Out of the Box Desserts : Simply Spectacular, Semi-Homemade Sweets

stars /5

out_of_box_dessertsThis is everything your sweet tooth has ever wanted. End of review. No? You want to know more? Of course you do!

I’ve always loved baking, but recently the recipe on the back of the Nestle Toll House chocolate chips bag hasn’t quite been cutting it. Pinterest held me over for a while – I found some great dumpcake recipes and a new favorite blondie recipe – but eventually I came to the conclusion that I’d seen everything I was going to. And then Out of the Box Desserts found its way into my hands and suddenly my days of hit-or-miss dessert recipes were over.

Out of the Box Desserts has a very straightforward organization (five chapters that cover cakes, brownies, cookies, pies, and candies) that makes it easy to navigate and I actually found myself reading author Hayley Parker down-to-earth introduction of each recipe – the part of every recipe that I inevitably skip over in my eagerness to get to the good stuff.

And the recipes themselves? Oh man. Where do I even start? Blueberry Muffin Cake? Strawberry Milkshake Cupcakes? Peanut butter Snickerdoodle Bars? Cherry Pie Cookies? Root Beer Float Pie? The goal of Out of the Box Desserts is to transform, you guessed it, out of the box dessert mixes (brownie mixes, cake mixes, etc.) into something completely new and decadent. Check and check.


Originally published on Manhattan Book Review.

Why Our Layover in Auckland was the Best Part of the Whole Trip

Last week I talked about my trip to the Cook Islands this summer. If you missed it, click here to catch up – or I can give you the reader’s digest version: it was great, but not as great as I had hoped. The Cook Islands were like a lot of other places I’ve seen, just not quite as spectacular in one way or another.

And yet I wouldn’t trade that vacation in if I was given a shiny red redo button. Why not? Well, it’s all thanks to an airline mistake.

The Cook Islands aren’t exactly the most popular American summer vacation destination (never heard of the place? Neither had I!), so it makes sense that the flights aren’t very frequent. In fact, in order to get from San Francisco to the main island, Rarotonga, we had to take a flight from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand and then backtrack four hours from Auckland to Rarotonga. The trip home was supposed to be the exact opposite of that path, but one thing or another happened to the flight we were originally on from New Zealand home and we ended up with a whopping 36 hour layover.

Does anyone fancy sitting in the airport for 36 hours?

We didn’t either.

IMG_4259So instead we rented a car and drove to Middle Earth. Hobbiton, that is, which we happily discovered is just outside the small town of Matamata, a quick two hour drive south of the Auckland airport.

My major qualm with the Cook Islands was that I had seen it all before, but better. What I loved about our time in New Zealand was the fact that I couldn’t say that I had seen anything like it before. New Zealand is a world of its own and with just a little added imagination, the rolling green hills easily become a world where fiction and reality begin to blend.

Now, my whole family and I are dedicated Lord of the Rings fans. Not in the nerdy, Dungeons and Dragons way, but in the much more socially acceptable way where you appreciate the incredible cinematography, character development, and well-choreographed battle scenes. So we were reasonably nervous when we handed over our 79 New Zealand dollars per person, fearing that we were signing up for a cheesy, tourist trap, theme-park-style tour.

Our apprehensions couldn’t have been further from the reality as we stepped off the bus from the visitor’s center and onto the path that led to the Shire – the same path Gandalf followed in his first appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring. The change was immediate. We weren’t in the middle of someone’s ranch anymore. We weren’t even in New Zealand. Hobbiton is as real as any other place you can visit and we might as well have planned our vacation there.

IMG_4448 (1)As we made our way along the path our tour guide told us the history of Hobbiton in Middle Earth, of the Hobbiton set in New Zealand, and about how the two came to be the same place with a little help from New Zealand’s army.

Peter Jackson was granted permission to rebuild the Hobbiton set for the Hobbit trilogy at the original filming location on the condition that it be a permanent structure and with this in mind the attention to detail was incredible. From the blooming flower gardens (in the middle of the New Zealand winter) to the clothes hung out on the line to dry to the smoke curling out of the chimneys, it wasn’t hard to believe that there were hobbits just on the other side of those bright, round doors.

After following the path through much of the Shire, we reached Bilbo’s house on the hill, complete with an artificial oak tree whose leaves were painted and adhered by hand in order to create a tree true to Tolkien’s own illustrations. This also offered a phenomenal vista from which to admire the entire expanse of the Shire.

The tour continued around the pond, iconic water wheel, and to the Green Dragon – a functioning pub and restaurant with its own friendly Shire cat – where we had the chance to get out of the light drizzle that had begun and enjoy a drink by the crackling fire.

In 36 hours New Zealand managed to accomplish what two weeks in the Cook Islands had not: we felt as though we had been somewhere new and seen something we couldn’t have seen anywhere else. As we drove away from the Shire, even the greenery framed highway seemed to be calling for us to come back someday.

I will.

