The Toddy

One of the other birthday gifts I received (aside from the BIG one), was a Toddy. I asked for the Toddy because I'd heard rave reviews about it from a number of people, and I'm a huge fan of coffee so am always looking for ways to have an even tastier cup of joe.

This is what the Toddy looks like in action. A bit strange, eh?

What you're seeing here is the final step in the cold-brewing process.

Cold-brewing is a way to maximize the flavor from freshly ground coffee beans, without getting a cup full of bitter acid and oil. (This, by the way, is particularly good for folks who have stomach troubles or other ailments. Or for those who aren't all that into the bitter flavor of coffee.) Plus, it doesn't involve any electricity at all, except for the refrigerator power for storing the brewed coffee.

Basically, what you do is insert a small filter into the white portion of the Toddy you see above (it comes with two filters, which last quite a while). Then, following the directions, you add a pound of freshly ground arabica coffee beans and cold, filtered water.

After that all you do is let the mixture sit on your counter for about 12 hours. Once the cold-brewing is complete, you remove the plug from the bottom of the Toddy and slip it on top of the carafe (which is included).

There you have it—concentrated coffee, ready for making hot or cold coffee drinks. The Toddy coffee stores in the fridge for up to two weeks without losing its flavor. Making a hot cup is as easy as adding one part coffee to three parts hot water (or whatever ratio you like).

One word of warning: The Toddy coffee really is smooth. So smooth that it takes some getting used to, because it's easy to think the coffee you made is weak because it doesn't have that telltale coffee bite. Conservative Boy and I ended up going through our first batch of Toddy coffee much more quickly than expected, and I think it's because we were adding so much more coffee to each cup trying to get to what tasted "right."

Anyhow, it's easy and delicious and oh so smooth. And after waiting those 12 hours, it makes morning coffee time a piece of cake—just heat up some water, add some of the concentrated coffee, and there you have it, no waiting for the coffee pot to finish its work.


Eggs Blinnadict

On Sunday morning, after I took My Mom to the airport (she flew into town for a day of dress shopping—a successful day, by the way), I curled up on the couch with some incredibly thrilling ecology reading about parasitism and mutualism.

Meanwhile, Conservative Boy headed to the kitchen for a new installment of EXTREME cooking with Conservative Boy.

On the menu: eggs benedict. Or, as he called them in his EXTREME cooking voice, "eggs blinnadict."

First, he whipped up a tasty hollandaise sauce from scratch. Meanwhile, he fried some bacon and eggs (in EXTREME cooking, you take liberties with traditional recipes). Once everything was ready and the english muffins popped up, he assembled our meal, with a few loud grunts and "bams" as is fitting for someone who's all about EXTREME cooking.

Who's impressed?


Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

I much prefer pies and cookies over cakes and cupcakes, but when I saw the recipe for pumpkin cupcakes with cream cheese frosting in Real Simple, I knew I had to try it.

I love pumpkin and I love cream cheese frosting, so they seemed like the perfect combo. Plus I knew that if I made them on my birthday there likely would be other people (read: Conservative Family) around to try them out since I knew I wouldn't voraciously consume them all.

Plus, they were pretty easy to make. All I had to do was make an 18.5-ounce yellow cake mix, just substituting a 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree and 1/2 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice for the water in the recipe.

The cream cheese frosting was even easier: two 8-ounce bars of cream cheese at room temperature, plus 2 cups confectioner's sugar. (It's not a super sweet, traditional cream cheese frosting, however. And there's no vanilla. I might add vanilla if I made them again.)

Then all you do once you frost is add candy corns on top.

Just one warning: Don't add candy corns if the cupcakes aren't being consumed relatively soon. By the next day, the candy corns had bled all over the white frosting and it wasn't a pretty sight.

They still tasted good though.


Sharing the Details

Last week, I shared some pretty big news with you.

To be honest, if you know Conservative Boy and I very well at all, it's not pretty big. It's huge. I mean HUGE.

It's news regarding something a lot of people close to us thought might never happen. Heck, I didn't think it was going to happen anytime soon, which is why I was so shocked when it did.

I am, of course, referring to our engagement.

As I mentioned in my last post, it happened last Wednesday morning.

I was out watering my plants in the rain, which honestly isn't as crazy as it seems. It's just that my plants under the eaves don't get any love from the rain, so even when it pours I have to go out and water them.

