The Gleeful Gourmand: 2015

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Wexford Carol

Hello, friends! It has been quite some time since I've been able to sit down and write, much less make anything fun or interesting to post about. I don't know about you, but November swept past me in a furious whirlwind, and I haven't been able to recover, until today. So I hope you'll excuse my prolonged absence, and read this post, which has nothing to do about food, but definitely falls in the "life" category.

"Good people of this Christmastime, consider well, and bear in mind, what our good God for us has done in sending His beloved Son..."

So begins my favorite Christmas carol, The Wexford Carol, a beautiful, haunting song recounting the Nativity story. The version I love so much is sung by the incomparable Alison Krauss, with Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello. Until last Christmas, I had never even heard this carol (despite the fact that it can be traced, at least partly, to the 12th century), but fell in love with it completely the first time I heard it, every hair standing on end as I did so.

The song evokes strong medieval, Celtic imagery thanks to the echo of bag pipes. It puts me in mind of serious contemplation, and it's a song I can listen to on repeat without growing tired of it. It's that deep contemplation I didn't realize I was in desperate need of this Christmas season: some time to be inspired by the Christ child.

Don't get me wrong, I love being holly-jolly just as much as the next person. In fact, I sometimes think we need that holly-jolliness just to help carry us through the season. When we're stressed to the max over finding that last perfect present, that the majority of our Christmas lights are burnt out, or the fact that our Yule Log cracked and fell apart, or battling mall parking lots...or wondering where our next paycheck is coming from...or mourning the loss of someone near to us; sometimes we just have to plaster a smile on our faces, throw up the tree and decorations, make everything sparkly and bright and down a cup of good cheer, just to get through. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But I realized early on this Christmas season that it wouldn't be enough for me this year. My family is going through its own particular season right now, a season that we've seen before, and one that is neither holly nor jolly. With both my husband and I being entrepreneurs, we're almost guaranteed that we will find seasons like the one we have found ourselves in, and it's difficult to want to be in the "Christmas Spirit." I believe I even have it easier than most in this particular season, because if I have to be in the trenches, there is no one on earth I'd rather be stuck in a trench with than my husband. But still, it's hard to find ourselves in this season again; working our absolute hardest with little to show for it. No one ever said owning your own business would be easy.

Which is why, despite the pretty, glittery decorations, and happy, cheerful music, I find myself drawn to The Wexford Carol over and over again. When I was a child, I believed in Santa Claus for quite a long time. I was that child in the song, creeping out of bed in the small hours, looking under the shade of my window, straining my ears to hear the tap of hooves on the roof, the jingle of bells, a hearty laugh from a man in a red suit. I felt then that I was on the cusp of discovering him, that maybe I really would hear those things. My disappointment was pretty profound when I finally realized that he didn't exist (thanks a lot, kid on the bus in second grade!). For a child with an over-active imagination, it was crushing.

But even after I gave up believing in Santa, I was still drawn for years to my window - face pressed up against the cold glass, waiting, watching, expectant. I wasn't watching for Santa. Though I had long since given up on him, I realized there was still something magical about Christmas Eve. But it was deeper, more meaningful. Holy. Sacred. Ancient. There is nothing ordinary about Jesus' birth. The whole thing is supernatural, not of this world. A deep, ancient, magical occurrence. A promise, in the form of a baby.

Even from the beginning, there is something about this story that makes you sit up straight and take notice. Something in the way John in the wilderness goes about proclaiming to anyone who will listen that makes you realize that something BIG is about to happen: "He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" (Luke 3:1-6)

That's what we've all been waiting on, all this time. That's the season I'm in right now, and maybe you are too. Maybe you're just like me, and all the news from the world and the terrible things that are happening are threatening to overthrow you with fear. Maybe your own life is threatening to overthrow you with fear. But what I was waiting on as a child, and what I need in the deep, quiet, stirring contemplation of Jesus this Christmas season is the mountains and hills to be made low, the crooked places in my life to be made straight, the rough ways smoothed out. But I realize in that contemplation that I'll never get there if I don't first prepare. Baptism prepared us from the beginning, but that's not where the preparation ends. It's not like we can just stop refining our hearts and hope that will be enough.

"Prepare and go, the angels said, to Bethlehem, be not afraid."

"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight..."

That's what The Wexford Carol helps me do in the midst of a crazed season of life, a crazed season of Christmastime, in a world that can feel as though it's coming apart at the seams. It reminds me of the Holy mystery, and tells me to prepare. If I prepare my heart, and trust in God, I know He will uphold me. I'm still a child in my heart, waiting at the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Star, holding on to the ancient truth that sets us all free. That's preparation to me.

Love. Hope. Trust. Charity. Goodwill. Kindness. Above all, kindness. This Christmas season, in the midst of all the rush, parties, programs, and Christmas lights that refuse to light, even though you bought that special contraption just to fix them - take the time to listen to The Wexford Carol, and contemplate the glorious mystery we're presented each year.

You can listen and watch it by clicking HERE.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Mexican Chocolate Pumpkin Pie

I have a serious affinity for pumpkin pie, y'all. Not only is it one of the healthiest desserts you can eat, but it's a perennial Fall favorite in our house. Creamy, dreamy, spicy perfection. I've been making Pumpkin Pies for decades now, and it's no big secret how I do it: One big can of Libby's pumpkin pie mix, follow directions on the back, and ramp up the spices of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and just a smidge more ginger. Yes, you read that right. The Gleeful Gourmand uses a pumpkin pie mix to make her famous pumpkin pie (gasp!). And pre-packaged pie crusts (the horror)! I finish it off with either maple syrup whipped cream, or bourbon whipped cream, and it earns rave reviews every year.

But in the far reaches of my mind, there's been a nagging little voice compelling me to switch up. "It's time," it whispers. "Your pumpkin pie has been done. Let's break free! It will be fun!" I like that little voice. It inspires a lot of creativity. But here's the problem with most Fall pies out there: either they're stuffed with apples (husband is allergic), or stuffed with nuts (husband and kiddos are allergic). That doesn't leave a whole lot left, and the truth is, I'm just not a cheesecake lover (which seems to be your only other option).

What I do love a whole real lot, however, is chocolate. So when I came across this Mexican Chocolate Pumpkin Pie in the latest issue of Better Homes and Gardens Magazine (on newsstands now, Nov. 2015), the little voice got very insistent: "This is the one! This is the one!" Layers of spicy chocolate pumpkin, traditional pumpkin pie, and a glossy finish of chocolate ganache. That's a no-brainer right there! What's not to love in that lineup?

