Where creativity grows

Author: Jen (Page 1 of 8)

A musical journey

One of the pillars of the creative mindset is music. The guests at Matt and Cassandra’s wedding represented nine different countries. In an effort to have everyone represented during the reception, they asked guests to share 3-4 songs from their homeland. We heard music from India, Sweden, Ukraine, Mexico and of course Spain. Hearing all of these new and unique-to- me tunes made me realize that my favorite Pandora stations were so perfectly dialed in that I not only knew every single song that came up, but I also loved them. While there is nothing wrong with the Arctic Monkeys or that many artists that match the algorithm of their music, I was in the market for something new. I put an all-call out to my Facebook page to see what people could toss my way. I also said that I would give extra points for international music. 

The feedback I got was awesome. First and foremost, I heard back from people I did not expect to hear from. That meant that we had a connection I did not know about— music. Second- while I got a lot of suggestions, I did not like a lot of it. It just was not the kinda music that would make my creative juices flow and make me want to get up and dance— or more importantly to go and create! 

A colleague recommended a few songs by a Chinese artist. Another said she loved cleaning to a Phish playlist on Spotify. Another suggested a station called Rockfluence. I was amused when a local Elginite suggested a German artist named Antifuchs. I wasn’t sure if he knew that I was a German teacher, but as it turns out he did. Glad he was able to confirm that this was not school nor institution friendly music. Didn’t matter, I enjoyed the sound of her music tremendously. Then my neighbor down the block surprised me with some epic suggestions of New Orleans style calypso music that was crazy fun. Too many Zooz Radio and Trombone Shorty were two of my favorites. I didn’t realize that what I was actually looking for was something that would make our house have a café feel to it. When a long time friend suggested the Pink Martini station on Pandora, I knew that I had struck gold. The station definitely has a Sunday Brunch Café station feel to it, but it has a solid international twist to it that has me smiling, dancing and daydreaming all at the same time. I turned it on this morning when I got up and it has been playing for eight straight hours without a single thumbs down on a song. LOVE! LOVE! LOVE!

Do you have a song or a playlist that gets your creative juices flowing? Please share! I am always on the hunt for new music.

A staycation

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, not everyone can just pick up and spend eleven days in Spain. However, one of our most memorable days in Spain was when Matt and Cassandra shared their favorite places and experiences with us. It gave me the chance to look at our hometown with different glasses. What would I put on such a list if I had to share our hometown with guests? 

Coffee and a pastry at Arabica Cafe. Although Diane and Chef Brian are currently trying to sell the cafe so that they can start chapter two of their retirement plan, it is still one of my all time favorite spots. I did almost all of my interviews for my book The Many Faces of Elgin there. The coffee is good and the pastries are amazing (or go later in the day for lunch- wowza). 

Check out the dam at Kimball Street. It is one of my all-time favorite spots in Elgin. If it’s freezing cold out, you might spot an eagle. If it’s summer, you’ll probably see a line of people fishing. Either way, it’s a very peaceful and beautiful spot to see the Fox River. Stroll down a bit and check out Walton Island.

At Kimball Street Dam
Eagles over Kimball Street Dam

Enjoy a bike ride, run or walk on the Fox River Trail. You can park at the Gail Borden Library in downtown and head north toward Algonquin or head south toward Aurora. 

Enjoy a martini at The Martini Room. Each month the lounge hosts the art of a local artist. Although they do not sell food, their cocktails are outstanding.

Martini Room

Get a bag of popcorn at Mama Lee’s to snack on while checking out the shops around downtown. Meraki Market features the work of local artisans. Elgin Knit Works is a beautiful yarn shop. Steep ‘n Clay is a tea and pottery shop. There are a variety of antique shops scattered around downtown as well.

Check out the public art throughout town. Elgin has amazing murals and sculptures. Most of it is accessible on foot from downtown. 

Get a German pretzel roll at Herb’s Bakery. These are the real deal and they sell out very fast. Call ahead and order a half-dozen…or go crazy and order a dozen. You won’t regret it. 

Have an iconic meal at Al’s Cafe (lunch or dinner- you won’t be disappointed). 

