A Squared: 2016

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Holiday Entertaining: 10 Wines Under $20 (With Recipe Pairings!)

Christmas may be over, but the holiday celebration season is still going strong through New Year's Eve. If you're entertaining this New Year's Eve or perhaps attending a party, don't arrive empty handed! A bottle of wine makes a great gift and doesn't necessarily need to break the bank. If you're looking for an inexpensive bottle of wine, here are my picks for 10 that you can typically find for under $20. Many are available at your local grocery/liquor store or can be easily ordered online. I've also included some handy recipe pairing ideas as well.


1. LBD Cabernet Sauvignon - Little Black Dress aims to make wines that are "affordable, approachable, and delicious." Perfect, right? I'd recommend the Cab-- A rich oaky wine with notes of berry and vanilla.
Pair it with: Mushroom & Pancetta Flatbread

2. Charles & Charles Rose - A brightly acidic rose with fruity notes like watermelon and citrus and earthier notes like grass and wet stone.
Pair it with: Cherry, Prosciutto & Parmesan Crostini 
3. OneHope California Red Wine Blend - This red blend has bold fruitiness like black cherry and boysenberry, and notes of oak, black pepper, and black tea on the finish. Even better? Every bottle purchased "helps veterans continue their service through disaster relief."
Pair it with: Bacon-Wrapped Dates

4. Predator Old Vine Zinfandel - Smooth, spicy, almost a little smoky with notes of juicy berry.

5. Juve y Camps Pinot Noir Brut Rose - One of my favorite sparkling wines: This Pinot Noir Cava from Spain has notes of apple, strawberry, and almond with a nice creamy finish.

6. Honig Sauvignon Blanc - One of my favorite wines from one of my favorite wineries in Napa: This Sauvignon Blanc is dry with notes of grapefruit and tropical fruits and lemongrass.

7. Mark West Black Pinot Noir - This Pinot is smooth and a little more full bodied than its less expensive brother (Mark West Pinot Noir, minus the "Black"). You'll taste vanilla, mocha, caramel, and rich fruits like black cherry and plum.
Pair it with: Balsamic Fig Grilled Lamb Chops 

8. Adler Fels Chardonnay - Full bodied, fruit-forward with bright acidity-- it's not your average Chardonnay.

9. The Show Malbec - This Argentinian red features dark fruit flavors with slight acidity, characteristic of wines from this region.
Pair it with: Slow Cooker Pot Roast Bolognese

10. 2 Lads Late Harvest Riesling - From my favorite northern Michigan winery, this Riesling has bright acidity and the late harvest means it is on the sweeter (but not syrupy) side.
Pair it with: Spicy Roasted Butternut Squash & Chipotle Soup

Editor's Note: Complimentary samples of Adler Fels and LBD wines were provided in order to facilitate this post. Thanks for supporting the brands that support A Squared!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Slow Cooker Pot Roast with Root Vegetables

A slow cooker pot roast is the perfect dinner for a cold winter's night-- and it couldn't be any easier to make!

Winter has arrived here in Chicago. And it is not messing around. While it seemed like it took its time to arrive this year, it arrived with a vengeance and we've already seen three snowstorms and a handful of single digit temperature days. Needless to say, we've been spending a lot of time indoors these days. When you're forced to stay indoors (as you might be over the coming days or weeks) there is nothing better than real comfort food-- and it is hard to beat a pot roast on a cold winter's night!

A few weeks ago-- before the crazy cold rolled in-- my parents came to town for a few days to visit with us and to babysit for Hannah while Alex and I attended a wedding. They were coming in on a weeknight and were set to arrive shortly after I got home from work. I wanted to make sure that we'd have a nice welcome dinner and that I wouldn't have to spend a ton of time slaving over it when they showed up. I decided to make a pot roast because it's an easy dinner to make in a slow cooker to feed a crowd-- even a small one. I also love a pot roast because the longer it cooks, the more the flavors develop-- especially using a few good ingredients to build those flavors like red wine, Worcestershire sauce, beef broth, fresh herbs, a little tomato paste (which thickens up the liquid and adds some acidity), and a little hot sauce to create a simple, yet flavorful cooking liquid.

I like to sear a roast-- or beef, in general-- before adding it to a slow cooker. That browned outside adds wonderful flavor (especially when you rub in a good seasoning before browning) and then slow cooking afterward ensures that the meat doesn't dry out in the roasting process. Along with the roast, I added sliced onions, carrots, and parsnips to the slow cooker. Root vegetables are dense so they hold up nicely when being cooked for several hours in liquid. They also soak up that cooking liquid, lending wonderful flavor to both the meat and the veggies!

In the past, I've always added halved potatoes to my slow cooker pot roasts but I opted against that this time and it was a great choice! Potatoes are bland and they get mushy in the slow cooker, so I wanted to serve them in a way that enhanced this meal a little more. So instead of adding them to the slow cooker mixture, I halved several baby potatoes, tossed them in some olive oil with salt, pepper, and herbs and roasted them in the oven until crispy. Those crispy potatoes were a wonderful complement to the tender beef and vegetables and I'm pretty sure after eating it this way, I'll never add them to the slow cooker again!


