Weeki Wachee and Tarpon Springs!

When my mom, sister and her kids were here this summer we headed over towards Tarpon Springs to stay for a few nights and go to Weeki Wachee. Mainly because my niece (and I) love mermaids. 

Ever since I read a fiction book about Weeki Wachee it's been on my list of places I wanted to see. The main story behind it is they have "real live mermaids" they breathe using hoses and were famous in the 1950's for drinking coke and eating bananas underwater. 

Nowadays the springs are a national park, but they still put on a mermaid show a few times a day. It's a neat day trip and it doesn't cost a ton of money. 

The springs themselves are gorgeous and clear, although we didn't swim, we were told they are pretty chilly year round. 

We also stopped in Tarpon Springs which is famous for their sponge docks where the ships that harvest sponges come in. There are some cute and interesting shops, as well as a bunch of sponges for sale! 

EPCOT's International Food and Wine Festival!

It's Food and Wine time in Orlando!!! Well, it's almost over actually. But I didn't get to experience much of the fun until the last few weeks. I had actually never done Food and Wine before and I really enjoyed it! 

I've now been three times (with one more trip planned for the final weekend) and the results are in! 

Favorite drink: The Martini Slush from France (Runner up being the Szarlotka from Poland which I have no picture of!)

Favorite food: The Buttered Chicken with Naan from Africa! 

I also snuck in a picture of our pizzas from Via Napoli! OMG I love that place more and more every time I visit! 

What are your favorite things to eat and drink at Epcot's Food and Wine??

Food and Dining at Disney World

Now, let's talk about one of my favorite subjects in the world, food! Now Disney is of course about a lot more than food. But I love food. So here are some of my favorites and some dining reservations we made on our last trip, new and old. 

I know, I know. I am such a sucker for Mickey shaped food! Pretzels, ice cream bars, rice krispies treats. GIMME GIMME. 

One of my newer favorites is heading back to Gaston's Tavern for a Lefou's Brew and a giant cinnamon roll. Although I will never forgive Disney for turning the Main Street Bakery into a Starbucks at least I can drown my sorrows in a cinnamon roll. (Seriously Disney... there are enough Starbucks in the world, I DON'T WANT ONE IN PLACE OF MY GLORIOUS MAIN STREET BAKERY)

Over at Hollywood Studios there is still a bakery to be found at the Starring Rolls Bakery! I snagged this amazing lemon BB-8 cupcake there one afternoon. Mmmm. 

Sorry this is a terrible picture (taken at night before the Main Street Electrical Parade) of the ice cream sandwiches sold from Sleepy Hollow Refreshments in Liberty Square. I had never had one of these but my sister and brother in law are big ice cream fans and they really loved them! Plus they're pretty cheap. Only around $4! And they're huge! 

We did a breakfast at the Whispering Canyon Cafe one morning. We have been to Whispering Canyon a handful of times on previous trips and have always enjoyed the fun atmosphere. Whispering Canyon is a table service meal. We always love breakfast so we chose to go then. Unfortunately we made a later reservation of 10:45 and the restaurant was pretty empty. This made the fun atmosphere a little quieter with few other guests to play with. But it was still a great experience with our server, Sunshine! 

Mickey Waffles!! See I told you I love Mickey shaped food! 

Chef Mickey's was a must on our list with the kids because it's a great place to get to meet Mickey and the gang and enjoy a breakfast buffet! I have to say, out of all the new places we tried I would definitely go back to this meal! The buffet was large and well stocked with yummy food. The characters took a little bit of time to get around to each table, but that's ok, leaves more time for eating! 

Plus, who doesn't love brownies for breakfast?? 

On Saturday for Dapper Day we finally got a reservation for Via Napoli which I have wanted to eat at for the last few trips. Thank goodness we had a reservation because the check in desk was a mess. We still waited a few minutes even with a reservation. 

I got a strawberry agua fresca which I thought was going to be like strawberry lemonade but was more like strawberry water (hence the name I suppose), but I actually really enjoyed it and it was very refreshing. 

The pizzas were pretty amazing too! The ones in the picture are personal pizzas! They were pretty big, but I managed to at the whole thing myself! I would definitely go back to Via Napoli! 

Other dining experiences included Play and Dine at the Hollywood Vine for a buffet lunch which I was not that impressed with. We also ate at the Plaza Restaurant one night for dinner which was also just okay. 