When I came in, Conservative Boy asked if I'd hold Butter down so he could put in his ear drops. Poor little Butter has ear problems pretty much all the time, and he's not a fan of his ear drops, so often it takes two of us.

So I tackled Butter to the ground and held him in place, oblivious to the fact Conservative Boy had hooked something on Butter's collar. Since I didn't see this shiny object, Conservative Boy had to point it out to me. "What's this?" he asked innocently.

The next part of this story makes my stomach jump. It's a bit of a blur honestly.

I was confused when I saw what he was pointing at—a diamond ring attached to Butter's collar.

(That's not Butter's collar, by the way. It's my hand. But you knew that, right?)

I mean, really confused. The thought it was for me never even crossed my mind, that's how unlikely the whole scenario was. Instead, I sat there looking at it for what was probably a split second but for what seemed like forever, and all I could think (fortunately not out loud, although everyone knows now) was: How the heck did Kid Sister's ring get on Butter's collar, and how is she not aware it's missing?

I realize that is incredibly illogical, yet somehow it made more sense than the fact it was for me.

By this point it was sort of sinking in. Conservative Boy was removing the ring from Butter's collar. I jumped up and he put it on my finger and the first words I actually said to him (remember, this was all in the span of a couple of seconds) were: "Oh my god, are you serious? Is this a joke?" and got a bit teary.

That's the stuff movies are made of, folks.

And then in all my confusion, I realized I hadn't actually said yes. So I said something to the effect of: "I guess I should say yes. So yes."

Again, the stuff movies are made of.

Then there was the usual hug and smooch that this stuff always involves. Conservative Boy had to head to work about 10 minutes later and sent two incredibly verbose 2-3 sentence emails alerting friends and family to the news.

I spent the day part giddy, part confused and got exactly zero homework or freelance work done. Because I am a woman and not nearly as succinct as Conservative Boy, I had my ear to my phone most of the day. That's more than I ever talk on the phone.

... And I didn't even realize until after Conservative Boy was at work that he managed to ask me to marry him without actually asking because I didn't give him a chance to speak. Oops!


A (Big) Birthday Surprise

You never know about birthdays. Sometimes they're swell. Sometimes they're not so swell, like when they fall on Tuesday and you have to work and teach all day and take a three-hour midterm exam in the evening (that happened last year).

Sometimes, however, they're beyond swell.

I am going to put this year's birthday, which happened on Wednesday, in the beyond swell category.

Wednesday seems like a rather lame day for a birthday (who wants to celebrate on hump day?). But when you don't have classes or much work to do and get to stay home in your PJs all day if you like, it's not too bad.

I thought I'd share with you some of the things that made my birthday so beyond swell.

Sleeping in until 7:20. (So lazy of me.)

Having time to water my plants (even though I am fully aware it was raining), send emails, and make myself a latte.

Making pumpkin birthday cupcakes (even though, admittedly, I prefer pies and cookies to cakes). By the way, I'll share more about these soon.

Great gifts, including but not limited to some clothing items, some terrific jewelry, an iTunes gift card, a Borders gift card, a wonderful CD, a springform pan (yes, I asked for one), a Toddy, and more Pyrex bowls with a new pattern (yay!).

A delicious dinner, complete with a wine flight, at Bella Milano in Springfield.

Beautiful happy birthday and congratulations flowers.

Wait a second. Did I just say congratulations?

Why yes, yes I did.

Why would I receive congratulations flowers on my birthday? I mean, I guess it would be OK to congratulate someone for being born.

But it would also be OK to congratulate someone for this.

Yes, folks. This is my hand this time. It is not a joke. (I thought it was a joke too, by the way.)

Conservative Boy proposed to me (with an assist from Butter) on Wednesday morning before he went to work. And after I realized it really was a serious proposal, I said yes.

I will share more details on that later, but I'll let the fact it happened sink in first.

And now you see what makes a birthday beyond swell.


A New Vacuum

First, I would like to take the opportunity to wish My Mom a happy birthday. Yes, my lovely mother gave birth to me the day before her own birthday. Talk about generous.

Happy birthday, Mom! I hope you have a wonderful day.

Second, I would like to discuss a topic that has very little to do with My Mom's birthday, although I'm sure she gets great enjoyment learning about it on her special day.

This topic is vacuums.