  • 2 tsp. canola oil
  • 2-3 lb. beef chuck roast, trimmed
  • 1 Tbs. beef seasoning of your choice *I used The Spice House Quebec Beef Seasoning
  • 1 yellow onion, cut into thick slices
  • 2 cups carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 cup parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 2 cups low sodium beef broth
  • 1 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 tsp. hot sauce
  • 3 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 dry bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat canola oil in a large pan over medium high heat. Rub the roast evenly with seasoning and add to hot oil. Sear on each side until browned. Transfer to the base of a slow cooker.

Add the onion, carrots, and parsnips to the slow cooker.

In a separate bowl, whisk together red wine, broth, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Pour evenly over the top of the meat and vegetables.

Add the rosemary and thyme sprigs as well as the bay leaf to the slow cooker mixture. Cover and cook on low for 7-8 hours.

When ready to serve, remove the herb sprigs and the bay leaf from the pot. Serve over potatoes, egg noodles, rice, or polenta.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Holiday Gift Guide: 10 Gifts for the New Mom or Mom-to-Be

While I try to keep this a more food-centric blog, my personal life as a new mommy has definitely bled into the A Squared blog content lately. Apparently though, you guys don't hate it? In fact, after my last product round up post (What We are Loving at 7 Months) a few of you asked to see more of the same! I'm happy to oblige and assume that a lot of those requests are coming right now because we are knee deep in the holiday shopping season and you'd like some suggestions on what to gift to the babies and moms in your life. With that in mind, today I'm sharing a list of thoughtful gifts for the new mom or mom-to-be in your life. Often times, we are so focused on gifts to give a new baby that we forget about taking care of mom too... so here are a few things that I would have loved as a mom-to-be or still would love as a new mom:

1. Great coffee without leaving the house - Coffee is a necessity for new moms, but good coffee is a luxury. I would have loved (and would still love) this Ninja Coffee Bar Single-Serve System, which makes tons of different coffee recipes one cup at a time without the wasteful pods.
2. A stylish diaper bag - If you're going to haul around a bag full of diapers, rash cream, and breast pads it might as well be cute. It should also be functional too though and our Kate Spade Baby Bag comes along everywhere that Hannah and I go. It's big enough to hold all the things (and then some), has several interior pockets for organizing, and a folding changing pad.
3. A sentimental piece of jewelry - This engravable Stella & Dot necklace is the perfect way for mom to commemorate a baby's birthdate and to keep if close to her heart too. It can also be engraved with initials or geographic coordinates too!
4. A chic winter nursing cover alternative - As you know from some of my previous posts (here and here and here), I'm a a proponent of nursing but also a fan of doing it discreetly. In the winter a stylish blanket scarf (like this one from Anthropologie) is the perfect accessory for fashion and two functions: it will keep mom warm and double as a nursing cover when she's out and about.
5. Stroller storage solutions - One of the hardest things about getting out the door with baby in the stroller is trying to figure out where to stash all of your stuff. It's a pain to have to dig your wallet, keys, and phone out of the undercarriage compartment every time you need them, but you're not always wearing something with pockets. This cute storage system from Skip Hop can hook on to the top of almost any stroller so mom has a convenient place to store all of her things when she's out with baby.
6. A dinner solution that does not involve delivery - Thank goodness for a slow cooker or for these first several months of motherhood we'd either be dining on takeout every night or not eating anything! Making dinner at home can be a struggle when juggling a newborn's unpredictable schedule, so a slow cooker is a lifesaver. I have this Cuisinart model and love it-- you can brown your food in it before starting the slow cook process which yields better flavor and one less pan to clean!
7. A chewable piece of jewelry - My Hannah puts everything in her mouth these days, but she's especially a fan of jewelry. I have a Chewbeads necklace already, but love these colorful teething bangles as another option. Hannah also likes to "wear" ring-shaped toys around her wrists, so these are a great baby-safe alternative for that too!
8. TLC for winter (and hormonal) skin - My skin is already crazy dry at this time of year, but add in the new postpartum skin issues (hello, bumps!) I have experienced in the past several months and it's just a mess. This coconut scrub is amazing because it is both exfoliating and moisturizing at the same time... like coffee (oh, and wine), a necessity and a luxury for new moms!
9. A cardigan that marries style and comfort - Cardigans are a new mom's best friend-- especially at this time of year. Layering with a cardigan is great for a nursing-friendly wardrobe. It's also a comfortable and flattering option for new mom bodies and can help to seamlessly transition an outfit from at-home comfy to out and about-appropriate. I love this soft cozy option, which is a flattering length and available in two great neutrals: soft gray and olive.
10. Cute cozy slippers - I think these slippers are the cutest! I'm a sucker for moccasins, for plaid, and for shearling, so these are pretty much the best... I also loved wearing slippers at the end of my pregnancy and those first few weeks after Hannah's birth. My feet were swollen and I was physically recovering, so I lived in cushy slippers when I was hanging out around the house.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Herb-Roasted Squash with Quinoa & Cranberries

I'm sure that many of you are feeling this way right now as well, but I think it has to be said: I need a detox. After a long weekend filled with takeout, turkey, and several glasses of wine and slices of pumpkin pie I am feeling pretty sluggish jumping back into real life again. My body is crying out for something healthier this week and this squash and quinoa recipe is just the answer!