We took my niece to the Akershus Princess Storybook Breakfast one morning which was fun! She loved that the Princesses all came to the table. This was also a breakfast buffet which was pretty good, although I have to say the Contemporary's had more variety. It was also fun to get to walk back to the World Showcase when no-one else was around. 

What's your favorite place to eat at Disney? What should we try next time? 

Moments from the last few months

Whew, it's been a long time!! 

I don't really have an excuse for not posting, other than we haven't been doing much and I've been staying inside lots because it's so darn hot outside! 

We have managed to make it to Disney a couple of times over the past few months now that we have our annual passes and we got Universal passes last week! 

Here are some moments from my phone from the past few months! 

Disney World!

We came back from Disney World back in April!! It was quite a busy trip. I've never spent 6 days in the parks in one trip so that was pretty tiring but we had a lot of fun! 

We took our entire family including all my sisters and niece and nephews for their first trip. We did all four parks and a couple of Disney DIning experiences we had never done before. 

We miraculously ended up planning our trip around the Spring Dapper Day event and I was overjoyed!! I have been trying to get to a Dapper Day event since I heard about them a few years ago. It was so much fun to be there and see everybody dressed to the nines! I also really enjoyed watching the confused looks on the other park goers' faces! 

I also heard a middle aged women explaining to her friends that this was called DISNEYBOUNDING. Which, some people were disneybounding but most of us were just dressed up for Dapper Day. It was great! I highly recommend it if you love vintage or retro style. 

We went on Kilimanjaro Safaris first thing one morning when there was Extra Magic Hours at Animal Kingdom and we saw more animals than I've ever seen on the safari! We saw a couple of elephants and the male lion as well as tons of other animals. 

The Teacups happened to be pretty much all of the kids favorite rides which was fine by me because I love theming and the color of the teacups! 

We were there for the Flower and Garden Festival at Epcot which was gorgeous! 

We got to meet Baymax at Epcot which was especially awesome for Rachael and I because we are a little obsessed with Big Hero 6, especially Baymax. 

I fell in love with the snapchat filters from all over Disney. Especially this one, I mean c'mon I'm OBVIOUSLY very hot & juicy. 

We watched Wishes a couple of times throughout the week but this was on Monday, on my birthday! Not a bad way to end your birthday!

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Hollywood Studios general aesthetic is basically my favorite. I hate that the Streets of America (cough, half the park, cough) is closed though! 

The World Showcase at Epcot is always one of my favorites and sadly we didn't get a ton of time to explore it. But we did walk through a few of the pavilions. 

We did wander around Morocco though and I had Rachael take this photo of me which I absolutely love. 

I also wandered up the train station steps to take photos of the castle and stumbled upon Mary Poppins just hanging out with only one or two people around her. 

All in all it was a great trip and there was still so much we didn't get done that we had wanted to. But I'm sure there will be more trips in the future. 

I have another post coming up about all the awesome food we ate and the dining reservations we had. 

What's your favorite part of Disney World?? 

Best of Birmingham: Holler & Dash

Last weekend we tried the new biscuit place Holler & Dash!! It's a biscuit house for goodness sake! 

Above was my Strawberry & Dash meal which was strawberries and whipped cream on a biscuit. It was so yummy. I was a little unsure what the combo of biscuits with whipped cream would taste like but it was a lot like strawberry shortcake! 

Rachael's Chicken Biscuit. One of her favorite types of biscuit, although I'm surprised she didn't get biscuits and gravy! 

CJ's frittata!

And Kayla's tater tot bowl! Yum!

So, if you're in the area I highly recommend stopping by Holler & Dash one morning for some good 'ole southern cooking! 

Our Cruise!

Back in December Rachael and I went on a Royal Caribbean cruise with a few of our friends. It was so nice to escape the gloomy winter weather for the tropical Caribbean! We went on the Six Day Western Caribbean cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale that went to Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Haiti. This was our first cruise and I really had no idea what to expect to be honest!

I found this couch in one of the lounges and I really want one installed in my future house! 

Sunrise the morning we arrived in Grand Cayman. 

7 Mile Beach in Grand Cayman

7 Mile Beach in Grand Cayman

Grand Cayman and not our cruise ship in the background. 

Buster, our towel puppy!

Jamaican kids waiting on the school bus. 

Jamaica!