The recipe seemed easy enough the first time I glanced at it, so I decided to not only go for it, but also go for making their Baked Piecrust from scratch. For the first time. That was a big mistake. Though I followed the recipe word for word, measure for measure, I still managed to botch it up completely. I can't even say I psyched myself out, because I was all sorts of confident - right up until I brought the chilled disk of dough out of the refrigerator and started to roll it out. I'm not even sure I can tell you what went wrong, but I can tell you it ended with me clumping it back together after several failed attempts and throwing it in the trash can in a blind rage.

Packaged Pie Crusts to the rescue! This was more like it, though because of the hurry I was in (this was for a Halloween party that was taking place in a few hours), I messed up again and managed to not get that pretty fluted edge I was going for. No matter. The base layer of Mexican chocolate and pumpkin mixture was poured in, followed by the traditional pumpkin pie filling. Here's a note: It calls for a 3.1 oz disc of Mexican chocolate, but I couldn't find it at my regular grocery store. Now I know you can find it at Whole Foods, but if you can't get your hands on some, all I did was take 3 ounces of a semisweet baking bar, and added a pinch of cinnamon, plus a pinch of sugar to it to mimic the flavors of the Mexican chocolate. Also be forewarned that at stores like Whole Foods you're going to find about a hundred different varieties of "Mexican chocolate." I would choose the cinnamon one in the future.

Tell me you don't want to grab that fork and dig in!

While the pie baked, I worked on my chocolate ganache, and finally it was ready to chill out in the fridge until party time. And oh, wow. That first bite? All the notes of pumpkin pie with the richness of chocolate, plus the wonderful notes of heat from chili powder and cayenne - not overwhelming, but rather a low, slow burn of spicy pleasure. Capped off with that topping of decadent ganache, I knew, 100% that my regular pumpkin pie was not going to be making an appearance this Thanksgiving.

Mexican Chocolate Pumpkin Pie

1 baked piecrust*
1 3.1-oz. disc Mexican chocolate
2 Tbsp. butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. mild chili powder
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 15-oz. can pumpkin (plain, not the mix)
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup half-and-half or light cream

1. *Prepare your baked piecrust - you can go online to to get their recipe, or you can use a packaged pie crust and follow their directions for how to pre-bake it.
2. Preheat oven to 350˚F. In a small saucepan heat chocolate and butter over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, just until melted; set aside to cool. In a large bowl combine brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice, salt, chili powder, and cayenne. Stir in pumpkin and eggs until combined. Gradually stir in half-and-half until combined.
3. Stir 1 1/2 cups of the pumpkin mixture into the cooled chocolate mixture. Pour into the baked piecrust. Pour remaining pumpkin mixture over chocolate layer. Cover edges with foil. Bake 60 minutes or until edges are puffed and center appears set. Cool on a wire rack. Spoon Chocolate Ganache over the top. Sprinkle with grated chocolate and chili powder if desired, and chill within 2 hours. Makes 8 servings.
Chocolate Ganache: In a small bowl place 3.1 oz. chipped semisweet chocolate and 1/4 tsp. cinnamon. In a small saucepan bring 1/4 cup whipping cream to simmering; pour over chocolate. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir until smooth.

Mexican Chocolate Pie.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Rose's Luxury - Worth the Wait

Once a year, I get to take a just-for-me weekend. For the past couple of years, this means heading up to D.C. to see one of my best friends, Elizabeth, and having all sorts of fun doing cultural and fine dining stuff.

And by that, I mean we sit around drinking, watching The Sound of Music.

Seriously, though, every year I have one or two restaurants on my "D.C. Bucket List" that I absolutely have to go try. Last year it was a toss-up between Toki Underground and Rose's Luxury. Toki won out, which you can read about here. We made the right choice, as I still dream about the exquisite ramen there. Toki had been mentioned many times in the press, but it was Rose's that was named by Bon Appétit as the best restaurant in the country for 2014.

The best restaurant in the country, and it was only 2 hours away? It was a no-brainer for this weekend.

Interior of Rose's Luxury. Photo courtesy of The Washington Post.
So on Saturday we got our rear ends in gear to get across town before 5 p.m. Why so early? Rose's Luxury does not take reservations, and even though the space is two stories (with limited outside seating), it's rather small, so people start lining up before the doors ever open (Sound familiar? That's exactly what we did last year at Toki Underground). Regrettably, we had transitioned from a morning of Body Combat (ouch) into deciding that lunch, the rest of The Sound of Music, and then the first season of Arrested Development, plus a bottle of white wine was in order. We were the antithesis of "rushing."

We arrived at the untimely hour of 5:15 and were greeted with a line that stretched down the block. After waiting for about 30 minutes, we were informed after putting our names on a list that we'd probably be seated at 9 p.m. However, because the upstairs bar also serves full dinner, we were encouraged to put our name on their list too, which we immediately did. This turned out to be a very wise move because we only had an hour wait to be seated there, which we killed by going next door and ordering drinks and some light appetizers. So really, I can't stress this enough: Put your name on both lists. Don't assume that you can stand behind people at said bar and expect to be served as soon as people vacate their seats (more on this later).

The restaurant is gorgeous - downstairs it's airy and bright with a vintage, yet rustic feel to it, and upstairs there's a cool, buzzy vibe thanks to the excitement of the bar area. We were warmly greeted, and immediately ordered drinks (I got a sparkling Chenin Blanc, hedging my bets it would go well with a variety of dishes we were ordering). All of the staff at Rose's Luxury was so accommodating, and genuinely happy and eager to serve. Their service immediately set the restaurant apart in our eyes. With a continuous crush of people on a busy weekend, they could have been grumpy, tired, and just trying to make it through. There was none of that - just super affable bartenders and servers, which made us feel pretty special. We hadn't been sitting very long before a waitress delivered a small loaf of some of the most delicious bread I've ever had. I want to say it was brioche, but honestly, I couldn't tell you. It came with a generous quenelle of softened butter sprinkled with chives and crumbled bacon. The slight sweetness of the bread, mingling with the salty bacon and fresh herbs was fantastic.

The bread at Rose's Luxury. Heaven help me, that bread!

And that was just the bread. Rose's serves mostly small plates designed to share, but they also offer a family-style type of meal too. Since we had already indulged in some appetizers next door (nothing works up an appetite like standing in a long line), we chose some of the smaller plates. We started with their Pork Sausage, Habanero, Peanuts, and Lychee Salad. To say I loved it was an understatement. Sweet thanks to the lychee fruit and whipped coconut milk; spicy, savory, and crunchy; it all worked together beautifully. We moved on to their Cicerchie Bean Salad with confit goat and marinated tomatoes. This was also excellent, but the beans were a little too crunchy for my taste. Next up was their famed Pasta with Strawberry and Tomato Sauce. I was most eager to try this since it sounded so unique, and it delivered. The sweetness of the strawberries and tomatoes rounded out the spiciness of the dish in a near-perfect marriage. I never would have thought strawberries could work in pasta, but Rose's Luxury made a believer out of me.