This squash and quinoa dish is simple to assemble and is full of seasonal flavor. I like to pack it for lunch as a filling vegetarian main dish. It would also work nicely as a side dish for roasted chicken or pork. It's also incredibly versatile. As far as ingredients go, the star of the show is roasted squash. You'll need two small ones, but any variety you like will work-- I actually used one sweet dumpling and one delicata squash, both of which I had recently picked up at the farmer's market. However, acorn would work nicely, or even a small butternut squash too. The squash is paired with sweet roasted onions, cooked quinoa, dried cranberries, and toasted nuts. I prefer pecans or walnuts here, but you could also try this with almonds too.

To bring it all together, I toss the mixture in a combo of a little vinegar and homemade sage pesto. You may not have sage pesto on hand, but I'd highly recommend whipping up a batch-- especially if you're like me and wondering what to do with all of the leftover fresh herbs you grew before the winter freeze sets in. You can make a big batch, portion it up, and freeze it to pull out for recipes like this one (or this one)! If you don't have sage pesto on hand, you could also sub in a few Tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs (sage, thyme, parsley, rosemary or any combination of these would be great), a few Tablespoons of olive oil, a sprinkling of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, and salt and pepper.

  • 2 small squash like acorn, sweet dumpling and/or delicata squash, seeds and membranes scooped out 
  • 1/2 cup sweet onion, diced *I like cippolini or Vidalia onions 
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves 
  • 2 Tbs. Olive oil 
  • Salt and pepper, to taste 
  • 1/4 cup prepared sage pesto *Recipe available here
  • 1 Tbs. red wine vinegar 
  • 2 cups cooked quinoa 
  • 1 cup dried cranberries 
  • 1 cup pecans or walnuts, toasted and chopped 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the squash into 1-inch pieces and toss in a large bowl with onion, thyme leaves, olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread mixture out on a large rimmed baking sheet and roast for 25-30 minutes or until squash is fork tender.

In another large bowl, whisk together sage pesto and vinegar until combined. Add squash and onion mixture (along with any liquid from the roasting pan), quinoa, cranberries, and nuts. Stir to combine. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed.

Serve warm.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

How to Help: 10 Charities Fighting Hunger

I have always refrained from posting about politics on the blog and don't plan on starting now. That's not what A Squared is about. That said, it can't be ignored that a good part of America seems to be feeling frustrated, scared, angry, confused, and helpless... and that's no good for anyone. It's had me thinking a lot for the past several days about what I can do and what we can all do to feel a little less helpless-- by helping. Not to get too spiritual on you, but Ghandi once said "be the change you wish to see in the world" and that's what I'd like to do. 

In the spirit of being helpful, doing something, and with the holiday season upon us I wanted to do something a little different on the blog today. So if you've got the itch to help someone out or to make a difference, here are 10 charities you might consider donating your resources to-- that's money or time. All of these charities are aimed at fighting hunger and promoting physical and financial health through food in the US and abroad. This is a food blog, after all. ;)

Feeding America - The largest hunger relief network in the United States, working with a variety of charities and organizations to feed hungry Americans.
Meals on Wheels - A national program dedicated to delivering nutritious meals to senior citizens, specifically to those in need or in isolation.
Heifer International - Using the "teach a man to fish" philosophy, Heifer allows donors to gift animals to those in need, providing a sustainable source of food and income.
Greater Chicago Food Depository - 1 in 6 Cook County residents asks the GCFD for assistance each year. Donate funds or food and help feed your Chicago neighbors in need.
Feed the Children - This organization feeds over 263,000 hungry children around the world every day in addition to providing funding for long term solutions like clean water, healthcare, and education.
Action Against Hunger - Action Against Hunger provides a variety of services to the global community including hunger relief, clean water, hygiene assistance, food safety, and emergency response.
The Hunger Project - A global organization that empowers individuals and communities to develop their own sustainable strategies for overcoming poverty and hunger.
Food for the Hungry - Sponsor a child via this Christian-based organization that helps fight hunger in some of the world's most vulnerable areas, providing physical and spiritual healing.
God's Love We Deliver - Based in New York City, this organization delivers nutritious meals to patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses who are homebound or unable to cook for themselves.
No Kid Hungry/Share Our Strength - This campaign not only helps to feed hungry children, but also educates families on how to cook affordable nutritious meals too.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

My 10 Favorite Shortcut Ingredients

It's no secret to regular readers of this blog that I am a big proponent of homemade food and real ingredients. That's the kind of food I grew up eating (save for the many blue boxes of mac and cheese that we went through... and that I still love), the food I grew up learning how to cook, and it's the kind of food I prefer to make for my family and hope that my child(ren) will grow up loving too. Cooking with real ingredients is healthier, more flavorful, and oftentimes more economical as well.

That said, it's also more time consuming to cook this way. And as someone who has been pregnant or mom to a little baby for a year now, I haven't had nearly the time or energy to cook in the way that I'd like. So I have spent many of the past 14+ months coming to terms with the fact that it's okay to make a few shortcuts every now and then... I'm not buying TV dinners (yet), but I have found a few shortcut ingredients that make getting dinner on the table every night just a little bit easier. Here are my favorites:

1. Giovanni Rana pastas - These are some of the best quality prepared filled pastas I have ever tried. They typically cook in a quick 2-3 minutes, which helps dinner come together in a flash. They're available with tons of different fillings, but I'm most partial to the classic spinach & ricotta, the earthy mushroom, sweet butternut squash, and the smoky uncured bacon & mozzarella ravioli varieties. Just add sauce (or even just some sautéed veggies and olive oil) and a satisfying one bowl dinner is ready.
2. Taylor Farms Chopped Salad Kits - Bagged salads are a given when it comes to easy and healthy meal shortcuts, but these chopped salad kits take it to the next level (I hate that phrase, but it's true). Each chopped salad includes unique pre-washed ingredients like kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and brocolli paired with delicious mix-ins like nuts, seeds, cheese, and a dressing. My favorite is the Southwest Chopped Salad. I just add some diced avocado or shredded rotisserie chicken (another great shortcut ingredient) and it's a fast and filling lunch or dinner.

