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.

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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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Want to see more travel pictures? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @faithaeriel

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.


Want to see more travel pictures? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @faithaeriel

Happy Birthday, Harry Potter (and J. K. Rowling and me)

Whether or not you’ve read the Harry Potter books yourself (but, really, how could you have not?), you have certainly have heard of the Boy Who Lived, You-Know-Who, and Professor Dumbledore. Most Millennials have a story about how Harry has been a part of their life and to celebrate Harry’s birthday – and J. K. Rowling’s and my own – I’m going to share mine with you.

I was a little late to the Harry Potter party – though I have more than made up for it since then, both literally and figuratively. My first introduction to Harry was at a used bookshop. I was ten, about to turn eleven and somehow my cunning fifth grade mind convinced my mom to add the tattered paperback to the pile of summer reading books she was getting for me and my little brother.

The spine was broken and the cover was creased as if someone had sat on it repeatedly. The pages were dog-eared and soft from being turned and held and well-read. Even before I found this book it had been loved.

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My 19th birthday cake was a replica of the cake Hagrid gave Harry in book one.

I worked my way through that pile of books over the summer. Harry had slipped down to the bottom of the pile in our living room and it wasn’t until July 30 that I curled up on my bed at discovered shaggy haired Harry Potter in his cupboard under the stairs. I read “The Letters from No One” – the chapter where the Dursleys go on the run to shake the mysterious letters that Harry has been receiving – that night and as Harry counted down the last seconds until his eleventh birthday my mom came in to announce that it bedtime.

The next day was my eleventh birthday.

I waited all day for my letter to arrive – and lots did. They came in the mail and had “Happy Birthday Faithy-Poo!” and “Happy Eleventh Birthday, Chickadee!” written in pretty grandma cursive. But no emerald green ink addressed to Ms. F. Lewis, The Bedroom by the Stairs…

That was the last day of summer. School started the next day and there were no owls or moving staircases or feather quills and parchment.

For my thirteenth birthday I was given the full Harry Potter series. I had already read most of the strawberry jam fingerprinted copies at my local library, but nothing compared to turning those crisp pages for the first time. I experienced Harry’s journey all over again.

Celebrating with Harry, Ron, and Hermione became a sort of unofficial birthday tradition for me. For my sixteenth birthday my family and I had a twenty hour movie marathon (no breaks – breaks are for the weak), culminating at the movie theater to finally see the final instalment of the movie adaptations. For my nineteenth birthday my friends threw me a Harry Potter themed party, complete with pumpkin juice and a replica of the cake Hagrid made for Harry all those years ago. And last summer I once again celebrated my birthday with Harry Potter trivia and tabletop Quidditch.

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Christ Church College was one of the many filming locations in Oxford and inspired the Great Hall.

That party was also my send off to England, where I was spending a semester studying in Oxford – the real life world of Harry Potter.

I made it my goal – one of my many goals for my time abroad – to see as many notable Harry Potter attractions as possible. I spent a day at the Warner Brothers Wizarding World of Harry Potter just outside of London, losing track of time as I made my way through the Great Hall, Gryffindor boys’ dormitory, Dumbledore’s office, and the Hogwarts Express. I explored Oxford, home to many filming locations and Emma Watson’s hometown – she was even rumored to have been at the bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day, though I can’t personally attest to this. I had breakfast at The Elephant House in Edinburgh, where J. K. Rowling is said to have written much of the first Harry Potter book while her daughter was at school.

As much as the term “Harry Potter Generation” has become cliché, I can’t help but admit the truth in it. J. K. Rowling created a world where children made a difference and where they could grow up alongside her characters. The Harry Potter series solidified a lifelong love of reading not only in me, but in thousands around the world.

So I want wish Mr. Harry Potter a very happy birthday. I’m looking forward to celebrating another year with you.


Originally published on San Francisco Book Review.

Coming Back from Studying Abroad doesn’t Mean Coming Back to Normal

You know that feeling of the day after Christmas? You’re surrounded by all these great things you’ve been looking forward to for months, but all the excitement is gone. You’re tired. You’re numb. You’ve had a lot to take in. And to top it off, everyone is too busy with their own day-after-Christmas-funk that they don’t want to hear all about yours. That’s what it feels like to come home from studying abroad.

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Enjoying a rare sunshiny day overlooking River Cherwell in Oxford, England. 

Before I spent a semester in Oxford, I had a plan: spend a semester in Oxford. Everything I had been doing for the past two years was all leading to that semester, the coup de gras of my college career. I worked two jobs, housesat, babysat and stashed my money like a squirrel getting ready for winter. Grandparents didn’t bother to ask me what I wanted for my birthday anymore—they just cut me a check and it landed directly in the get-Faith-over-the-pond fund.

Let me assure you, I don’t regret a moment of the time leading up to my semester abroad. My three months in Oxford changed my life. It taught me about the world and about myself. It broadened my horizons. It introduced me to new interests. Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I packed up my dorm room in December completely content with my experience and assuring myself I wouldn’t have any regrets when my plane touched down in the States fifteen hours later.