So back to what I was saying about standing behind people hoping to get a seat once they vacate, without putting your name on a list. This was the only downside of the evening, and it had nothing to do with the restaurant itself, but it is a cautionary tale of what you can expect when dining at a bar. There was an older, nattily dressed man standing behind us next to another couple who were standing having drinks, and this man really, really wanted a seat at the bar. So he stood there, the entire time we ate, making comments, taking endless pictures over my shoulder (Was he taking pictures of the bartenders? My food? My actual shoulder? I couldn't tell, but it was annoying), and growing increasingly agitated. I half expected him to stick his head in between us and ask if we were done eating yet. When we finally ordered dessert, he audibly sighed in disgust. And then took more pictures.

We tried to ignore him as we enjoyed our Corn Creme Brûlée, which was beyond excellent. Imagine the best, freshest corn pudding you've ever had, caramelize the top, and serve it with marinated blueberries. Honestly, it was out-of-the-box thinking (but not as out-of-the-box as their Eggplant Tarte Tatin - sorry, but yuck. I hate eggplant), and it was a revelation. My one and only complaint would have been that there was nothing chocolatey on the dessert menu, and everyone loves a good chocolate dessert (chocolate good, caramelized eggplant...well...).

Corn Creme Brûlée, with berries.

We finished our meal with a deep sigh of satisfaction, shied away from the man at my shoulder who was now saying, "We've been waiting FOREVER. When are we going to get a seat?!" which was curious since he was all alone; paid our bill and walked happily away. I hope that man, like us, had a most excellent meal, and finally learned that most important lesson my mother routinely repeated throughout my childhood: Patience is a virtue. Especially when it comes to Rose's Luxury.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Unvirtuous Salad

I eat a lot of salads. I LOVE salads. The bigger the better. But not all salads are created equal, and the ones I stick to are usually the healthiest, the ones that would probably bore the grand majority of America: dark leafy greens, loaded with tons of veggies (beets, especially!), a hard boiled egg for protein, lightly salted pumpkin seeds for extra crunch, fresh herbs like parsley, and scant dressing.

I seldom order salads at restaurants since most of them bear no resemblance to a healthy salad. But sometimes you just want to, as Elaine from Seinfeld would say, dive into a Big Salad. So I construct my own, and thereby get to control exactly what goes into it.

I am a paragon of healthy salad eating, am I not?

No. I'm not. Not really. Because here's what's been taking up residence in my head since early summer when salads are better than ever thanks to fresh produce: a salad with FRIES on it. And not just any fries. CHEESE FRIES, y'all.

Let me explain. I grew up in a wonderful planned community that was situated right on a gorgeous lake. My house was a 15 minute walk to that lake, and right next to where all the boats were kept was a restaurant called Sunday's. I loved biking to Sunday's with my pals for ice cream or cheese sticks when I was a kid, and going to Sunday brunch with my family. But when I was a teenager and into my college years, one of my favorite things to do was have lunch with my mom there on warm Spring and Summer afternoons, sitting on their sun-dappled deck overlooking the lake.

And our favorite thing to eat during those lunches was a really big salad. Imagine it with me: fresh, crisp lettuce; ripe tomatoes; blackened grilled chicken; and fries smothered in cheese. I don't know who the genius was who decided that cheese fries belonged on a salad, but we wanted to shake their hand heartily and possibly build them a shrine. The cool freshness of the veggies, the spicy kick of the blackened chicken, and a light Honey Poppyseed Dressing all worked with the decadent, sumptuous cheese fries. Salty, spicy, sweet. Tender and crisp all at the same time. It was a bowl full of contrasting textures and flavors that all mingled perfectly somehow.

The Unvirtuous Salad.

To this day, it's the one salad that has stuck with me because of how delicious it was. Sometimes I have been known to order a salad at Chick-Fil-A and sneak a fry or two from my kids, and shred it into a (mostly) virtuous salad. But I knew I could do better. I had to reconstruct my favorite dish from so long ago. So I brought a whole mess of ingredients over to my mom's house this week to attempt it.

There were definitely some things I wanted to switch up from that original salad. The first is that I really don't like blackened anything. Not only do I not want to eat it anymore, I don't want to make it either. So right away I had to figure out what would account for the spicy factor. I wanted to throw the chicken on the grill but we've been rained out since last Friday, so that was out of the question. I bathed some chicken breasts in a spicy mesquite BBQ sauce, and baked them on 350˚ for about 30 minutes so that they were super juicy and tender. I decided to make the star of the show - the fries - a little healthier by buying a high-end brand of baked, nearly fat free fries. I baked them according to the directions on the package and then at the very end hit them with some freshly grated colby-jack cheese.

The dressing I used was - gasp! - bottled Honey Poppyseed Dressing. Yes, fellow Gourmands. I used bottled dressing and packaged french fries. I can feel the disappointment rolling off of you as you read those words. And I'm ashamed (I'm not, really, but I have to say that to protect my image).

The salad was the BOMB. It was fantastic, and definitely fulfilled my nostalgic jones as my mom and stepdad and I munched on this most unvirtuous of salads. If I had to do it again, I'd lightly brush the chicken with vegetable or canola oil, and dust it with a bit of Creole seasoning like Tony Chachere's before grilling it. Or I'd switch the cheese up to a Pepperjack to bring out that spicy component that was missing. That's the beauty of this salad though - you can literally do whatever you want with it to make it your own.

Just don't forget the cheese fries.

The Unvirtuous Salad

• 1 or 2 heads romaine lettuce
• 1-2 cups cherry or heirloom grape tomatoes, halved
• 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
• 3 chicken breasts, cooked to your preference (grilled with spices, marinaded and baked, etc.)
• 1 packaged frozen french fries
• 6 oz. colby-jack cheese, shredded
• Dressing of your choice (I used Honey Poppyseed)

Assemble salad except for fries and chicken. When the fries are just about done, sprinkle with shredded cheese and bake for about 5 minutes longer. Cook chicken to your liking, then slice thinly and place on top of the salad. Serve. Eat. Swoon. Repeat.
Serves: 4-5

Monday, September 14, 2015

Exploring Serbian Cuisine

Y'all, if I've said it once on this blog, I have said it at least a hundred times: I love our neighborhood. We are surrounded by some of the kindest, funniest, fun-loving, and interesting people I've ever met. About 2 1/2 years ago, our friends Nash and Sandra moved in a few doors down with their daughter, Marina, and one on the way (Andrea). Getting to know them has truly been a joy, and thanks to them, I've expanded my global cuisine knowledge a little bit further!