3. Whole Foods shrimp skewers - This is one of the most convenient ways to prepare seafood. The Whole Foods fish counter sells shrimp that has already been peeled, deveined, skewered, and occasionally, pre-seasoned. All the hard work is done, so these skewers can just be grilled or sauteed for a few minutes and then they're ready to eat. They're also frequently running good deals on it too, so it can be an economical option for serving seafood at home as well.
4. Frontera Seasoning Sauces - I have always been a fan of Chicago chef Rick Bayless and his amazing restaurants (I'm not sure how many times I have proclaimed my love for his Tortas Frontera at O'Hare Airport here), but these sauces are game changers for cooking at home. These flavorful sauce pouches make a Mexican-inspired dinner at home so easy. I especially love the slow cooker pork carnitas and beef barbacoa sauces because the slow cooker always wins when it comes to making a shortcut meal-- and the flavors just get better the longer they cook. I also love the enchilada sauces, which are perfect for a make-ahead meal. Just add cheese and/or shredded rotisserie chicken!
5. Rotisserie chicken - A rotisserie chicken is one of the staples of shortcut cooking. They can be used in hundreds of different ways-- and often in conjunction with the other foods on this list! I like to shred the chicken and use it to fill enchiladas or sandwiches, toss with pasta, top a salad, or to serve on its own with a cooked veggie and a starch for a simple dinner. Be on the lookout for other varieties too-- my grocery store sells rotisserie chickens with different seasoning blends, unsalted, and also just the chicken breast too. And for a real time saver, they frequently sell the pre-shredded meat right next to the whole chickens.
6. Uncle Ben's Ready Rice - I first discovered these handy little pouches in college-- another time in my life when I didn't have enough time to cook a real meal very often. I have recently added them back into heavy rotation for our weeknight dinners and forgot just how convenient they were. Just 90 seconds in the microwave and you've got rice for two ready to serve. I love the brown and the whole grain wild rice, while my husband prefers the rice pilaf. All of them are a great accompaniment to any grilled protein or to a quick stir fry.
7. Salad bar vegetables - This is one of my new favorite cooking hacks. Instead of spending tons of time washing and chopping vegetables, picking a few pre-cut veggies from the salad bar at your grocery store is a great way to incorporate fresh produce into a meal while seriously cutting down your prep time. My favorite salad bar veggies include bell pepper strips, matchstick carrots, chopped celery, and snow peas (because my store only sells them in huge 8 oz. packages when I usually only need a handful). It may not be as economical as buying vegetables whole, but it's a great option when you're pressed for time.

8. Soy Vay sauces - I love these sauces and marinades for an easy Asian-inspired dinner. One of my new go to dinners is to add a browned pork tenderloin and diced onions to a slow cooker with a little chicken broth and Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki. I add sliced bell peppers and snow peas (see #3!) for the last hour of cooking and serve over rice.
9. Pacific Organic Roasted Red Pepper Tomato Soup - I'm not usually a fan of prepared soups. They're usually chock full of salt and preservatives. This soup is a different story though. It's creamy and flavorful and made with real ingredients. They also sell it in one of those handy containers, making it easier to store than canned soup. I love this soup with a toasty grilled cheese sandwich or a side salad for an easy meatless dinner or lunch. I also recently spotted it at Costco too!

10. Annie's Mac & Cheese - Boxed mac and cheese is the ultimate shortcut meal-- and one of my guiltiest pleasures for as long as I have been eating solid foods, I'm pretty sure. Thankfully, Annie's makes me feel slightly better about eating boxed macaroni and cheese since it is made with organic pasta, all natural ingredients, and no preservatives. I like mine with a few dashes of hot sauce and then I mix in some cooked veggies (like roasted broccoli or asparagus) or for the quickest of shortcut meals, stir fresh spinach leaves into the hot mac and cheese. It wilts down in seconds and ups the health quotient of your bowl a bit more. By the way, they sell variety packs of Annie's mac and cheeses at Costco too. It's a great way to stock up and make sure that you always have a meal on hand and can avoid costly takeout when you're feeling lazy or pressed for time.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Grilled Steak with Balsamic Tomatoes

Even though fall isn't necessarily considered to be prime grilling season, Alex and I still love making dinner on the grill as often as possible in these chillier weeks leading up to our first snow (eek!). In fact, I sometimes prefer grilling in the fall. It's a lot nicer to tend a hot grill when there's a chill in the air versus when it is 90 degrees outside! So if you're looking for a way to celebrate the great outdoors while you still can-- and a way to use some of those end of season tomatoes-- this grilling recipe is a great one! This easy tomato saute really brings out their flavor.