Elgin has a large hispanic population and as a result some excellent options for authentic food. One of our favorites is Taqueria Chapala on the far east side. 

Elgin Symphony Orchestra at the Hemmens Center. We are crazy lucky to have three amazing orchestras in Illinois. If you want to skip the major hassle of traveling downtown to see the CSO, you won’t be disappointed with free parking, ample dining options within walking distance and world class talent at the ESO. 

Discover the amazing architecture throughout Elgin. Whether it is a walking tour of the famous painted ladies and other historical homes or the various churches and temples, Elgin has it all. 

Painted Lady

Bluff City Cemetery is a stunningly beautiful historic cemetery on the far east side of town. Wander the grounds and then go for a hike in Bluff Spring Fen, which is accessed at the far end of the cemetery. 

What would be on your Staycation Itinerary if I were to visit your area? 

The Invitation of a Lifetime

We knew as soon as we received the invitation to Matthew and Cassandra’s wedding we would do everything possible to attend. After all, how often do you receive an invitation to an intimate wedding in the rolling hills of Spain? Once we negotiated all the chaos of traveling internationally near the tail end of a global pandemic, we were ready to get our fiesta on.

Everything about this wedding fits the challenges I set forth in my post about a creative mindset

Listen to music. Nine different countries were represented at the wedding. The bride and groom asked everyone from outside the US to share a few songs for the DJ to play during the reception. It was so unique to hear songs from India, Sweden and Ukraine. I never would have heard these songs otherwise and I’ll always smile when I think back on the reception and dancing to them.

Keep an idea journal. The food at the reception was out of this world and it had me making notes to try and find recipes to try back at home. From the camembert bites in blueberry sauce to the vegetarian paella and quinoa salad, my creative juices were flowing! 

Talk to other creatives. This was a very small wedding- only 38 guests. When we talked to the bride and groom about the guest list they admitted that they were drawn to the same types of people— people with a sense of adventure and creativity. After all, most of the guests were traveling thousands of miles to attend the festivities. 

Embrace failure. The bride and groom were extremely thoughtful in how they arranged guests at each table. There was a mixture of people who spoke only Spanish, only English and both English & Spanish at each table. Pedro, a local farmer at our table, tried to engage the Spanish learners at our table with children’s riddles using farm animals. The three non-Spanish speakers at our table stared at him with zero comprehension of what he was trying to communicate. The bilingual guest translated, we laughed and postulated an answer. Time after time our language and creativity failed us. We laughed it off and kept trying. 

Be a lifelong learner. I knew as soon as we decided to make the trip that I was going to do everything to learn at least basic Spanish. I spent countless hours and gave up daily lunch periods to practice on Duolingo. There was no way that I would be fluent in time for the trip, but I did get a healthy dose of creative use of my limited language skills. 

Expose yourself to new environments. The entire wedding fit this challenge. When most people travel to Spain they go to the big cities— Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia, etc. The ceremony was held in the middle of the Spanish countryside in Arnes on a stunningly beautiful vineyard that no one has ever heard of. It was an all vegetarian/vegan menu that tantalized our taste buds with each bite. We knew the bride and groom and none of the other guests- which forced us to meet and interact with new people. 

Have new experiences. The wedding festivities continued well into the night. We danced and laughed and celebrated the beautiful couple like it was the last thing we would ever do. The joy carried into the next day when a couple from India shared the Holi festival of color with the wedding guests. We piled into cars and headed into the mountains with huge packets of colored powder. After a short hike down to the river, the color madness started. Everyone grabbed packets of powder and smeared them all over anyone within arms reach. Joy and laughter was radiating from every single person. Before we knew it everyone had jumped into the river and the colors were just a memory. 

I know that traveling to exotic destinations is not an everyday (or in our case even an every year) occurrence. We did embrace every chance we could to make the most of this special opportunity and to recharge our creative batteries as much as we could.