Jamaica was definitely my favorite out of the three ports we visited. We decided to pay for the RC excursion for the catamaran cruise and snorkeling. We also took a 45 minute bus ride from Falmouth to Montego Bay which I enjoyed because we got to see a little bit of actual Jamaica (not the weird Disney-fied Jamaica that is the Falmouth port). 

Snorkeling in Jamaica. Ugh, so gorgeous. 

Labadee, Haiti

Our private beach bed in Labadee. We split it between all 6 of us, so worth the money! 

We decided the night before we got to Haiti that we were going to rent one of the beach beds. If i recall correctly it was about $175 but you can split it between up to six people, which made it super reasonable! It comes with two floating mats to use in the water and a butler. Plus a bottle of evian for everyone which was nice! It was nice to have a butler because your RC drink packages work in Labadee, so you could order from the butler and have soft drinks and alcoholic drinks delivered right to your beach bed! 

Overall, I'm not sure if the cruise life is for me. Although I definitely enjoyed being able to go to three different ports in three days. The days on the ship though definitely felt like way too many people in a small space (although the ship was really huge). The food was alternatively so-so and pretty good depending on the dish. 

The entertainment on the ship was okay to pretty funny. The love and marriage show (like the Newlywed Game) being the best. There was never a lack of options for scheduled activities if you are in to things like that. I might have also enjoyed it more if we had had better weather on our at sea days so that we could actually lay out. It was alternately cloudy or drizzly for most of them. 

I know some people absolutely love cruises and while I might do another one, specifically a Mediterranean or Hawaiian one, I think there are other ways I'd rather spend my money traveling. That said, we did get a fantastic deal on this cruise that we will probably NEVER beat (BOGO and no port fees). 

Have you been a cruise? Where did you go? Any cruises you're dying to go on? 

We're going to Disney World!

Guess what!?! We're going to Disney World in less than a month!!! I'm so excited! Disney World is kind of one my favorite places ever! It's also the first time we're taking my entire family including my niece and nephews for the first time! It's going to be crazy and hopefully amazing. So I'm sure I'll have lots of photos and video to post once we get back. 

In the mean time I wanted to post a few photos from previous trips to Disney, including a couple of hilarious ones from when we were little! 

My friend Meagan and I in Disney in 2005. This would be the trip we pretended we were twins (which we kinda did a lot) and told everyone it was our birthday. Both false, clearly. 

Rachael and I sometime around 1999? Maybe. Also that horse on the right is killing me. 

Kayla, Rachael and I there around 2010. 

What should have been our family photo this year. 2001?? 

Also, what is now my favorite photo of myself at DIsney that i've found! Just walking casually down Main Street with my Lisa Frank autograph book! And the castle was my favorite way it ever looked! 

We're doing a lot more dining reservations than we've ever done before so that should be interesting. We're trying out some new places like Chef Mickeys and Via Napoli as well as an old favorite, The Whispering Canyon Cafe! 

We also have all of our fast passes planned out so our days are pretty much planned. I'm super excited and can't wait to share a trip report when we get back! 

Have you been to Disney World? What's your favorite ride and food to eat??

Tampa Bay Area

Next up in our Exploring the Sunshine State Series! I went to the Tampa Bay Area at the end of October!! And I'm just getting around to finishing this post in February!! 

We stayed in a two bedroom condo at Sunset Vistas Beachfront Suites on Treasure Island that was right on the Gulf of Mexico which was very nice! It had a pool and hot tub as well as a kids pool, too. 

The view from Bongos on St. Pete Beach

Above was the view from dinner one night when we headed down to St. Pete Beach to eat at Bongos Beach Cafe. We ate beachside and the sky put on a great show! The restaurant is around the back of the hotel, on the beach. 

Downtown St. Pete

One of our first days we wandered around downtown St. Petersburg which is super cute and pretty pedestrian friendly. There are a fair amount of shops and restaurants all within walking distance of each other. 

We ate brunch one morning at Clear Sky Cafe on Clearwater Beach and I got this excellent waffle! We didn't actually spend any time on the beach at Clearwater Beach, but there is a pier there you can walk on and beach access as well as some beach shops and restaurants. 

Downtown St. Pete art murals

Ybor City!! I was not hipster enough...

We took a walk around Ybor City one afternoon and stopped in the most amazing vintage shop called La France. I wanted to buy everything in there and also move in. Oh to have unlimited money. 