These flavorful sauteed tomatoes are an easy and elegant topping for a simple grilled steak. Cooking them down until they begin to burst releases their juices, which then gets combined with broth, Balsamic vinegar, and a touch of Worcestershire sauce. A little fresh garlic and rosemary adds a little savory depth to the flavor and once it all cooks together it thickens up and is perfect for spooning over the top of a steak.

I didn't specify what kind of steak to use here or even how to prepare it (beyond basic seasoning) because, to be honest, this is really all about the tomatoes. I prefer a filet, but get creative and use these on any cut that you like! And while this is delicious on steaks (especially with that touch of Worcestershire sauce), these tomatoes are versatile and could be served over grilled chicken breasts or a pork tenderloin too.


  • 2 steaks, seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled to desired level of doneness
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tbs. Olive oil
  • 1 Tbs. Butter
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes
  • 1/2 tsp. Fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 1/4 cup white wine or vegetable broth
  • 1/4 tsp. Worcestershire sauce 
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. Balsamic vinegar

Heat a medium pan over medium-low heat and add olive oil and butter. Swirl to coat the pan and add in garlic. Saute for one minute, stirring frequently. Bring heat up to medium and add tomatoes.

Saute the tomatoes for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add in the rosemary and continue to saute for another 5 minutes. Pour the broth and the Worcestershire sauce into the pan and simmer until the liquid has reduced by about half and begins to thicken. Stir in the balsamic vinegar, cook for 2 minutes. and remove from heat.

Spoon over the cooked steaks and serve.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Spiced Pumpkin Butterscotch Blondies

Looking for an easy homemade treat to bake and take to a fall gathering? Look no further than these spiced pumpkin butterscotch blondies!

Being a new-ish mom (can I still say "new" after 6 months? Let me know your thoughts), I don't get a ton of opportunities to cook or bake for fun right now. It's usually a scramble to get something semi-homemade on the table for dinner every night, so anything beyond that can feel a bit overwhelming. And when it happens, like a huge success! But I missed baking just for the fun of baking, so when Alex told me he'd volunteered to bring dessert to a recent work event I jumped at the chance to flex my creative muscles in the kitchen again. And this recipe is the perfect marriage of low maintenance and big flavor.

You know I love a blondie (see here and here and here). They're rich and buttery and can adapt to tons of different flavor combinations. Plus, it's a pretty simple base recipe that entails mixing, baking in one big pan and slicing. Nothing complicated here. Since it's October Alex thought a pumpkin blondie would be appropriate and since I'm not one to turn down pumpkin-flavored anything, I got to work: a little pumpkin purée and pumpkin pie spice in the blondie batter tastes and smells just like fall when these blondies bake up. I folded in butterscotch chips for some added sweetness and texture plus that super sweet caramel-like flavor melds nicely into that pumpkin batter. The result is a moist chewy bar that just tastes like fall!


  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup canned pumpkin purée (not pie filling)
  • 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. real vanilla extract
  • 1 cup butterscotch chips
  • Optional: 1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter and flour (or use cooking spray made for baking-- it has flour in it) a 9 in. x 13 in. baking dish.

Place butter in a large glass mixing bowl and microwave on medium low until completely melted. Add brown sugar and pumpkin to the melted butter while still warm and stir well until smooth and fully combined; it should have a very thick almost caramel-like consistency. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature.

In a separate medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, and pumpkin pie spice.

Once the brown sugar mixture has cooled, beat in the eggs and vanilla until fully incorporate. Add the flour mixture in gradually (I find that adding it in 3 or 4 parts works well), mixing until combined before adding more of the dry ingredients. A very smooth almost dough-like batter will be formed. Gently fold in the butterscotch chips and pecans, if desired.

Spoon the batter to the prepared baking dish and use a rubber spatula to spread it out evenly. Bake until the blondies are golden and just brown around the edges, about 20-25 minutes. You'll want to insert a toothpick to test the center.

Remove from the oven and let the blondies cool slightly. Carefully invert onto a metal rack (they are so buttery that they should just fall out of the pan) and allow to cool completely. Slice into squares and serve.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Say it with Krusteaz: Cranberry Pumpkin Streusel Muffins & a GIVEAWAY

One of the things I love most about fall (besides crunchy leaves, cool weather, comfy sweaters, and pumpkin spice everything) is that this is really the season of baking. Fall ushers in cooler temps perfect for weekend afternoons inside baking delicious treats for the holidays and filling the kitchen with the smells of cinnamon, apple, and pumpkin at the same time. But baking for me is also about family and some of my favorite memories from growing up are from baking birthday cakes with my mom, holiday pies with fancy lattice crusts with my aunt, and frosting dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies with my siblings. I hope that baking with me will be one of Hannah's fondest childhood memories too... once she's old enough to "help," that is!

Krusteaz knows that baking isn't just about food, but it's also about making memories which is why they've launched their #SayItWithKrusteaz campaign. Krusteaz wanted to know how their customers demonstrate love through baking, so I decided to whip up some tasty pumpkin muffins with family in mind!

My baking buddy!

My parents are in town for the weekend and are babysitting Hannah while my husband and I are at work and attending a wedding this weekend. So I wanted to make sure there was something delicious and homemade for them to snack on while they're at our house.