I was excited to see my family and friends. I couldn’t wait to catch up and share my stories with them. By the time I had been home for two weeks, I had met up with exactly one of my friends for little more than an hour. A week after that my family visited from out of town for our annual Christmas celebration and my collections of photos only yielded a few apathetic audience members who flipped through a handful snapshots before getting distracted by the shrimp cocktail that had just been unearthed from the fridge. My stories fell on deaf ears.

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Ben’s Cookies is a local favorite at the Oxford Covered Market that boasts fresh, American style cookies.

Just as suddenly, it hit me that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was lucky enough to be starting my job again in January, which would offer a welcome distraction, but the days leading up to that were typically spent in my room flipping through guidebooks that pointed out all the great things I missed while in the UK or trying to keep up a conversation with friends who were now eight time zones away.

It was depressing and I wasn’t prepared for it. Everyone warned me about culture shock when I prepared to leave the States to study abroad, but what they forgot to mention was that I would go through the same thing when I come back—but it was worse. You’ve just had this life altering experience. You’ve seen so many things and met so many people. You’re not the same person anymore. When you get back, everything is just how you left it. It feels like you’ve been running and suddenly you hit a wall.

After that realization, the guilt sets in. Why should you be unhappy to be home? Shouldn’t you be grateful that you experienced so much? Now that you’re back, it’s time to get on with your life. Stop being so irrational. Move on.

But, despite what that little voice in your head whispers to you, it isn’t that simple. As I mentioned before, I had spent two years planning my time in the UK. What I failed to do was plan what I would do when I got back—and that taught me just as much about myself as going abroad in the first place: I’m a wreck without a plan.

It’s been an entire semester since I’ve been back and I’m just now feeling like my life is settling in again. A few friendships didn’t survive the hiatus and I’m having to face the fact that my career aspirations have changed as a result of my traveling. I’ve had to learn to let go of that hazy imagination fueled idea of what my life “should” be and I’ve embraced the idea of not knowing what is coming next.

In January 2017, I will be moving to Ireland. I don’t know what I’ll do there—I don’t even know where in Ireland I’ll go—but I do know I have a visa and a one-way flight. I’m ready to start this whole rigmarole all over again. I have no doubt I’ll be better off for it, just like I was after studying abroad.

Modern Eclairs: and Other Sweet and Savory Puffs

modern_eclairsstars /5

What can you do with seven ingredients? Make pasta? Soup? How about pate a choux? Wait! Don’t go to Google translate — you’ll get something along the lines of “paste of cabbage.” But if we take things a little less literally, we arrive at something closer to “a pastry that puffs”: cream puffs and eclairs.

Let me tell you, this is the best paste of cabbage you’re ever going to taste. After clearly outlining the optimal ingredients and tools, Jenny McCoy goes on to offer an array of beautiful eclair recipes. Basic techniques are outlined with step-by-step pictures for visual learner like myself. The flavors of the book cover the gauntlet from fruity to chocolate (yay!) to savory.

I love the format of this book. Everything from its slightly unorthodox shape to the playful font and bright colors, plays off of the creativity of the eclairs themselves. I have no complaints about this book. McCoy makes eclairs look easy and promises desserts to impress.


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Cookie Classics Made Easy

Cookie Classics Made Easystars /5

Over the past few years I’ve become quite the cookie connoisseur—that was my go-to destress through college—so quite a few cookie recipes have come through my kitchen. So many recipes require ingredients you’ll never use for anything else or take so long to make that they’re not realistic for that college student schedule. Cookie Classics Made Easy takes care of both these concerns. Recipes are quick and easy—easy to make and easy to follow. They stick to basic or easy-to-find ingredients. And, oh yeah, they’re yummy.

This is a super cute, well executed book. The format is easy to follow and provides great pictures of each of the cookies—an absolute must for a visual learner like me. Instead of digging through my pile of ten or twelve cookbooks, I can just turn to Cookie Classics Made Easy; it has all my favorite recipes. The binding was a little odd and I found that I needed to put the bag of sugar on the spine to keep it open to the correct page when I had dough all over my hands. Other than that, I have no complaints about this book—and this certainly isn’t enough of a complaint to stop me from purchasing this all-inclusive cookie cookbook for eleven dollars. Two cookie dough covered thumbs up!


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better

sara_moultons_home_cooking_101stars /5

Lot of people aren’t natural cooks, but they—we—still need to eat. So what are the options for these tummy-grumbling kitchen armatures? Well, they could boil up a big pot of ramen noodles. Again. Or they could bite the bullet and find a recipe. From personal experience, I’ve been led to believe that this is the reason there are so many cookbooks on the market. So with so many cookbooks weighing down the shelves at the local bookstore, how does one standout? For starters, you make sure you have yummy recipes that are easy to recreate, that you’re using tools that are easy to find, and that your cookbook is laid out and illustrated in the clearest way possible. Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101 manages to do all of that and then some.

One of my favorite parts of this cookbook is the four pages that are dedicated to Moulton’s favorite tools. She gives information on what each tool is used for and what makes it necessary for a well-functioning kitchen, allowing you to prioritize which tools you need immediately and what can wait—something this starving college student took full advantage of. Each recipe is complete with a list of ingredients and cooking instructions (as all cookbooks are), but what makes this cookbook stand out is that every recipe also includes helpful tips—often on damage control. There’s a great mix of difficulty levels demonstrated in the recipes, which makes this cookbook a universal kitchen resource for cooks of all levels.


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.