Travel- steroids for creativity

We recently returned from the trip of a lifetime to Spain. We spent eleven magical days enjoying the Spanish countryside and soaking up every last drop of life spice. It seems hypocritical to talk about feeling inspired after taking a dream vacation, because who wouldn’t? It makes me think of the time I had the chance to ask world-famous photographer Art Wolfe to tell me his favorite place to photograph. He responded with Myanmar. Only someone who is able to travel internationally regularly would give such a response. Because it will be a long time before we are able to take such a trip again, I did reflect on the aspects of our trip that inspired a creative mindset so that we can try to recreate those types of experiences here at home. Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of blogs about our experiences in Spain. Here is a sneak peak…

Our food experiences were by far the most amazing. For years we have been asking for recommendations in restaurants. Check out my post Why I’ll never order off a menu again. We continued to do so while in Spain. We tried so many foods that we never would have ordered on our own—duck, partridge, clams, mussels, cuttlefish, octopus, prawns and much more. I now know that my day is always better if it starts with a café con leche. As soon as we got home, I decided to host an international potluck. Everyone is bringing a dish from their heritage to pass. Foodie potluck

New experiences are obviously easier when you are in a new place where everything is new. Our adventures started with the invitation of a lifetime— one we could not turn down. Some of our explorations were simple (Spanish doors) while others were much more elaborate. One of our most memorable days was when our friends took a day to share their “favorites” with us. What would be on my favorites list if someone were visiting us? We did something similar when my bestie and her husband were in town for the day from Connecticut. Could I ask others to suggest an itinerary for a day in their area? Staycations

Music makes my heart skip a beat. Matt and Cassandra asked their guests from 9 different countries to share 3-4 songs for the DJ to play during the reception. I don’t have any of the names of the songs that were played, but I remember how much I smiled when I heard music from Ukraine, India, Mexico and even Sweden. My Pandora stations are so perfectly curated that they play only songs that I know and love. This, of course, is a double edged sword. I need to explore some new music avenues. Music

Learn something new. We ended our trip with an Airbnb Experience to learn how to make paella, which combined our love of food, culture and learning. Paella. While we cannot take a cooking class every week, I do have a stack of recipes from a great book I checked out from our library called The Kitchen Without Borders.  It features stories and recipes from immigrant and refugee chefs from around the world. Our Foodie Map is eagerly awaiting more pins. 

The best thing about vacations is how they make you appreciate home. This trip was no different. While we would love to figure out a way to have our “olive farm” right now, we have ways to inject joy and creativity into our lives every single day. 

Sketchbook Revival

I haven’t had as much time this year to engage in the Sketchbook Revival funness, but I have selected a few sessions to try out. Two in particular lead to crazy fun shenanigans.

  1. Create Like a Kid Again! with Charlie O’Shield. I loved his playful spirit so much and got such a kick out of his exercise. Take the first noun you think of and then the first compound noun you think of. In my case my noun was fish and Charlie gave the compound noun handshake. The exercise was to replace either hand or shake with your new noun and then draw it. I decided to do handfish and this was my result:

2). 

DAY 9 SESSION 1 – Este MacLeod 123…Let’s Draw Cats. I was so enamored with the idea of this session and the examples people were posting in the Facebook group. My first attempts were less than exciting, but I kept trying.

Eventually I just tried to turn the numbers into doodles…something my brain could wrap itself around.

But then my husband has a brighter idea! Last night he challenged me to do something completely different, but something that set my brain on fire. He challenged me to make one of my doodles out of only letters.  5 minutes later I presented him with the doodle on the bottom right. 

Then he suggested I remove those letters from the alphabet and only use the remaining letters. That yielded me the bottom left. I did not expect him to then say I needed to create one with only the remaining letters…and that yielded…

This was a ridiculously fun challenge! I hope you’ll give it a try. You could try with all lower case letters, numbers, or even the punctuation marks found on a keyboard. My husband was not getting off the hook that easily. I challenged him to make fish out of the numbers and he did great! 

Would love to see what you come up with!

Until next time, Oodle on!

Oodle in the Park

When I first started kicking around the idea of starting a blog on creativity, my long term goal was to host some sort of creativity retreat where I would help people tap back into the creative energy they had lost. This was going to be the focus of my retirement energy. I figured I would write about creativity and I would continue to explore as many creative outlets and avenues as I could…sharing those journeys with all of you. Then I started thinking a lot about doing a podcast and talking to creatives– partially for my own benefit, but also to share with all of you. Many ideas have come in and out of my head since I started The Oodlearium, but the idea of a creativity camp of some sort has never left my mind. 