I've also got two sisters in college and wanted to send them a little care package because what's more fun than receiving mail at college? Receiving mail with freshly baked muffins in it, that's what!
Pro tip: Place a piece of bread in the airtight storage container with your baked goods. The bread will get stale and your baked treats will stay moist!

I don't have a lot of time to bake from scratch these days, so Krusteaz mixes provide a perfect base for any baking I'm doing this fall. I took their pumpkin spice muffin mix and stirred in dried cranberries, which adds a great tangy sweet touch and chewy texture to the muffins. I also mixed up a quick homemade streusel topping that caramelizes and gets a little crunchy in the oven.

These muffins taste like fall-- spicy and sweet with a hint of pumpkin flavor. They're so easy to make and the perfect baked good for letting someone know you care... even if it's just by serving them to your family for breakfast!

Want to try baking these muffins yourself? You're in luck because I am giving away an amazing package of Krusteaz goodies! One lucky (randomly selected) reader will receive the following:
  • Two boxes of the following mixes: Buttermilk Pancake Mix, Belgian Waffle Mix, Pumpkin Spice Pancake Mix, Pumpkin Spice Muffin Mix and Cranberry Orange Muffin Mix
  • 1 Krusteaz branded tote bag
  • 1 Krusteaz oven mitt
  • 1 Krusteaz selfie stick 

Just use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

  • 1 box Krusteaz Pumpkin Spice Muffin mix
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 Tbs. all purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 Tbs. old fashioned oats
  • 1/4 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
  • 3 Tbs. cold butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease or line muffin pan with paper baking cups.

Stir together water, oil, egg and muffin mix until moistened. Fold in the cranberries until evenly distributed. Fill muffin cups 2/3 full.

In a small bowl, mix together the sugar, flour, oats, and pumpkin pie spice. Cut in the cold butter until the mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the tops of the batter-filled muffin cups.
Bake as directed (14-16 minutes for regular size muffins) or until golden brown. Cool 5 minutes; gently loosen and remove from pan. Store cooled muffins in tightly covered container.

Editor's Note: Complimentary Krusteaz products were provided in order to facilitate this post. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Foodie Finds: Holiday Party Season

One of my favorite aspects of food blogging is sampling great new products and then getting to share them with you. With Eating Season-- that entire stretch of time between Halloween (or maybe even Labor Day?) and New Year's Eve-- upon us, a ton of tasty products have crossed my path lately. And just in time to share with you as you prepare to host or attend events over the next several week! Here's a roundup of my current favorites and a few ideas about how to use them too:

Hope Hummus - Hummus has been a staple in my fridge for many years now. It's a filling healthy snack and comes in tons of different flavors. I recently tried Hope brand hummus though and their Sriracha organic hummus may be my new favorite. This hummus is organic, dairy free, and vegan approved and is seriously some of the creamiest and most flavorful hummus I have ever eaten. The sriracha flavor packs a ton of that signature tangy heat. I also love the Spicy Avocado hummus which is reminiscent of a super creamy and spicy guacamole. And if you find their elusive Dark Chocolate Spread let me know where... I am dying to try it!
Use it... as an easy, healthy, and tasty addition to your game day spread! Sunday entertaining is tough, but you don't have to go crazy when you're hosting a Sunday football watch party. Just open up some Hope hummus, serve with pita chips and pretzels, and devour!

CHEVOO  - Any goat cheese lovers out there? [Raises hand] This product is for you! CHEVOO is the marriage of chevre (goat cheese) and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), hence the name. As if those two ingredients weren't good enough already (on their own or together), unique and bold flavor combinations like smoked sea salt & rosemary or California dill pollen & garlic have been added to this mixture for what is by far one of the tastiest and most unique food products I have tried in quite some time. Marinated goat cheese may be out of the ordinary here in the US, but CHEVOO's creators are Aussie transplants who brought this tradition to their current home in northern California wine country, an area not only known for its wine, but also for its locally produced goat cheese.
Use it... to create a delicious and flavorful side dish to bring to any holiday season potluck or dinner party. I added the Aleppo-Urfa Chili & Lemon variety to cooked orzo along with fresh spinach, arugula, roasted red peppers, and pine nuts for an easy to make and transport side dish that's sure to please a crowd.

Ransom Gewürztraminer - Ransom is not your typical winery. Located in Oregon, Ransom produces small batch wines and also functions as a distillery, creating artisan spirits from the same local grapes. The Sunnyside
Gewürztraminer is dry and described as "opening with aromas of wild rose and apricot, the palate is a deft balance of terroir-driven minerality and crisp, mouthwatering acidity, with tantalizing flavors of white strawberry and Turkish delight. The finish is long, lithe, and scented of apple blossoms."
Use it... for serving at the Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve table. This wine pairs really nicely with rich dishes (like you're probably serving alongside that turkey) and also with shellfish, making it a great option for a Christmas Eve Feast of Seven Fishes dinner too. 

Face Rock Creamery Premium Aged Cheddar - More cheese, please! Like Ransom wine, this is another artisan food product brought to you by the great state of Oregon. Face Rock is only a few years old, but as already received accolades for their high quality cheeses (particularly cheddar) produced the old fashioned way-- without artificial or unnecessary ingredients and using milk from grass-fed cows. And you can taste that kind of quality and purity in their rich flavorful cheeses. I especially loved the sharp flavor of their aged cheddar!
Use it... as the start of an amazing fall charcuterie plate. Add a few more cheeses (maybe a blue and something soft), some hearty meats, and some festive fall accompaniments like sliced apples, toasted pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, and fig jam for a no-cook and holiday party-ready appetizer.