Sandra and Nash are from Serbia, and Sandra and I have often talked about foods from her homeland, and the types of things Serbians traditionally eat. Sandra doesn't love cooking, but she had mentioned to me a few times that her mother, Jela, is an excellent cook, and that the next time they came for a visit, she would invite us for a meal that her mother would cook so I could understand Serbian cuisine first-hand.

Friends, that day came one Saturday a couple of weeks ago when I had the great fortune of not only watching Jela work to make an incredible meal, but got to sit down and enjoy some fabulous food (and wine!) with their family and ours.

In order to really understand traditional Serbian fare, Jela prepared a feast for us that would normally be served during a celebration meal in Serbia called Slava, a religious celebration meal for a family's particular Saint. In Serbia, each household has a Saint that they celebrate on their particular day, and the family inherits the Saint from the Father's side of the family. Sandra's family celebrates Saint George (of military prowess, dragon-slaying, and Christian martyrdom fame) with a huge feast. And even though it wasn't technically Saint George's Day (that takes place in April), I was honored to take part in this feast.

Sandra, and her Mother, Jela

Jela, Sandra's Mother, learned to cook from her own Mother, and her love of cooking grew over time as she continued to cook for her own family. She still remembers everything her Mother taught her, especially how to make fresh bread and the way to knead the dough correctly. Jela reminded me very much of my Grandmother: An excellent cook who prefers to work alone in the kitchen. What she was eager to show me, however, was how some of the more traditional Serbian dishes were prepared, especially Sarma: cabbage leaves stuffed with a mixture of ground meats, spices, rice, shredded carrots, and something I had never heard or seen before, parsley root (which looks like a parsnip, but isn't). The main spice component in Serbian food is paprika, followed closely by Vegeta, which is an all-purpose seasoning containing all sorts of interesting powders including parsnip, onion, potato, celery, parsley, sugar, and nutmeg. Vegeta is used in almost any dish where seasonings need to be ramped up. As it turns out, Vegeta is from Croatia, which emphasizes how Serbian cuisine pulls from a wide variety of characteristics shared by neighboring countries and regions such as The Balkans, the Mediterranean, Turkey, and Central Europe (especially Austria and Hungary).

Creating the Sarma, or stuffed Cabbage Rolls
But back to the Sarma. It was a pleasure watching Jela work as her hands moved deftly to fill the pickled and wilted cabbage leaves with just the right amount of filling, roll them up, and tuck the ends in tenderly as if tucking a child into bed. After decades of making this dish, she has become a Sarma Queen, able to stuff, roll, and layer in a big pot based all on memory, with nary a recipe card in sight (Or measuring cups and spoons. I loved that she used a pretty teacup to do her measuring). She studded the first layer with huge cloves of garlic and bay leaves, and on top of that, slices of bacon. Each layer repeated until the pot was full, and the final step was a generous dash of paprika (if it's added before, it has an ample opportunity to burn), more cabbage leaves and a bit of water before the lid was put in place.

When that was finished and simmering happily away on the stovetop (for two hours), Jela moved on to finishing up the first course, a chicken soup with thin noodles, and then to the main dish - roasted pork tenderloin. Traditionally for a feast such as this, the family (especially if they lived out in the countryside) would roast a whole pig or lamb on a spit outside (called Pecenje), but since Sandra's parents had long lived in the city, Jela took a different approach. Fileting two pork tenderloins, and beating them until thin, she first slathered them with cream cheese, then added a layer of bacon. Next came a sprinkling of mozzarella cheese, and thinly sliced dill pickles. The whole tenderloin was then rolled up carefully (reminding me a little of a beef braciole), tied together, and baked in the oven for an hour or so.

Pork tenderloin, with cream cheese, bacon, mozzarella, and sliced dill pickles

During the course of a Serbian feast such as this, each dish is served in its own proper time with its own accouterments. The soup came first, served with some good, crusty bread; and next the Sarma, which was served with a plain greek-style yogurt, perfect for cutting the richness with a nice tang. Next was the pork tenderloin, which was so delicious - every mouthful was bursting with flavor. This was served with a traditional bean dish, a sauerkraut-type dish of shredded, pickled cabbage, and cold roasted red peppers. Sauvignon Blanc and Médoc were the order of the day for wine.

Finally, we were presented with a Serbian dessert called Pita (their version of a pie). Traditional Pita is very similar to filo (or phyllo) pastry, and is often made from scratch, but Jela related to me that more often than not, most people either buy frozen filo pastry from the store, or buy it already made from their local bakery. This made me feel a lot better about using pre-made pie crusts myself. Pita is a pastry usually filled with a sweetened cheese, but it can also be filled with fruit, which is what Jela did, with diced apples, sugar, and cinnamon. Rolled and baked to a golden brown, the texture reminded me of a crepe, and was dusted with powdered sugar. It was absolutely delicious, and the perfect ending to a great meal.

Pita, a Serbian dessert, filled with apples and cinnamon.

Are you ready to try your hand at a traditional Serbian dish? This delicious bean dish was served alongside the pork, and it was a favorite amongst our kids. Recipe courtesy of Sandra, and her Mother, Jela.

Prebranac (Serbian Baked Beans)

• 1 pound dried white beans
• 2 large onions, diced
• 1 tsp. Vegeta seasoning
• 1 tsp. ground pepper
• Salt (to taste)
• 3-4 whole bay leaves
• 1/2 cup sunflower or vegetable oil
• 2 tsp. sweet red paprika
• Ground chili pepper (optional for those who like it spicy)


Put beans in a lot of water until boiling. Once boiling, drain the beans, change the water, and add salt and bay leaves. Cook again until almost done. The beans need to stay whole. Drain the beans, but reserve 1 cup of the cooking water and set aside.

In a large skillet, heat oil and and sauté onions until translucent. Add Vegeta, salt, and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and add paprika. In a rectangular glass or clay dish, put one layer of beans, then one layer of onion mixture, continuing until everything is used but the onion mix, which should be the top layer.

Pour 1 cup of leftover boiled water and bake at 400˚ for about 30 minutes.

Prebranac, Serbian Baked Beans

Friday, August 21, 2015

Crispy Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

My Mom firmly believed in encouraging me in every project I wanted to tackle in the kitchen from the earliest age. Her Mother had been the type of woman who loved cooking, but didn't want anyone helping, or tasting, or judging. Everyone had to stay out of the kitchen...until it was time to clean up, that is. Mom, therefore, was a self-taught cook who found her way, one recipe at a time. Everyone was welcome in my Mom's kitchen, and if you wanted to help, all you had to do was grab a spoon.