Treasure Island beach

University of Tampa

Downtown Tampa

Downtown Clearwater architecture

When I started researching food for our trip to the Tampa Bay area of course I had to include some doughnut places!! Here are our doughnuts and cronuts from St. Pete Bagel Co. I had a really awesome blueberry bagel from them too! I love a good bagel. Almost as much as I love a good doughnut. The cronuts were really lovely as well! This was my first time eating a cronut, so i will definitely have to try again somewhere else to compare!! 

Overall, we spent a lot of our time in Tampa at the beach and laying by the pool which was very lovely and relaxing! The weather was gorgeous in October, in the 80's most days. We also spent a fair amount of time in the car driving around the Tampa Bay area exploring all the different towns and cities like St. Pete, Clearwater, Tampa, Treasure Island, Largo, etc, etc. 

 

Best of Birmingham: Feast & Forest

How about a Best of Birmingham series?? I'm sure you're dying to know all of our favorite Birmingham spots! 

We tried out Feast & Forest downtown last weekend for brunch and it was very yummy. This place is super cute and pretty hipster. I got the cinnamon roll skillet with blueberry whipped cream which was delectable and Rachael and Kayla got different types of biscuits. I also fell in love with the look of this funfetti cake they have and I want it for my birthday. 

Feast & Forest is located at 212 24th St N Birmingham, AL. They are open for breakfast, lunch and Saturday brunch. 

My Year in Books - 2015

I set my goal to read 35 books this year!! And I made it! Just barely. You can see all the books I read this year on my Goodreads here!

Some of my favorites included: 

Belle Cora by Phillip Marguiles. HIstorical fiction set in 19th century San Francisco, loosely based on a real life prostitute's story. Ah, I love historical fiction.

It's What I Do by Lysney Addario. Memoir of the famous NYT photojournalist. I love reading memoirs and I especially enjoyed this one about a female photographer reporting from unique, dangerous, and war-torn places. Plus the photos are gorgeous. 

The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon. The second book in The Bone Season series. I enjoyed this one, and I love the unique premise for these books. 

The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson. The fourth book in the Shades of London series. I'm obsessed with everything MJ writes and this book is no exception. 

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. I really enjoyed this retelling of the Rapunzel story mixed with a healthy dose of historical fiction. 

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. Love, love, love this book. I love pretty much everything Jenny Lawson does and this is an honest, breathtaking, hilarious look at her life with mental illness. 

Apple Pie Cookies

Here's a great recipe for Apple Pie Cookies just in time for Thanksgiving!!

Apple Pie Cookies

These require some work but they have all the deliciousness of pie in a portable form. We recommend serving warm with vanilla ice cream.

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients:

CRUST

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon table salt

2 sticks unsalted butter, very cold

1/2 cup water, very cold

 

FILLING

3 medium apples, whatever you like to bake with

Squeeze of lemon juice

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Boiled Cider (for cup form of cookie)

FOR ASSEMBLY

1 large egg

Coarse or granulated sugar for garnish

Baking sheets Lined with parchment paper

Rolling pin, pastry brush (for egg wash), fork (for crimping and dipping) and sharp knife (to make slits)

Round cookie cutter or cup.

Directions:

Make the pie dough: 

- Whisk together flour, sugar and salt.

- Using a food processorchop the butter into smaller pieces then add the flour mixture, working the butter into the flour until the biggest pieces of butter are the size of small peas.

- Move mixture back into large bowl and gently stir in the ice water with a rubber spatula, mixing it until a ragged mass forms.

- Knead mixture two or three times to form a ball.  
- Divide dough in half. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and flatten a bit, like a disc. Chill in fridge for at least an hour.

Prep other ingredients:

- Line up six small dishes.

- In the first one, pour some water.

- Leave the second one empty; it will be used for apples.

- In the third one, mix the sugar and cinnamon.

- In the fourth one, place a little bit of flour to dust your surface and dip your fork for crimping.

- In the fifth one, whisk an egg with one teaspoon of water until smooth.

- In the last one, or in whatever container you keep it in, add some coarse or regular sugar for decorating the tops of the pies.

 Once crust is chilled:

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

- Roll out your pie dough pretty thin, ~1/8-inch thick, on a well floured surface. One disk at a time

- Ensure that it rolls out evenly and be sure its not sticking in any place. - Using the cookie cutter or cup to cut as many rounds as you can from the dough.