Skinny & Co. Coconut Oil Travel Kit - Coconut oil is a trend that is just not going away-- and for good reason. From cooking to oil pulling to moisturizing, it has a ton of uses and health benefits. Skinny & Co. is a unique producer of coconut oil products due in part to their production method: their patented Nutralock System™ crafts coconut oil at below 100 degrees F and they source it solely from their own factory, guaranteeing high quality production and ingredients in every batch. From there they have created tons of specialty coconut oil products. One of my favorites is their sugar scrub made of coconut sugar, coconut oil, and vanilla. It exfoliates and moisturizes at the same time (a huge plus for me postpartum, as the keratosis pilaris on my arms came back x1,000)-- and it smells amazing too!
Use it... as a hostess gift. This beautifully packaged set of coconut oil products is such a thoughtful gift for any holiday party hostess-- especially one that has a soft spot for naturally nourishing ingredients. This gift set is the perfect way for a hardworking hostess to pamper herself after a successful holiday party!

Backpack Wine - Guys, this is a fun one: Wine. In a can. It just sounds like it's made for camping/cookouts/kayaking/tailgating, right? Backpack wine was created here in Chicago (hooray for drinking local!) and was inspired by those gorgeous warm spring and summer days we have here after a long hard winter. What better way to enjoy that weather than with a crisp wine that doesn't require a corkscrew, cups, or the threat of broken bottles? And Backpack was born. It's available in two fun varieties: Cheeky Rose and Snappy White, both sold in 4-packs-- perfect for bringing along to your next indoor or outdoor party!
Use it... as a beer alternative at your next tailgate. Fall is prime tailgating season and what's more fun than grilling and drinking with friends and fellow fans in the crisp air? Beer is usually the beverage of choice at these events, but for those who prefer wine (like me) Backpack Wine is a great option. Put them in the cooler along with your favorite beer and forget about the dangers of a broken glass bottle or the mess of open keg cups. 

Editor's Note: Complimentary products were provided in order to facilitate this post. All opinions expressed herein are my own. Thanks for supporting the brands that support A Squared!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Traveling While Pumping: Planning & Tips

I'm back today with a follow up to Tuesday's post about what to pack when you're a pumping mom on the road. I hope you found my packing list helpful! As I mentioned then, if you're not into reading about breast pumps and nursing then feel free to bypass this week's posts. I will be back to posting about food again next week.

Business travel (specifically the overnighters) has been one of the most difficult parts of returning to work post-baby. It's hard enough to spend that much time away from a new baby, but if you're still a nursing mom there is an additional layer of stress. With that in mind, today I want to focus on the logistics of traveling while pumping. I know firsthand how stressful it can be, but have found that much of the stress of this situation lies in the unknown. I have never had to use a breast pump before, let alone figure out how to travel with one so I was feeling an especially high level of anxiety on my first trip. So here are some tips that I picked up from my own experience and from other moms to make your travel just a little less stressful:

Before Your Trip:

Call the hotel - As a nursing mom, the hotel should be able to provide you with a mini fridge in your room (if there isn't already one there) or if nothing else, a refrigerator elsewhere to store your milk. Be sure to call them ahead of time and/or include a special request in your online reservation for a fridge in your room. I have stayed in 3 different hotels since having Hannah and while they all say they can't guarantee it, all were able to provide me with a refrigerator for my room when I checked in, no questions asked.
Do your homework - Many airports provide special areas or rooms for nursing moms. They are few and far between, but you may luck out and find one near your gate or in your terminal, at least. Many airports will list these amenities on their websites and the website Moms Pump Here can be a good guide for locating mother's rooms, though it relies on user feedback so it isn't always super up to date. It listed a mother's room at Boston Logan Airport, for example, but after a very rude phone call with someone at Logan's information desk while I was there I found out that no such room existed. On the other hand, I did have a great experience in the Mamava nursing pod at Austin Bergstrom. It was SO nice to be able to pump comfortably and in private.
Freeze your ice packs - Make sure your ice packs are frozen or as close to it when you pack them in your thermal bag and head out the door to the airport. While you probably won't be bringing any milk with you at this point, you'll want frozen ice packs to cool whatever you pump between the time you leave home and arrive at your final destination. They're technically liquid, so don't forget to let TSA know about them -- and that you are carrying them on because you're a nursing mom!
Charge your pump - Don't forgot to pack your charger, but also do yourself a favor and pack your pump fully juiced so you don't have to scramble for an outlet when you're looking for a place in the airport (or on the plane) to pump.
Plan your travel ensemble well - When deciding what to wear on your trip, make sure you account for the fact that you may be pumping in a public or semi-public location. A dress may pose a big challenge for pumping discreetly or comfortably. I prefer the combo of nursing bra, nursing tank, and a loose blouse or sweater or one that buttons/zips. This combination is the easiest to maneuver under a nursing cover when you're putting on your pumping bra and attempting not to flash the whole world.
Give yourself plenty of time - Traffic and TSA lines can be unpredictable, so plan in some buffer time to ensure you're not running through the airport to catch your flight if you also need to pump beforehand. I try to make sure I have a good 90 minutes at the airport and that would include time for checking in, security, buying food and drinks, pumping, using the restroom, and boarding.
Pump or feed baby as close to leaving your home as possible - As I mentioned above, there are several variables that could potentially make you late for your flight. Pumping or nursing as close to your departure from home as possible buys you a little more time.