Back in December, my friend Karen was over to Elf in our kitchen while I was baking Christmas cookies. We baked and talked for hours about life and goals and dreams and passions. She heard very clearly the ache in my heart over not knowing how to bridge the gap between now and retirement when I would have more time to devote to my ideas. She threw out the idea of finding a space and just throwing a one day event together. She even volunteered to do a session on vision boards. I jotted down some notes and told her I would give it some serious thought.

During Christmas break, I was out & about one day doing some photography and I stopped by Tyler Creek Forest Preserve in Elgin. I didn’t get the shot I was hoping for, but I discovered this stunning permanent shelter. It was a beautiful brick structure– large enough to fit 50-75 people, close to a flush toilet and ample parking.  A quick google search showed that it could be rented for a whopping $50 for the day. I had found the home for this “someday” event. I was so excited about the shelter that I started asking anyone I could think of if they would be willing to be a presenter for this idea of an event. Every single person said yes and before I knew it, I had this awesome lineup of presenters.

Check out the presenters.

These incredible creatives have put together awesome ideas for fun sessions that will tickle your creative funny bones. They cover everything from painting to doodling to photography to vision boards and a charcuterie board lunch session. I could not have asked for a better group of friends to share this day with you all. 

Check out the sessions

Someday, I hope that Oodle in the Park will morph into a huge multi-day event with presenters from all over the world. For now, it is a small group of really enthusiastic creatives who want to share their love with their art with you. The cost of the day is $50, which covers the cost of your supplies for the day. You will not need to bring anything with you except whatever camera (DSLR or phone) for Kelly Hubert’s session. You will create an individual charcuterie board during our lunch time session and eat/snack on it after you’ve snagged some photos to share with friends & family! Snacks and water will be provided throughout the day. If this sounds like something you would love to attend, please sign up here: Oodle in the Park Registration

An Artist’s Date with Claire Saffitz

Last summer I finally ordered and started reading Julia Cameron’s iconic book Artist’s Way. While much of the book did not resonate with me (I am 100% in the minority here and totally ok with that), one aspect that did stick with me was her emphasis on the importance of artist dates. I have a long list of ideas in my inspiration journal and one area that I had not yet explored was diving into cooking as a creative exercise. 

Like so many others, Tom and I became master binge watchers during COVID 2020. Tom is the YouTube Maestro and he discovered the one and only Claire Saffitz. On her Bon Appetit show, she tried to recreate favorite snack items like everything from Gourmet Cheetos to Pop Tarts. While we did not necessarily have any desire to make any of these tasty treats, her show was witty and entertaining. She had a way of making everything lighthearted and look easy. Fast forward to December 2021 when I fell in love with the Netflix show School of Chocolate. It got me thinking about the conversation Tom and I had earlier in the year about wanting to try our hand at some fancy desserts. Afterall, I had pinned gobs of recipes, but I had yet to try any of them. Fast forward again to our stocking stuffer exchange on Christmas Eve. Tom bought me a beautiful copy of Claire Saffitz’s book Dessert Person. Let me start by saying I am a cookbook fanatic. I love reading them almost as much as I do making recipes from them. However, never have I devoured a cookbook the way I did this one. I was so inspired by the beautiful images, detailed directions and the incredible variety of recipes that I could not wait to dive in and try something. These recipes were different from anything I had ever tried before. Sure I had made cinnamon rolls before, but these were some serious next level stuff. Yes, I had made sous vide lemon curd, but I had never made a tart. Of course, I had made chocolate cakes, but nothing like Claire’s wave cake. Every night I would thumb through the pages and read another recipe. I would ooh and ahh about whatever recipe I was reading.