- Transfer them to parchment-lined baking sheets and keep them in the fridge until you need them.

Prepare apples:

- Peel apples and cut then into thin slices

- Place them in your second bowl, covering them with a few drops of lemon juice if theyre browning quickly.

Assembly:

Hand Pie (double crust)

- Lightly dampen one one side of a crust round with the water, to help it seal.

- Toss a few pieces of apple in the cinnamon sugar.

- Place sugared apples on the damp side of the bottom disk.

- Place a second disc of dough on top

- Seal the disks by pressing the tops and bottoms around the apple with your fingers.

- Cut decorative slits in your pies.

- Dip a fork in flour and use it to create a decorative crimp on the sealed edges.

- Brush assembled cookie with egg wash and sprinkle with coarse sugar.

- Place on baking sheet and chill while you prepare the others.

Cup (using oiled muffin tin)

- Place crust round in bottom of muffin tin, creating a cup

- Toss enough apples to fill cup in cinnamon sugar

- Place sugared apples into cup of pie crust

- Drizzle with 1 tsp boiled cider

 Bake:

- Bake your apple pie cookies for 25 minutes, or until puffed and bronzed and very pie-like.

- Transfer to a cooling rack to cool before eating

Alternatively, we also made a few in muffin tins to make them look more like little apple pies. All of them were amazing!! 

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Caramel Brownies and Reese's Cup Cookies

Feeling like a lithe something sweet? These caramel brownies are heavenly and I think these Reese's stuffed cookies are now my favorite cookies ever!! 

 

Cocoa Caramel Brownies

Rich gooey brownies that will be gone before you know it!

Adapted from Alice Medrichs Bittersweet

 

Ingredients:

BROWNIES

10 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/4 cups sugar

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 large eggs, cold

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

 

CARAMEL

1/2 cup granulated sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt

3 tablespoons heavy cream

 

Directions:

Make the caramel: 

- Line a medium plate with parchment paper and lightly coat with cooking spray.

- In a dry saucepan over medium-high heat, melt sugar, stirring if necessary to break up large chunks. Once melted, if should be a copper color.

- Remove from heat and stir in butter.

- Once incorporated, stir in cream and salt and return saucepan to medium-high heat, bringing it back to a simmer. Cook bubbling caramel for a few minutes more, until it is a slightly darker.

- Pour out onto parchment-covered plate and transfer plate to the freezer. - Freeze until almost firm

 

Make the brownies:

- Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F.

- Line an 8×8-inch baking pan with parchment paper or foil.

- Combine butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium bowl and microwave until butter is melted, stopping to stir occasionally. The mixture should be smooth and warm.

- Stir in the vanilla then add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one.

- Once the batter is well blended, add the flour until combined.

- Spread batter into lined pan

-Break the caramel into pieces and spread on top of brownie batter.

-Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 25 -35 minutes

-Let cool completely on a rack before cutting.  

Peanut Butter Cup Stuffed Cookies

Everything wonderful about peanut butter cookies and Reeses Cups

Adapted From Sallys Baking Addiction

Ingredients:

COOKIES

1 and 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

3/4 cup creamy peanut butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

18 Miniature Reese's Cups, unwrapped

OPTIONAL

1 cup (180g) semi-sweet chocolate chips

2 teaspoons creamy peanut butter

Directions:

Make the cookies: 

- Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

- Cream butter, brown sugar, and white sugar together on in a large bowl until combined.

- On low speed, beat in the peanut butter, egg, and vanilla.

- Turn the mixer to high and beat until light in color and smooth.

- Turn the mixer to low and slowly pour in the dry ingredients. Mix until combined and a dough is formed.

- Cover tightly and chill the cookie dough for at least 1 hour.

- Preheat oven to 350F

- Remove cookie dough from the refrigerator. 

- Make an even number of 1 Tablespoon cookie dough balls

- Put a peanut butter cup into one ball, top the peanut butter cup with another cookie dough ball, and seal down the sides so that the peanut butter cup is sealed inside.

- Roll the large cookie dough ball to smoothen

- Bake the cookies for 10-11 minutes or until very lightly browned on the sides.

- Press the cookies down a bit to flatten them out. Cool on the cookie sheet for at least 10 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Optional drizzle:

-Melt chocolate chips and peanut butter together in the microwave, stirring often to prevent burning.  

-Drizzle over cooled cookies.

ENJOY!!