I can remember stirring things from a very early age, asking questions, and having her explain things to me as I watched her. As soon as I was tall enough to clear the counter and handle a knife, she gave me her old 1950s Better Homes & Gardens Junior Cookbook to look at. I loved that book, and tackled a couple of recipes from it one at a time. Easy recipes like an Apple Crisp (if you haven't been reading this blog for very long, I have to interject a funny story about that I've told before: In the cookbook, it ecstatically boasted that if you gave Dad a wedge of cheddar cheese with his Apple Crisp, you'd get a pleased smile and a hearty thanks. Or something. Well, that sounded good to me, but I had no idea why, and had no good hunk of cheese lying around. So I served my Dad his slice of Apple Crisp with a Kraft Singles slice. I didn't get a pleased was more like bewilderment until I showed him the book. Then he laughed. A lot.). There were super easy cookies to make in that book, salads, drinks, casseroles that required no real work...kid stuff.

But what I really wanted to do was move past the easy recipes and try my hand at what I thought was a complicated recipe. My Mother, for as long as I can remember, had been making these Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies that were exquisite. Crispy on the outside, but just slightly chewy on the inside, they're the kind you can't stop eating. The kind that makes you want to take the dough, bowl and all, into the next room and devour as you watch movies. The kind that when we had a young Parisian family friend stay with us for 3 months, the first thing he would do each morning was sit in front of the cookie jar and eat a stack of them (I wasn't his Mom, and he was 20, so who was I to interject? Live and let live, is what I say. As long as it's not my kid. But I digress). This recipe had real measuring requirements going on, which is why I thought it was so complicated. It had all sorts of terms I didn't know about: What did it mean to cream the butter? Why did you have to mix the dry ingredients separately? Why did it even matter if the dry ingredients were added to the wet, instead of just tossing it all in at the same time?

I very vividly remember trying to measure things out, and stay on top of the recipe's steps, all the while shouting for my Mother's help as she sat in the family room, no doubt trying to relax. I haven't asked her, but I can surmise that she was probably thrilled that I wanted to make cookies for the family, and was eager to give me a project so she could put her feet up. Too bad, Mom. Because I had questions about everything. But she was very firm that she was not going to sit in the kitchen with me. I had to figure some of this stuff out for myself. That was the beginning of my love of baking right there - knowing what an exact science it was, and trying to figure out what went wrong when it turns out less-than-perfect.

If memory serves, the cookies came out pretty well that first time, if not slightly burned. Mom swore she loved the burnt ones. What a great teacher she was (and still is). I made a lot of things over the years, but this recipe was the one I kept coming back to, trying to make it better each time. Today, they are my family's favorite cookie. They make a tremendous amount (10 dozen) so they are my go-to for taking down to the Beach, or whenever anyone needs a big batch of cookies. My kids have helped me countless times to make them; and I love that someday, when they're ready, they might make this the first recipe they try all on their own.

The recipe originally came from Southern Living in who knows what year, but my Mother modified it quite a lot to make it her own.

Crispy Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

• 1 cup butter, softened
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
• 1 egg
• 1 cup vegetable oil
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 tsp. baking soda
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 2 cups regular oats, uncooked
• 1/2 a bag of mini chocolate chips 

1) Cream butter; gradually add sugars, beating well at medium speed.

2) Add egg and beat well; add oil and vanilla, mixing well on medium-low speed.

3) Combine flour, soda, and salt; add to creamed mixture, mixing well. Stir in oats and chocolate chips.

4) Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place on ungreased cookie sheets, and flatten each ball gently with tines of a fork (I don't flatten completely, just a smidge).

5) Bake at 325˚ for 15 minutes. Cool slightly; remove from cookie sheets and cool on wire racks.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Venison Meatball Subs

I'm excited to have my husband, Buck, as my guest blogger this week! With Fall right around the corner and our venison supply dangerously dwindling, we thought it was time to get all you hunters and game lovers excited with one of our favorite dishes. I'll admit it, sometimes I get a little exasperated at hunting season. Buck tries to go hunting during the week as much as he can (that's easy to do when you own your company!) but it takes him away from us on weekends too. With three young kiddos, it's not always my favorite pastime of his. But it's hard to stay exasperated when he comes home with enough meat to fill a freezer, and then takes that meat and makes us gourmet meal after gourmet meal. Honestly, it's a win/win situation for me! Without further ado, here's Buck:

I guess with a name like "Buck," it was inevitable that I would one day I would become a hunter. The fact is that growing up in L.A., it wasn't something I was exposed to until well into my teens, and even then it wasn't for the whitetail deer that are so plentiful here in my "home" state of Virginia. But since transplanting and making myself at home in the Old Dominion, there's no season of the year that I look forward to with more excitement and anticipation than hunting season... and seeing as how we're right on the transom of that wonderful time of the year (urban archery starts in September... yeah!), Jenna asked me to write about one of my specialties: Venison Meatball Subs!

Capturing the Meatball Sub process.
First of all, I want to address something that I hear all the time whenever I tell folks that I'm going to be making venison. I'm constantly asked, "doesn't it taste kind of gamey?!"  When it comes to a "gamey" taste to venison, or any number of other wild meats, I think it's important to point out that the meat itself does not have that kind of taste. However, unlike domestic beef, pork or other meats that are slaughtered and processed in a very contained and consistent environment, when it comes to wild meat, there are a HUGE number of factors that can influence the flavor of the end product. Where was the animal shot? Was it cleaned properly/quickly? How warm was the weather and how quickly was it processed and refrigerated? Trust me, I've seen guys who shoot a deer and then leave it out all day in the sun on days not cold enough to keep it properly preserved - in my mind, it's a complete waste because the meat, while it might still be safe to eat, isn't going to taste nearly as good as if they'd immediately cooled it, cleaned it, and taking it for professional processing. So when you do come across "gamey" tasting deer, elk, or moose, don't blame the animal...blame the hunter who didn't treat it properly!

So with that rant out of the way, here's how I make my delicious venison meatballs. As I said the other day - only realizing after the fact what a seemingly bawdy statement I'd just made - "My meatballs are so good, I'd put them up against anyone else's!"  Well, there's no need for us to mash our meatballs, but I do think you'll be extremely surprised to taste just how flavorful and satisfying these meatball subs are.