That is when I decided that I was going to take myself on a date with Claire and dedicate a whole weekend to diving into her book. Wednesday night, Tom and I mixed up the Meyer Lemon Curd for the Lemon Tart. I was apprehensive because I have heard so many nightmares about how hard it is to make homemade lemon curd. I had always let the sous vide do the hard work. Here I was signing up to stand and whisk the eggs and lemon juice and butter for ten straight minutes. The curd it yielded was OUT OF THIS WORLD! And it was no problem whatsoever to make. Tom whisked for me, but it really was easy to make. Friday night I mixed up the sweet yeast dough for the Walnut Maple Sticky Buns. Saturday morning, the buns went in the oven as soon as I got home from running. I commented on Claire’s youtube page that these sticky buns changed our lives forever. They are not the type you get at the mall covered in ooey gooey sugary sauce. These are sophisticated and brilliant sticky buns that will make you rethink everything you thought to be true in the world. And then Sunday morning, I made the Chocolate Wave Cake and finished the Lemon Tart. The chocolate cake and lemon tart were on the docket for a girls’ afternoon I was hosting. While my running tribe had had loads of my Christmas cookies, I had never baked anything like this for them (or anyone else for that matter). I was more than a little nervous. Tom reminded me that if anything went wrong, we could run to the store and pick something up. This was NOT an option in my head.

The awesome thing about Claire’s book is that she is in the process of making YouTube videos to accompany all the recipes. So I was able to see her talk her way through all the recipes I was making. These are not “throw together quickly” recipes. They all involved multiple steps and multiple recipes to make one final product. Claire’s videos humanized the recipes. They were no longer these elite fancy must graduate from pastry school to make recipes, but rather something even I could accomplish. Spoiler alert! Everything turned out marvelous. The girls loved all the desserts and we enjoyed the leftovers for the better part of a week.

Diving into this book was certainly an interesting creative endeavor for me. I love cooking and baking and trying new recipes. But this was all on a new level and it opened up creative circuits in my brain that had been dormant for a bit. I’m glad that I remembered that not all creative adventures have to happen in the Oodlearium. 

Side note- no idea how I did not get a picture of the lemon tart…it was heavenly!

Until next time,

Oodle On

4X Warrior

4x Warrior

In December of 2017, I was finishing up my book, The Many Faces of Elgin. I had spent two solid years hardly touching my camera except to photograph the people featured in the stories I was writing. I had completely lost my photographic mojo. I randomly stumbled upon a mention of a weekly photography challenge called 52Frames. It had two simple rules 1) you must take the image 2) It must be taken between 12:01 AM Monday and 11:59 PM EST Sunday. Each week there is a new theme and that’s it. I didn’t blink an eye and I signed the manifesto and looked at the first challenge. 

That first week was almost my undoing. Really— a self-portrait? There was a reason I spent so much time behind a camera— I hate pictures of myself. 

I still remember someone from the Facebook group telling me to get over myself and take the picture because no one was judging me. I won’t lie. It was hard, but I survived that first week. I went on to do something I had never done prior to joining 52F. I shot consistently through the winter- every single week!  Tom always teased me that I was a fair-weather photographer and that if I just opened my eyes to other things I could shoot year round. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into! 

With the submission of my photo Jumbo Hot Dog Ketchup Only I became a 4X warrior, which means that I submitted a photo every week for 4 straight years (209 weeks!).  It is hard to put into words what these last four years have meant to me, but I’ll try here.

Lessons I have learned:

  • Just show up. The leader of my running club gave me this advice when I was first considering becoming a winter runner. He told me that if I just got myself to the store that the rest would take care of itself. Maybe I would run five miles and have an epic life changing run and maybe I would run/walk two miles. It didn’t matter because I showed up. The last four years have shown me that this is true for 52F as well. Some weeks are epic and some weeks are meh, but the average of the last four years are photographs that I am pretty darn proud of.
  • Make making art a priority. I’m lucky. I’m a teacher and I get my summers off. That means that for approximately three months every summer, I have the flexibility to shoot whenever I want. If I want to spend three days hammering out the best shot to meet a challenge I can. During the school year, I am lucky if I have fifteen minutes on a Saturday afternoon to shoot, process and submit my picture. But I make making my image a priority every single week. It trains a part of my brain to know that it matters and that it is worthwhile. 
  • It’s only partially about the photograph. I absolutely learn something about my photography each and every week, but the lessons I have learned from 52F more often than not have come from the people that make up this amazing community. I have learned about culture, history, life and much more from all over the world through the stories people tell with their images. I look forward to reading the stories almost as much as I do seeing the images. But most of all, I love interacting with incredible people all over the world who share my love for photography.
  • There is beauty everywhere. In 2020 when the world shut down, I was forced to figure out how to shoot from the comfort of home. When I created my 2020 52F photo book, I discovered that ALL but FOUR of my 52F images were taken in our house or on our property. Never in a million years would I have imagined making 48 images in our house before joining 52F.
  • Everyone has their own why. Each and every person joined 52F for their own reason. They are on their own photography and life journey and we are lucky that they let us all be a small part of it. Maybe you see a picture in the album that appears to not fit the theme at all. There are a thousand reasons why this could be the case and none of them matter because each person is on their own journey and who am I to judge? I try to approach each image with empathy and that keeps me centered. 
  • Inspiration comes in many different forms.  If you have read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, you are familiar with the idea of needing to fill-up your creative cup regularly. I like to think of it as a bank account. If I withdraw more than I deposit things go sideways pretty quick. I try to get in as much creative inspiration as I can and from a variety of sources. I keep an extensive Pinterest board with photography ideas, but I also use all my other interests to help me keep that creative cup filled. Try new recipes. Listen to energizing music. Engage with other creatives. Check out my blog post on having a creative mindset. Many of those principles apply directly to my 52Frames journey.
  • Some people hunt for images. Others farm their images. I have strayed from hunting and am trying to find my way back. After a year of being stuck at home, I am ready to start hunting again. Check out the blog post I wrote about this topic last year. 
  • Gear doesn’t matter. This is such a polarizing statement. There are so many people who crave the latest greatest lens or body or gadget. My Dad had a high-end DSLR that he kept set to auto and he took such incredible photos with what essentially was an expensive point and shoot camera. There are SO many Framers in the group who shoot exclusively with their phones. The gear might make some types of shoots easier, but in general it just doesn’t matter. If your gear isn’t meeting your news, then by all means change. There was recently a fascinating blog post by world renowned photographer David DuChemin about his decision to completely change his gear to a different brand. I’m still using my Canon 7D that I got in 2011. I have gotten multiple 52 picks with that camera and more importantly, I have created images I am proud of.
  • You get out what you put in. 52F isn’t for everyone. It’s that simple, but you do get out of it what you put into it. Joining a mini group completely changed the experience for me. I had a regular group of photographers to help me decide which image to submit, give me feedback and then also comment on my image in the weekly album. From there, I joined the group of Framers who comment weekly on 25 random images. That opened my eyes to images in the album I might not ever have seen otherwise (in four years, I have only gone through the entire album ONCE when I was asked to select the banner for that week.) I have gotten to know people. I have my favorites, whom I follow. I have my friends and then I try really hard to engage with people via the Facebook group. 
  • This world is made up of some incredibly freaking cool and talented folks. It’s that simple. The people are 100% the best part of this group. Of course, I love the images, but the people rock my world week after week with their stories, their comments and their friendship. Just yesterday I received a care package in the mail from a framer in Australia. We had decided to work our way through The Artist’s Way together and explore our creative journeys together. How cool is that?

Awesome experiences I have had because of 52F

  • Zoom call with multiple framers spread across the world. Technology is incredible.
  • Discovered that a fellow-framer in Israel is also a painter, so we did a virtual pour painting together and have met multiple times since then virtually to chat about creativity and art. 
  • Did a photo walk with some members of the local Chicago group at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. We were a small group, but it was so lovely to meet some fellow Framers.
  • A fellow Framer saw that I had started doing paintings on fan blades, so she sent me a set of blades from a fan she was replacing so that I could repurpose them into art. 
  • Developed incredibly special friendships with framers all over the world. People I would truly visit if life were to bring me to their part of the world. 
  • During COVID 2020, 52Frames was an anchor for me. It was something I could rely on and use to connect with others. I cannot overstate how much it helped me through some of my darkest hours. 
  • Explore the book The Artist’s Way with a fellow Framer on the other side of the world. 
  • I am sure there are many more that I am not remembering. What I do know is that I can’t imagine my life without 52F in it and for that I am eternally grateful.