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Disney Villains: Delightfully Evil: The Creation, The Inspiration, The Fascination

disney_villains_delightfully_evilstars /5

This book is one part good concept, one part beautiful artwork and one part thorough research all whipped together with fantastic execution. Disney Villains: Delightfully Evil is broken down into chapters by themes such as “Oh So Vain” (Cruella De Vil, Gaston, and so on) and “All in the Family” (Scar and Mother Gothel). Included in the villain is concept art and photographs of the voice actors getting into character.

I loved the concept art that was featured, especially for characters like Gaston (probably my favorite Disney villain) and Ursula (and I must say, I like the final product much, much better than some of the first ideas animators tested out). We’ve all grown up with the final product, so it’s really cool to see how the character progressed and became the villain we all love to hate. It was also very cool to see the progression of animation from the earlier films to the most recent.

While the art steals the show, this book wouldn’t be what it is without the delightful gems of Disney knowledge that are nestled amongst the artwork. One of my favorite spreads was in the first chapter where author Jen Darcy reveals what villains were brought to life by the same actors as beloved characters like Winnie the Pooh and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother.

This is a book every Disney lover needs in their lives.


Originally published on San Francisco Book Review.

Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment

siddharthas_brianfour-stars /5

Siddhartha’s Brain aims to show not only how science and spirituality interact, but also how they are dependent upon each other—and it very clearly accomplishes this goal. Author James Kingsland skirts narrative history, personal experiences, scientific discoveries, and spiritual practices of Buddhism and demonstrates how they interact and can work to the benefit of each other. Without stumbling into the pitfall of alienating scientific language, Kingsland is able to convey complicated ideas in a way that the average reader will feel comfortable tackling. Aside from explaining how these interactions work, Kingsland invites the reader to try for themselves with five guided meditation exercises that correspond with the information discussed in the proceeding chapter.

Aside from one college course on Transcendentalism that wrapped back around Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and touched briefly on some of the superficial teachings of Buddhism and my own occasional dabbling in cruise ship yoga classes, I had little exposure to the teachings of Buddhism and I certainly had no exposure to how meditation might affect the human brain before this book. And while I haven’t been convinced to drop everything and devote my life to become a monk, I was nonetheless intrigued by the approach Kingsland took when discussing how meditation affects the human brain and what influence it may have on mental illnesses.


Originally published on San Francisco Book Review.

The Cook Islands – An Island Destination for the Borderline Adventurous

Ever since I was little my family has been a strong supporter of the notion of “summer vacation.” By the time I got to college I considered myself pretty well traveled – Hawaii, Washington DC, New York, Bermuda, Roatan, etc. I figured that it was time to start my solo travel career, but with me home from studying abroad and my brother about to leave for college, Mom and Dad had one last family trip planned: the Cook Islands.

The Cook Islands are a small nation in the South Pacific made of a series of small – very, very small – islands. Situated east of Australia and southwest of Hawaii, the main island of Rarotonga became our home base for nearly two weeks. The island was small enough to drive around in an hour and we didn’t have to try too hard to exhaust all Rarotonga had to offer.

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Muri Beach at sunrise.

If you love the feel of sand between your toes but don’t want to fight for a spot on a busy beach in Hawaii or Florida or the Bahamas or some other such sandy beach getaway, Rarotonga might just be the perfect escape. The white sand beaches were one of the highlights of the island, especially if you can motivate yourself out of bed early enough to watch the sunrise from between the palm trees and to when the sand crabs will be scuttling back into their holes for the day and the dinner-plate-sized royal blue starfish appear in the shallows.

Rarotonga is a vacation destination for the borderline adventurous – city slickers won’t find much appeal and adrenaline junkies won’t be very impressed, but if you fall somewhere between the two, there is plenty to keep you occupied. Set aside some time for two for $99 scuba diving with Pacific Divers –  who offer an open water diving certification Discover Scuba dives for first time divers – for a chance to see docile sharks, giant rays, and lion fish and swim through ship wrecks and through tunnels in the reefs. Be sure also to make time for the cross-island hike that takes you from the north end of the island to the south along a well-maintained path. This is somewhere between a walk and climbing a really long set of stairs, but the view from the summit was well worth the protesting calves. The whole hike took us just over two hours and could certainly have made for a leisurely afternoon if we had allotted more time.

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From the summit at the halfway point of the cross island hike, you can see 360 degrees.

The Muri Night market is a must do while visiting Rarotonga. Three nights a week vendors set up their stations and create some of the best food on the island, attracting locals and visitors alike. Choose from a variety of fresh seafood or curry dishes for dinner and save room for a fresh fruit smoothie after.

While Rarotonga was beautiful, it somehow fell short of my expectations. Kawaii had better beaches. Roatan had better scuba diving. Bermuda had a better island aesthetic, with its well-maintained pastel houses to Rarotonga’s more au naturel infrastructure that often was bordering on rundown.

The island of Rarotonga is very small and it doesn’t take long to exhaust the attraction the island has to offer. You could fill another day with a boat excursion to one of the other nearby islands that make up the nation, but those trips are an expensive extension of what you will already find on Rarotonga. Instead of planning an entire vacation to the Cook Islands, this is a place better suited to being one leg of a trip. Perhaps tag on a few days in Rarotonga to your New Zealand vacation.


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