Venison Meatball Sub

1 lb venison sausage
1 lb ground pork
1 green pepper (diced)
1 yellow onion (diced)
1 box of mushrooms (sliced)
3 cloves of garlic (chopped)
1 bottle marinara sauce (whichever you prefer)
1 egg (beaten)Spices, including ground pepper, garlic salt, and Creole spice blend (we use a brand called Tony Chachere's... it's outstanding!) to taste
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese1 cup Italian bread crumbs
4 Tbsp. of butter (divided in half)
Olive oil (3-4 Tbsp.)
Sub or Hoagie rolls
Sliced Provolone cheese

• Sweat the onions over medium-low heat in 2 Tbsp. butter and 2 Tbsp. olive oil. Once they start to turn clear, add your garlic and green peppers. Cook until the peppers soften a bit, then add the mushrooms. After about 2-3 minutes, pull the sauté pan off the heat and pour your marinara sauce into a medium pot. Add all of the cooked veggies to the sauce and heat over a low temperature.

• Take your venison sausage and ground pork and combine them in a large mixing bowl. Add the breadcrumbs, spices, and beaten egg, mixing very thoroughly (I do this by hand, but I suppose it could be done in a mixer as well... but what fun is that?!). Once you've got everything well mixed (you can tell the pork from the venison as the latter is quite dark, while the pork is very want to make sure each meatball has about an equal amount of both to get the right flavor and fat ratio), start to form the meatballs. You want them to be small enough to fit into the palm of your hand and as close to equal size as possible so that they will all cook at a consistent rate.  

• Heat up a large pan (I prefer a cast iron skillet) over medium-high heat. Add 2 Tbsp. of butter. Once you see the butter bubbling, add in the meatballs. Brown the meatballs on all sides so that they are brown all over. Once browned, remove pan from the heat.

• Slice your rolls and "hollow" them out a bit by removing some of the bread on the inside - you want to have plenty of room for the meatballs to sit inside the bread (much like a "toad in the hole" sandwich). Depending on the size of your rolls, you should be able to get 2-3 meatballs per roll. Pour some of the marinara and veggie sauce on top, then place the Provolone cheese on top. Put the rolls on a baking sheet and pop them in the broiler for about 2-3 minutes.  Once the cheese starts to brown on top, you know they are ready.  

Slightly spicy, loaded with veggies and provolone - what's not to love?

Grab yourself a cold, frosty beverage and dig right in... they're delicious, I promise!! You just need to be "game" to give 'em a try!

(and Buck)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Good evening, friends!! Well, it took me long enough, but I finally got around to making that Facebook Page I've been meaning to do for oh...umm....(looks at calendar....starts mumbling...). *Cough* Let's just say lots longer than I ever meant. I don't have a button for it yet up there to your right -- Yeah! Look up there! Lots of buttons for you to click and connect to The GG with! -- but I hope to have it up there soon. In the meantime, you can find it by clicking here:

Come on, you know you want to! I'll be updating the page regularly and sharing fun foodie content, more rambling musings, and photos not found here on the blog, and hoping to connect even more with all of YOU! I'm super excited to have interesting conversations about our favorite subject, so I hope you'll hop on over, LIKE the page and strike up a chat! You just never know what you're going to find over there!

See you there, friends!

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Power Of Saying Yes

I know it's been awhile since I've posted - I had one full, fantastic week of co-directing our Church's Vacation Bible School, which took up an enormous amount of time and energy, and then the day after it ended, we headed to the Outer Banks in N.C. for our yearly week-long vacation. And wow, was it ever fabulous!

You may remember this post last year around this time about how 2014's vacation didn't go according to plan. This vacation was so much better. First of all, no hurricanes! And no sick kids! And there were sharks, but we weren't worried (much). This was the first vacation I've had in about 4 years where I actually felt like it was a true vacation. My darling husband worked hard to make sure that I enjoyed time with my rear planted in a chair with a book in my hand by taking care of the kids. He told me he could literally see the stress rolling off me. I felt it, too.

On our first full day of our vacation, the skies were heavy with gray clouds and the beach was deserted. Buck had some business he needed to get done, so my Mom and I took the kids to see the Corolla Lighthouse, something my son had requested a few times that he'd really love to see. It's a truly beautiful lighthouse. Maybe not quite as iconic as the one in Cape Hatteras, but beautiful nonetheless. I knew the girls were too small to climb up to the top, and my Mom wouldn't be able to make it either, but Liam was interested, so up we went.

At the Corolla Lighthouse, Corolla, N.C.

I was excited to climb with him because I remember climbing it when I was a kid, and how thrilling it was to stand at the top and take in the glorious views of the Sound and Ocean with the wind whipping all around you. But Liam, who is the type of person who likes to hang back and observe before jumping into situations, was nervous as we started up the winding staircase. "What if I fall?" He asked nervously. "What if I can't do it?" 

"You're not going to fall," I promised him. "That's what the handrails are for. And listen, we'll stop at every landing (which were about every 15 steps) and take a break. You can do this!" We did just that, peeking out the windows at each landing, and reading the history of the lighthouse as we went. The higher we went, the more his confidence grew. When we finally exited the small doorway out onto the platform circling the light, he was ecstatic. He raised his hands in victory and whooped, "We did it!" I couldn't help but grin from ear-to-ear.

We did it! At the top of the Corolla Lighthouse.
After our wonderful lighthouse experience, I had some time to think. It occurred to me that the way we worked our way up the lighthouse was a pretty good analogy for what my life looks like recently. You see, when I gave birth to the girls four years ago, I retreated into myself in a way I had never done before. I was in survival mode for a full year, on autopilot. I still blogged, I tried to write, and I hung out with friends and family like nothing was amiss. But something was and I didn't realize it until they turned 1 year old. I looked back on their birthday and saw how I had been living like a hermit. How I had retreated, not from the realities of life, but from my own self. I felt like I was coming out of a fog, and that I could start to reclaim me.

And then we lost our company. Or rather, my husband lost his company, the one he had worked so hard to build over 13 years.

What followed were years of more survival, of trying to get back on our feet. Of trying to make sense of it all, to manage the crushing stress, to get back on solid ground when we felt like every time we moved forward a little, we would get knocked back down - and all the while trying to shield our kids. It's not easy to write about this stuff. I felt helpless as a stay-at-home mom of 3. I don't know if you realize this, but writers don't make much money to begin with. I wasn't making any. And while I realize that I was contributing so much to my family that wasn't monetary, I couldn't help but feel anxious and awful that I had nothing to give in the times when we were foundering.

This year the girls started Preschool 3 days a week, and I found my time opened up a little bit. I had the time now to put my head above the water line and examine my life, my career, and all the things I was doing (or wasn't doing) to help myself. There were things I could have been doing all along to help myself, but I wasn't. Every time I faced a new challenge, I simply felt overwhelmed and tired. I found myself in a weird transitional place where going back to work meant a paycheck that went directly to paying for daycare, and my old standby of freelance writing from home wasn't panning out.