My favorite submissions

The 12 Days of Hot Chocolate

This year, Tom and I decided that we were going to focus on making our own Christmas memories and infusing our home with the joy of the season. That is how the 12 Days of Hot Chocolate came to be. While we have always been somewhat snobbish about our hot chocolate consumption (ie no Swiss Miss and hot water allowed in this household), we have never searched for a recipe that takes our hot chocolate to the next level. 

 

Our basic hot cocoa recipe (2 servings)

  • 2 cups milk of choice

  • 2 TBSP dark chocolate cocoa powder

  • 2 TBSP sugar

  • Splash of vanilla

 Heat milk in the microwave and stir in the rest of the ingredients. Serve with your favorite toppings. 

 I turned to Pinterest to find twelve recipes for us to try. The teacher in me and the engineer in Tom of course had to make a rubric to score the recipes. We went back and forth on a lot of different ideas, but in the end opted to keep it nice and simple with a 3 candy cane rating system: 

 

  • 1 candy cane – we did not even finish the mug and won’t ever make it again.

  • 2 candy canes- we finished it, but probably won’t make it again

  • 3 candy canes- absolutely loved it and will add it to our personal cookbook

 I printed off the 12 recipes and made my shopping list. We were ready to get started!

 

The results:

I don’t want to disappoint you this early in the post, but full disclosure- we ended up not trying all twelve recipes. Very early on we discovered what we like, love and hate about hot chocolate. We used the recipes to explore different flavors, but in the end we didn’t need all twelve recipes to figure that out. I will include links to all twelve at the very end in case you want to do your own experiment.

 

All things being equal:

There are a few elements that we kept standard throughout the recipes, despite what the recipe actually called for. 

  1. 70% cocoa Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips

  2. Dark cocoa powder from Costco

  3. Silk Unsweetened Almond Milk or Organic Skim Cow’s milk

  4. Anywhere that called for heavy cream or half-half, we used Silk non-dairy half-half.

 And so it began….

 

Peanut Butter Hot Chocolate 

I am obsessed with all things chocolate and peanut butter, so I started our adventure with the only peanut butter and chocolate recipe. I was sure this would be my favorite before we even started. I mixed everything up and poured the concoction into the His and Hers penguin mugs we would be using for the challenge. I took a huge sip and let out a howl of excitement. Man was that yummy. Tom was less impressed. My initial impression was that I would drink it every day for the rest of my life. Tom thought he might finish it, but he is not a lover of chocolate and peanut butter like I am. Within a few minutes though we both felt like someone had stuck a straw into a jar of Skippy. To my shock and chagrin— neither of us finished our mugs! I don’t know if it would be better with higher quality peanut butter. I only had creamy Skippy on hand from my holiday baking as Tom prefers the chunky Crazy Richard’s peanut butter for everyday use. Perhaps more milk to thin it out or even less PB, but overall this one was a big bust!

Peppermint Hot Chocolate- 3 candy canes

Not much I love more this time of year than peppermint. Next up was a peppermint hot chocolate recipe that was sure to win our hearts— except for the fact that I cannot read. I made the recipe and we both agreed it was tasty, but it seemed really sweet. When I looked at the recipe, I discovered that instead of putting ¼ tsp of sugar, I poured in a heap ¼ cup. Oops! I made it again later that week with a more appropriate amount of sugar and we both really liked it. We started thinning out the recipes a bit with this one, because we prefer to drink our hot chocolate rather than chew it. This one was a WINNER! 

Colonial Hot Chocolate

 

Our third recipe was one that we were holding on to share with some friends when they popped by for a holiday visit. The Colonial Hot Chocolate recipe had a unique flavor palette and we knew our foodie friends would enjoy doing this taste test with us. This recipe involved me hunting down a few ingredients I had never used before (star anise & ground cardamom), but overall it was an incredibly easy recipe to make. Given the incredibly unique combination of flavors and how easy it was to make, we all agreed this was one of the best hot chocolates we had ever had. This is a solid dessert hot chocolate, but could also serve as a lovely regular recipe if thinned out a bit. 