You see, when we moved into our house, Conservative Parents were kind enough to buy us a vacuum. It has been a very good vacuum the past two years, but as is apt to happen when you live with an exceptionally hairy creature (no, I don't mean Conservative Boy, although he's rather hairy too), even a good vacuum stops being effective after a while.

That's what happened to ours, a fact I realized every time I flopped down on the floor with Butter or stretched out in downward dog. There was so much hair on the carpet, even if I just finished vacuuming (and emptied the canister twice), it looked like I hadn't done a thing.

So I did some researching and bought a new vacuum, one that got good reviews and was relatively reasonably priced.

It's the Eureka Boss SmartVac Pet Lover. (Please say that five times fast.)

This vacuum has two very important features: a sealed HEPA filtration system, which is key for someone who is allergic to her favorite doggy, and special attachments made specifically for cleaning up pet hair, like the copious amounts of white hair that belong to you-know-who.

It's big, it's powerful, and so far it is doing 100 percent better than our old vacuum. (Oh, and it's bright yellow. Always a nice perk.) Even Conservative Boy loves it, so much that he did all the vacuuming last week (twice) and even vacuumed the couches. (Be impressed. I am.)

Of course, Butter is a fan too, if by fan you mean he loves chasing it around and barking at it as much as he liked attacking the last vacuum-shaped monster. That's what you're seeing in the photos above, in case you weren't sure.

I know sometimes it's hard to tell what's going on in our world.



There is not an exclamation point at the end of "BioBlitz." At least not that I am aware of. But in my world, something that sounds as exciting as BioBlitz should end in an exclamation point, don't you think? So, since it's my birthday, I have decided it will have an exclamation point.

I spent all last Saturday at BioBlitz! for my ecology class. BioBlitz! was an all-day biological sampling at Emiquon.

And when I say biological sampling, I mean I spent a good portion of the day in waders in freezing cold water digging around for plants and animals with my bare hands. Yes, really.

This is the area where I spent my time in the water. And no, I don't mean that puddle in the parking lot. Although I'm sure there's a wealth of biological life there to0.

(Also, doesn't it look exceptionally warm? Trust me, it was. My hands were numb for about 3 hours after.)

(There are some photos of me in said waders floating around, but I don't have one yet. I'll share if I find one. Maybe.)

Emiquon, which is located near Havana here in lovely Central Illinois, is a giant floodplain restoration project (we're talking almost 7,000 acres)—one of the largest outside of the Florida Everglades, in fact. Here's a photo of a small portion of it from a bluff we climbed after we dried off and ate lunch:

Emiquon used to be a system of backwater wetlands and lakes full of native plants and animals (plus there are a lot of archaeological sites, such as Native American villages and burial grounds, in the area). But, as is so common in the Midwest, the land was eventually parceled up and dried out in order to be used as farmland. Only now, the area is gradually being restored.

(These are some of the aforementioned burial mounds, which don't show up so well in the photo. It's also a trail now.)

The project is funded by The Nature Conservancy, and UIS as well as other universities are involved in the work being done at Emiquon on an ongoing basis, which is why we spent the day there studying the plants (prairie grasses as well as aquatic plants) and animals (particularly birds and invertebrates in the water).

All in all, not a bad way to spend a Saturday, eh?


Two Real Simple Recipes

Last weekend, I made two recipes from the October issue of Real Simple. It seemed like the right thing to do, since I actually had enough time in my life to cook for once. Plus, you know, it is October and all—even though I refuse to believe it because I'm pretty sure I lost September somewhere.

The first recipe was Shrimp Pot Pie with Fennel, and I made it for Conservative Boy and Conservative Mom on Friday night—the perfect kind of meal for a dreary, chilly day.

Pot pies seem like they'd be a lot of work, but this one had very few ingredients and involved puff pastry, which I happened to have in the freezer, so it was a cinch. And very tasty, the sort of meal that warms your insides. I recommend trying it yourself. You can get the recipe from the Real Simple website.

Then, on Sunday, I tried the Peanut Butter-Cup Cookie recipe.

I'm a huge fan of peanut butter and chocolate and cookies, so of course I had to make them, particularly once I found mini dark chocolate peanut butter cups at the store.

I'll tell you this: They're incredibly tasty. But mine did NOT look anything like the ones shown in the magazine, which appeared light and chewy and still showed hints of the telltale edge of the peanut butter cup.

