need something more than baby talk. So, make sure to let your friends who are parents-to-be know that you're still on for coffee dates and wine nights whenever time allows.

Food. Never underestimate the power of food. Food can also be a great gift to give to new parents who will have little time to prepare meals for themselves once they're preoccupied with another mouth to feed. A few days ago I saw this cool idea from Once a Month Meals for a "Stock the Freezer" baby shower! How cool and useful is that?

If you haven't seen Meal Train before, it's another popular way to get friends and family to sign up for bringing over prepared meals to new parents over the first few weeks of adjusting to their new family unit. Food Tidings and Take Them A Meal are two other sites that have a similar setup for organizing food gifts.

One of the sweetest things someone can do is reassure you that you're going to be just fine and remind you that this little one on the way is opening a new, exciting chapter of your life... that is indeed a gift!

It's so important for parents to remember to eat properly and fuel themselves during those long days and nights. But you know what else is important? A treat every now and then.

And this Apple Cider Caramel Sauce is just the sweet treat you'll want to give to new parents, friends, family and yourself during this fall season. It is so, so good.

With just 4 ingredients {and a watchful eye}, you can make this sweet, decadent sauce that tastes like a perfect autumn day. FOUR INGREDIENTS. There are just no excuses.

What can you use it for? To drizzle over pie or cake. Dip apple slices in. Stir into beverages. Package up & give as a gift. Eat off a spoon. It's pretty ridiculous. I have a really, really good way to use it coming to you later this week, too...

But for now, let's just focus on not eating it all so we have options. It's easier said than done.

It's not terrible with a sprinkle of sea salt, either. ;)
Apple Cider Caramel Sauce

4 cups apple cider* {I think what really made this taste amazing was the kind I used -- Trader Joe's Spiced Cider.}
1 vanilla bean, split & scraped
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, cubed

1. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, bring apple cider to a boil. Add vanilla bean seeds scraped from pod and drop in the pod itself. {You'll pull this out later.} Continue to boil until reduced by about half, about 12-15 minutes.

2. Add brown sugar and butter and stir until melted in and well incorporated. Reduce heat to medium.

3. Allow the mixture to continue to boil until the bubbling starts to slow down as the liquid becomes more thick and syrupy, about 7-10 more minutes. {You'll have to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't burn.} I didn't use a candy thermometer for this, but you'll want the mixture to be pourable but thickened -- it will thicken some more after it cools.

4. Carefully pour hot sauce into a heatproof container or jar and allow to cool before sealing and decorating.

Pour over everything. :)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Roasted Butternut Squash & Sage Risotto

You know you are caught between two worlds when, while doing a Google search, you keep inadvertently swapping the word "pumpkin" for "pumping" and vice versa.

The days of simplicity and one track thinking {though, really, have I ever not multitasked?} are coming to an end soon, my friends. The evidence is clear in my big ol' bulging belly and the fact that a complete stranger yelled "Paint it orange for Halloween!" out his car window while I was crossing the street. Classy.

Belly evidence.
These are the gals that helped throw me the most perfect baby shower ever!
This week marked the end of our HypnoBirthing classes {which I've officially written a very long -  but informative! - post about and will be sharing next week}, meaning that we're one step closer to getting this show on the road. For our last class, a couple who had practiced HypnoBirthing brought in their 4 week old baby boy and shared their birthing story with us. They also gave us some tips for surviving the first few weeks of being new parents, which were greatly appreciated.

They made one thing very clear: You will have time for almost nothing. Not sleep. Not bathroom breaks. Not cooking or eating. {Whimper.} But you will become very efficient at using any spare moments that may be gifted to you for important things like naps, quick bites of sustenance and gazing at your newborn with awe.

Can't wait.

Our instructor mentioned a baby-wearing group that meets monthly in the same office where the classes were held, and how she noticed that they have become alarmingly skilled at doing things with one arm. I imagine this is one of those special adaptations that parents develop as a survival skill, along with bionic hearing and a variety of other special talents.

Naturally, that got me to thinking about recipes that could easily be made with one hand {or with very short moments of needing both}. Would you ever think about risotto being one of those things? Probably not.

Risotto is often thought of as quite fussy and labor-intensive. So, out of curiosity, I decided to make this version and see how it would turn out with very little "babysitting".

And wouldn't you know it... it worked. Quite well, in fact!

Now, there are some ways to make this even easier by taking shortcuts like buying pre-chopped onions & butternut squash, and grated cheese . {Side note: Butternut squash is one of the only convenience items I think of as a worthwhile purchase. I've nearly lost fingers too many times to count while dismantling a whole butternut squash.} But if you happen to have two hands available, it isn't even necessary because the tasks are pretty quick and simple.

Just roast some diced butternut squash, saute some onion, add rice and liquid and let it simmer. Adding the liquid in 3 separate additions helps to make the rice tender and creamy, but you really don't need to do all the stirring that is often associated with risotto. So that's good news.

The other good news is that it tastes really good. And it looks like you actually worked hard to put it together, so even new parents who only have one arm available can psych people out and make them think they've really got things under control.

Maybe my next project -- you know, after having a baby and everything -- will be to write an entire collection of recipes that can be cooked with one arm. Because I'm sure I'll have time for that.

Roasted Butternut Squash & Sage Risotto
Adapted from Real Simple 

1 1/2 cups chopped butternut squash
Olive oil

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine {or chicken/vegetable broth}
3 1/2 cups chicken broth, heated through in a microwave safe container with spout
1 teaspoon fresh sage, finely minced
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or aged Havarti cheese

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place a sheet of foil on a baking pan and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Plop butternut squash onto pan & toss with oil. Sprinkle with salt. Roast for about 20 minutes or until tender and lightly browned in spots.

Remove from oven and set aside.

2. In a deep skillet, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add diced onion and saute until softened and translucent, about 4-6 minutes.

3. Add rice to onions and stir. Cook for about 2 minutes, then add wine {or broth} and allow to simmer until the liquid is absorbed. {This should take about 5-7 minutes.}

4. Pour in about 1/3 of the chicken broth that's been warmed. Give it a quick stir {yes, you can do this with one arm}, bring the heat down a smidge {you want a simmer, not a boil} and allow to simmer until the liquid is absorbed once again, about 7-9 minutes or so. Repeat with another 1/3 of the broth. When you add in the last 1/3, toss in your roasted butternut squash and minced sage. Stir and allow to absorb the last of the liquid. {You don't even have to watch it, which means you might even be able to sneak in a bathroom break.}

5. Before serving, add in cheese, salt & pepper to taste and stir {for the last time!}

Serve hot... and try to eat it while it's still at that temp. You deserve it! :)