Nutella Hot Chocolate

After the peanut butter hot chocolate recipe, I was a bit gun shy to try the Nutella Hot Chocolate. I could not have been more wrong! It was awesome— just nutty enough to be unique and the perfect balance of yummo chocolate flavor. 

Hot Chocolate

After a few recipes that were next level with flavors and add-ons, we decided to step back and try a basic recipe that could potentially be our go-to hot cocoa recipe. This one was a sure fire winner— with one change. Tom and I agreed that we much prefer to drink our hot chocolate rather than almost chew it— so I added in an extra cup of milk to the recipe. Yummo!

Cinnamon Hot Chocolate

Next up was going to be a Mexican Hot Chocolate, but neither of us were excited about the idea of something spicy. Instead, I opted for a recipe for a cinnamon hot cocoa that I was hoping would be similar to the cinnamon crunch latte I had at Panera last week. We were both busy with projects and it was the perfect time to throw in a cup of holiday cheer. Tom proclaimed this was his absolute favorite recipe and I was very close to agreeing. Steeping a whole stick of cinnamon in milk for ten minutes produced a beautifully delicious hot chocolate. With some fresh whipped cream on top, this one was AMAZING! I actually made this again the very next day,

 

Parisian Hot Chocolate

We gave one last recipe a try before declaring the challenge complete. The Parisian Hot Chocolate recipe was elegant and grand, but it was WAY TOO MUCH of everything for us to enjoy. Even with me thinning out the recipe, neither of us finished the mug. We agreed that we know the basics of what makes a great cup of hot chocolate in conjunction with how we like ours prepared so that we can now mix and match a bit from the recipes we tried out. 

Here is a list of all the recipes in case you want to do your own comparison:

  1. Nutella Hot Chocolate

  2. Mexican Hot Chocolate (House of Yumm) / Mexican Hot Chocolate (Green Healthy Eating)

  3. Peppermint French Hot Chocolate

  4. Colonial Hot Chocolate

  5. Parisian Hot Chocolate

  6. Homemade Hot Chocolate Recipe

  7. Italian Hot Chocolate

  8. Maple Sea Salt Vegan Hot Chocolate

  9. Homemade Cinnamon Hot Chocolate Recipe ~ Barley & Sage

  10. London Fog Whipped Cream Hot Chocolate

  11. Thierry Rautureau’s Hot Chocolate (from Theo Cookbook)

  12. Peanut Butter Hot Chocolate

Banitsa

The Foodie Map had been hanging for a few weeks and we still had not tried a new recipe when Tom mentioned that we should have some friends over for breakfast. That was just the inspiration I needed to try and find a breakfast recipe that would be perfect for our first pin. Off to Pinterest I went. I looked at recipes for everything from shakshuka to baked Swedish pancakes with blueberries, but eventually selected a recipe for Banitsa, a Bulgarian breakfast cheese pie. I liked that it had a very simple ingredient list that I could find in a regular American grocery store. I picked up the feta, Greek yogurt and phyllo dough and I was ready to “hit the culinary road!”

This was my first time working with phyllo dough and I thought it was more similar to puff pastry, but I was wrong. It is not nearly as sturdy and well, you need to defrost it ahead of time. Oops! I mixed up the filling and after a quick defrost of the pastry sheets I was ready to assemble the pie. The recipe details three different ways to assemble it and I opted for the traditional spiral. This recipe is unbelievably easy— it took longer for me to defrost the pastry sheets than to do anything else. Once everything was assembled, I poured a bit of melted butter over the concoction and popped it in the pre-heated oven. 

25 minutes later, Tom and I were SO excited to try our first entry onto the foodie map. I cut two slices and we dove in. You might expect that the filling would be more like a dense cheesecake, but while it was rich, it was also light. It had a great balance between the filling and flakiness of the pastry. 

We talked about how this recipe would pair well with either a meat or even a fruit, but we opted to keep it traditional. Overall, we really enjoyed this recipe and highly recommend it. 

Until next time.

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