I'm pretty sure they didn't bake their cookies all the way before the photo shoot. It's the only reasonable explanation.

The reason I think this is because I cooked mine for less than 10 minutes, as opposed to the 12 to 15 recommended in the magazine, and they came out flat and crispy and thoroughly melted.

Good, but crunchy.

Is this the fault of my overzealous oven? Perhaps. Did my baking soda spend too much time hanging out next to the bad corn starch? Maybe. Or it's possible these cookies are just destined to be a bit crunchier than the other recipes I make.

I know some of you, dear readers, love a good crunchy chocolate chip cookie, in which case these babies are for you.

Conservative Boy and I prefer big, fat, soft cookies though, so these took some getting used to. Still, they are pretty good, so I can't complain too much.

Try them yourself—again, you can get it from the Real Simple website. And let me know how your cookies turn out. Is it just the baker? Or are these cookies destined to be crunchy every time they're made?


Quest Magazine

I'm incredibly excited to share a special magazine with you today. It's not a publication you can find in stores or that you can subscribe to. But it is hot of the presses, so to speak, and I'm going to show you where you can find it online.

The reason I'm encouraging you to take a look at it? Because it has consumed much of my time for the past couple of months. You see, I served as editor for the 2009 issue that just launched online today.

It's called Quest, and you can view the entire online version here (you'll be downloading a PDF, just to warn you).

It's loaded with profiles of people who are making a difference around the world—people who are working to help North Koreans escape oppression and build better lives in the United States, serving in the Peace Corps in remote African villages, fighting a global HIV/AIDS epidemic, assisting with research missions in Antarctica, and so much more.

The thing that makes all of these people unique is that they were named Coca-Cola Scholars prior to graduating from high school. It's a prestigious honor from the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, which awards generous college scholarships to students who demonstrate academic abilities and a dedication to service in their lives. Even after Scholars graduate, the Foundation works to stay connected with them—and this magazine is one way they do that.

I was chosen to be editor of the magazine this year not only because that's what I do when I'm not playing graduate student, but because I'm a Coca-Cola Scholar too. (One who is incredibly humbled by all the amazing things my fellow Scholars are doing around the world, by the way.)

This is the first issue of Quest that is edited by a Coke Scholar, plus for the first time ever all of the stories in this issue were written by Coke Scholars about Coke Scholars (some of those writers, by the way, are editors for magazines, The Washington Post, and more, so it's an impressive group).

But enough Quest horn-tooting. I just wanted to share with you the link in case you're curious about what I've been up to recently. Enjoy!


A Summer Feast

I was perusing a random assortment of photographs from this summer, looking for a tasty little tidbit or two to post for you today, when I came across something I should have shared long ago. It's not a tasty tidbit, mind you. Rather, it's a big, beautiful, M.B.-style feast.

The weekend My Family came to visit, Q and M.B. graciously hosted My Family, Conservative Family, and some additional friends at their farm. The majority of us arrived in style in one giant RV, which we tumbled out of like we were in a clown car.

Between glasses of wine and to-die-for appetizers, we took turns riding in the Gator with Q for visits to their newly installed wind turbine on one side of the house and the destruction caused by an August tornado on the other.

As if that wasn't enough excitement for one evening, M.B., of course, prepared a feast of epic proportions. That is what I am about to share with you now. Prepare to drool, for we enjoyed:

Tasty little dishes of peppers.

A most beautiful salad.

Baked beans.

Potato salad.
Baked cheese grits.

Wait a moment. I must dwell on these grits for a moment. They were heavenly—and up until this point, I've never been very impressed with grits. But these beautiful babies—cheesy, flavorful, firm (not soggy). These babies I could eat by the spoonful.

Oh wait. I did.

Petite corn muffins.

An ribs. Beautiful ribs. Flavorful ribs. Fall off the bone the moment you touch them ribs. Ribs that eventually were mounded high on this plate, only I got too excited and didn't wait for M.B. to finish dishing before I took a photo. Can you blame me?

I won't even mention what came afterward for dessert. And by dessert I mean not one, not two, but three desserts.

I was too satiated to snap a photo—and trust me when I say that to describe them without sharing a bite is considered cruel and unusual punishment in at least 300 countries.

So I will spare you. I promise I'm doing you a favor here.