And then I noticed on Facebook a childhood friend of mine posting a lot about a skincare line called Rodan+Fields ( She started talking about the type of money one could make for basically doing nothing more than washing your face, taking care of your skin, and talking about it. It sounded too good to be true. I asked my husband if he had ever heard of it, and boy, had he ever. It turns out that Doctors Rodan and Fields were the genius creators behind Proactiv, and Buck had worked with them when he was working for the advertising agency they used years and years ago. The product of Rodan+Fields, and the science behind it was legit, that much we both knew. And the results were real. I knew that too.

I talked to my friend quite a lot and asked a lot of questions, and did some research. But still, I hemmed and hawed. At a certain point, though, I realized that much like my writing, when I've lost confidence in the quality of my work, or lost all hope that I'll ever be published, I was standing in my own way. I was Liam, standing at the bottom of the lighthouse, looking up at all those steps saying, "What if I can't do it? What if I fall?"

It's a long way down, baby.
Why is it that the advice we give to our kids is so great, and we expect them to believe it, but we can't accept it for ourselves?

"You won't fall, I promise. You can do this, I promise. Don't let fear hold you back. Let's do this!"

This year, I've decided to say "yes" more than "no." When the girls were babies and wee toddlers, I got into the habit of saying "no" to just about everything. It was that tiredness thing, the overwhelming thing. The confidence thing. So I said "yes" to co-directing Vacation Bible School, even though I didn't have the first clue what I was doing. It turned out to be awesome, and I made connections and friends in my Church that I had been lacking for a long time. I said "yes" to putting my novel out there more than ever to agents, contests, and everything that scares me because of rejection. I've gotten amazingly positive feedback so far in the form of judges and professionals that are telling me I really do have something worthy of being published. And I've said "yes" to being a Consultant for Rodan+Fields. Because...why not? It's something I believe in. I'm only on day 4, so I'll get back to you on my progress.

The power of saying "yes" when all I want to do is scream "no," is awesome. "No" was my default. "No" didn't get me anywhere.

"What if I fall? What if I can't do it?"

"You can do it. We'll take it a few steps at a time, landing by landing. You'll see. We'll be at the top in no time."

P.S. - This blog will not become a space for selling Rodan+Fields. The Gleeful Gourmand will continue to be strictly a food blog. I'm in the process of adding even more things to bring The GG to the masses, like a brand-new Facebook page, and e-mail subscription for the blog! But, if you do want to discover more about how Rodan+Fields can change your skin and your life, please don't hesitate to shoot me an e-mail. I'd love to talk to you!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Beachy Birthday Party

It's been party central around here lately! First was the Champagne Brunch, which launched us right into the last week of school. Friday afternoon we had a fun end-of-the-year party for all the kids in the neighborhood by shooting them with water guns as they stepped off the bus, and then stuffing them full of pizza and watermelon.

The very next day was my twin girls' 4th birthday party. 4 years old. I so remember being in the thick of that newborn haze, wondering how I was make it through with not one, but two tiny babes. I remember trying to imagine what it was going to be like when they were 4 years old (the age my son had been rapidly approaching at the time), and not being able to pull a picture up in my mind. And now here we are, and it's hard for me to recall the days of two babies at once without looking at pictures. Mostly I just remember the feeling of being overwhelmed, putting my head down, and powering through that first year.

These 4-year-old girls are spunky, and funny, and bright, and make each day a joy. They have wildly different personalities, and it's been fascinating to see them grow up as twins, and best friends. Of course, there are days when they are more like mortal enemies than best friends, but I get the feeling that would be the case with any siblings who share a room and almost all their time together. They may get frustrated with each other, but after a few moments of separation, they're desperate to be back together.

Anyway, what to do for the big 4-year-old girls for their birthday? I had always wanted to do an outdoor party for them, and this would be the first time some of their friends were invited to come in addition to family. Thanks to Pinterest, I already had a few ideas rolling around in my brain for a fun, mostly cheap Beachy Birthday Party.

The party table with decorations from Party City and Hobby Lobby.

First, I borrowed an inflatable pool from one of our neighbors (and also party guest) that had a small slide and several sprinklers attached to it. My Mom, in a fit of summer fun, also bought us a super cool slip n' slide that was lightyears better than the plastic sheet we had purchased a couple of years ago. We put both of these on the front lawn, along with a bucket full of water balloons, and another bucket of water guns.

For the decorations, I got two large dolphin balloons with smaller balloons in different colors to grace the front steps. They're now in our foyer, eyeing us suspiciously from the bannisters ("They're watching me," Buck told me last night while we watched TV. "I just know it.").

I decked out a table with a vinyl Hawaiian print tablecloth, and a cheap burlap-type material runner to go down the middle. At Hobby Lobby I found some cute decorations that were almost all around 50% off. Two small ceramic fish, a cute pink sailboat (all of which are now doubling as decorations in the kids' bathroom), and some palm trees from Party City that were supposed to be balloon holders, but I thought made cute additions. Hawaiian-type napkins and plates from Party City also did nicely, and of course I had our Hawaiian Mix playing on the Bose System.

The Food! Since their party was in the late afternoon, but well before dinnertime, I only had a few fun snacks on hand. There were "Fish & Chips," potato chips and Goldfish mixed in a purchased sand pail with a corresponding shovel, big slices of ice-cold watermelon, and Flip Flop Cookies.

Cute Flip Flop Cookies!

These were the cutest cookies ever, and SO simple. All you do is take a package of Vienna Fingers and use decorating gel in different colors to make the "straps" of the flip flops. If I had to do it over, I would use actual icing, since the gel was a bit messy and runny. For the "sand" the flip flops were lying on, I fluffed up some light brown sugar. I also packed the brown sugar into a curved highball glass, and then turned it out, making a little sandcastle that I stuck a drink umbrella in.

Their drinks were also really fun: "Ocean Water." Comprised of nothing more than two big bottles of Sierra Mist, and half a huge bottle of Hawaiian Punch Frozen Blast (or some such dreadful blue concoction), it was a big, sugary hit with the 4-year-olds. I froze Swedish Fish in muffin tins filled with water, and they "floated" in the ocean water. I also plunked a frozen Swedish Fish in each cup, because why not?

"Ocean Water" drinks with Swedish Fish.

Cupcakes. Dear readers, get ready to gasp. The cupcakes were from a mix. A MIX. And the icing was from a can. Yes. You read that right. I botched the buttercream icing I made for them (it curdled) and had to resort to canned icing. To add injury to insult, the foodie gods must have realized what a cheat this "gourmand" was because while I was moving the cupcakes from the kitchen to the front door, half of them slid off the cupcake stand and landed unceremoniously on my carpet. Epic.

The day was brutally hot. The ice in the Ocean Water melted immediately, and all the Swedish Fish sank down to the depths of Davy Jones's Locker...otherwise known as the bottom of my drink dispenser, whereupon they began to congeal and dissolve. The water balloons broke almost as soon as the kids' hands touched them so the water balloon toss was a bust (pun intended). Thunder and dark clouds threatened, things blew away, and the girls hated their cupcakes (foodie snobs already!).

But you know what? We had a great time. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of squeals of joy, and at least one tiny tike ate her weight in Fish & Chips and watermelon. I'd say it was a success.

I even managed to get the canned icing out of my carpet.

The Birthday Girls, minutes before they chucked their cupcakes in the trash.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Champagne Brunch

Have you ever played Bunco? When we first moved into our neighborhood 10 years ago, I had never heard of the game. A group of older ladies invited me to play, and I was excited to finally meet some of our new neighbors. I'll never forget walking in the door later that night, and trying to think of what to say when my husband asked how the actual game was.

"It's fun, I guess. There's nothing to it, though. It's a nothing game. There's no strategy, no thinking. But the snacks are good, and so are the drinks."

"So you had a good time?" He asked.

"Yes. But, if we have to play a game to socialize, why couldn't we play Trivial Pursuit, or something like that?"

I was mystified. I love games, but this one was lost on me. Or so I thought. 10 years later, and so many rounds of Bunco I can't even count, I get it. It's a nothing game, where you don't really have to think (unless you're the one keeping score during play. Let me tell you, a couple of glasses of wine in, and keeping score gets hard). And that is precisely the point: Good friends, yummy food, great drinks, and just a chance to get together and hang out, take a break, roll the dice, and laugh. It's a nothing game and it's fun.

Plus, if you win, you get the big pot of money that everyone contributes to.

I've never won once, in 10 years. I'm not bitter or anything.

Setting the stage for a Champagne Brunch.

But I digress. For the past two years I've been a regular part of a newer Bunco group, consisting of moms and younger women from the three small neighborhoods that line up next to each other. We get together once a month to play Bunco and we always have a great time. The thing is, we have a really loud, great time. Every lady takes one month to host, and I've never been able to because our house is designed in such a way that you can hear a pin drop no matter where you are in the house. There's no playroom upstairs, and also no television upstairs either. It's been tricky for me to host when I know there would be nowhere for my husband to go, and it would certainly keep the kids awake.

But still, it was time for me to do something. Enter the Bunco Champagne Brunch. This past Sunday, with the kids whisked safely away to Church, we got our brunch on and hung out for a couple of hours, chatting, laughing, and drinking Champagne (and Prosseco). We didn't end up playing Bunco at all, and it didn't matter.

So here's the thing about Brunch. I get the feeling that people don't really throw them that much unless it's a super-special occasion, like a Baptism, or the morning after a wedding type of deal. But why? Brunch is awesome! And with the right guide, it can be really easy.

Freshly made Blueberry Scones.

Hi, I'm Jenna, and I'll be your Champagne Brunch guide today.

When you think "Champagne Brunch," do you feel overwhelmed, like it would all be too complicated? Trust me, it's not! Here's what I did to stick with a fun theme, and deliver the (baked) goods:

1) I started with drinks: I knew I wanted to have not just Champagne and/or Mimosas, but a fun twist where people could help themselves. I went with this delicious Mimosa Punch that kicks things up a notch. In our Bunco group each of us brings a bottle of wine to share with the group, and the ladies last Sunday brought, on my request, good, but inexpensive sparkling wine. No need to break the bank on this brunch, people. Cupcake makes a particularly excellent Prosseco (Italian sparkling wine. Fun fact: It cannot be called "Champagne" unless it was made from the grapes of the Champagne region in France), for just $11.

2) I dolled up my dining room table with my good tablecloth, the nice plates from Party City (sorry all you people expecting fine china. Who in the world wants to clean dishes after drinking all that Champagne?!), and fresh flowers.

3) Since only 8 of us were able to attend, I kept the menu simple. I wanted a mixture of savory, and sweet things:

Cheesy Hash Brown Casserole. I haven't found a single person yet who doesn't love this comforting dish.

Homemade Blueberry Scones, with Lemon Curd, and fresh Whipped Cream. This recipe, which you can find here was one of the best I've ever made.

Store-bought Quiches and Carmelized Onion Tarts from Trader Joes. This was a no-brainer. You've got to have a few things that can be popped into the oven to save yourself time and energy!

Fresh Berries. Because something on your table should resemble something healthy. It's only the right thing to do, especially when you finish with:

Champagne Cupcakes. Be still, my beating heart.
Champagne Cupcakes. Yes. Champagne in the cake, Champagne in the frosting with some orange zest to mimic a mimosa, and gold sprinkles to stay with the "bubbly" theme. These were absolutely delicious. This link takes you to my friend Kirsten's riff on it, and this link is the original recipe. I combined both of these takes, but omitted the filling for my own. They were Heaven on Earth, people. I can neither confirm nor deny that a single tear rolled down my cheek with the first bite.

4) To make brunch easy on myself, I did the following: At least 3 weeks out, I made a list of what I wanted to serve. 1 week out I went shopping for everything I would need so I wouldn't be rushed over the weekend. Saturday night I made most of the Cheesy Hash Brown Casserole, minus the crunchy topping, and stuck it in the fridge. I also made the Champagne Cupcakes, and set the table, buffet style. That saved me a lot of time the next morning, and I made sure I knew the temps and times of everything that had to go into the oven, and made yet another list so that everything came out right on time. Lists are life, friends.

Since I don't have a table big enough for everyone to eat at together, we simply took our plates to the sunporch where the Mimosa Punch and bottles of Champagne sat conveniently waiting for us, and pulled chairs around in a group.

5) My last tip is this: If nothing is going right the morning of, and you, by accident, oversleep your alarm, make sure that one of the things that is ready no matter what is your beverage. So even if you have to scurry around the kitchen finishing things up, your guests have a drink in their hands, and the party is started. Never, ever leave them empty-handed for any length of time.

We didn't play Bunco, but we sure had a lot of the stuff on the right, and a heck of a good time!
So listen, if you've got a weekend coming up, and you'd like to do something fun, but you're not sure what, and you want to gather some friends for a good time, but don't want to have to deal with the mobs of people edging you out for a table at your favorite restaurant, make your own Brunch. It doesn't have to break the bank, it just has to be fun. I've supplied you with the tips, you supply the friends and bubbly, and you're on your way.