At the Airport: 
Let TSA know you're traveling with a breast pump - Sometimes they will question the extra bag, but you're allowed to carry on an extra personal item if it's your pump and equipment. You'll also need to let then know that you have ice packs (since they are filled with liquid) and possibly breast milk (if you pumped beforehand) as well.
Scope out the terminal - Locate a place to pump. I would discourage pumping in the bathroom, but totally understand wanting to pump discreetly... I won't judge other moms who pump or nurse publicly, but I'm uncomfortable doing so myself. If you did your homework before and couldn't find a mother's room conveniently located near your gate then don't go running to use it. Instead, find a gate that isn't currently in use or that has a long time until the next flight boards. Those gates are usually empty or close to it, so you can typically find a seat away from the crowds (maybe even facing the windows instead of the terminal), so that you can pump peacefully. Even on busy Monday mornings and Thursday evenings I have been able to find quieter places to pump.
If you have to pump on the plane... Thankfully, I haven't found myself in this position. Yet. If you end up having to pump in flight, I might recommend using your manual pump in this instance. Airplanes are not known for being roomy, which makes putting on your pumping bra and getting yourself set up to pump really difficult. Another option if you're a frequent traveler and have early boarding privileges is to pump while everyone else is boarding. Boarding takes a long time and if you can sit down and get yourself set up before you're seatbelted in and elbowing your neighbor that's a nice option too. 

At the Hotel: 

Reiterate your fridge request at check-in - It's probably not in your room yet, but in my experience they'll get it delivered to you within about 30 minutes of checking in.
Fridge 411 - I have been in 3 different hotels since giving birth to Hannah and have had 3 different mini-fridge scenarios:
  • The first one had one of those tiny freezer compartments that wouldn't accomodate my storage bags, but at least fit my skinny ice packs perfectly. They were totally frozen when I packed everything up when it was time to check out.
  • The second was a more standard fridge (sans freezer) situation so I wasn't able to freeze the ice packs or milk before I left. I was traveling with Hannah that time though, so I was only leaving with a couple of pumped bottles and not several bags of milk. In that situation, I recommend getting a cup of ice and a cap from a restaurant. Nestle it into your thermal bag and you've got a makeshift ice pack. Just don't forget to refresh it when it melts and you're traveling with a full cup of water instead!
  • The third refrigerator I had was also a standard fridge, but I was able to hack it and make it work for me by turning it up as cold as it would possibly go it actually ended up freezing anything that was placed toward the back. So, the ice packs and filled storage bags went right in the back of the fridge, while the bottles that I had not yet transferred stayed up front. It was definitely the most ideal of all 3 scenarios, so give that temperature control hack a try!
Consolidate - Some moms frown upon combining milk from different pumping sessions, but I think travel is an exception. If your storage bags hold a maximum of 6 oz., then I don't think it makes sense to fill them with anything less. So if you pump 4 oz. In your first session and then 3 in the next, I would pour the first 4 into the bag along with 2 more from the second session to get in the maximum 6 oz., label it with the date, and repeat. It's way more efficient (and less wasteful) to travel with as few of those filled bags as possible.
Clean your pump parts - Remember I told you to pack those wipes, dish soap, and the microwave sterilization bag? All of those are excellent options for cleaning your pump parts while away from home. I would save the wipes for when you're at the airport or elsewhere without easy access to a sink and stick with the hot water and dish soap method for cleaning in your hotel room. The sterilization bag is super handy if you've got a microwave in your room (just measure the water in one of your spare storage bottles). Another way to use it if you don't have a microwave is by running water through the coffee maker in your room, pouring it into the bag with your pump parts, and letting it sit for a few minutes before emptying. If it is the kind of coffee maker that has a pot (and not one that brews pods), I would clean it with that dish soap first... just to be safe.
Request a Late Checkout - When I was staying in Austin my flight home wasn't until 6 PM, but checkout was at 11 AM... that's a lot of hours with pumped milk and no fridge. Thankfully, I was able to extend my checkout by a couple of hours and maximize more of my time in possession of that mini-fridge!

Going Home:
Pack wisely - When it comes time to pack up your bagged milk, make sure you think about packing carefully but without wasted space. If your milk is frozen in bags, make sure they are frozen flat and then you can stack them sideways (like in the photo above). If they aren't frozen I recommend packing them flat on top of one another to best avoid spillage or broken bags. I also pack those frozen ice packs under, on top of, and/or around the bagged milk depending on how many I am packing and how much room is left. Pack the milk snugly inside a handled cooler bag and carry that bag separately from the rest of your luggage to make sure it doesn't get bumped around too much.
Give yourself extra time at security - One big thing to note about traveling with breast milk is that you are allowed to carry more than the maximum 3.4 oz. on board with you. When you are going through security notify the TSA officer that you're traveling with breast milk. They will have you put the milk on the conveyor belt with the rest of your luggage and afterward, they'll take the milk aside for additional x-rays. They will take the bottles or bags of milk and run them under an x-ray machine to make sure there's nothing sketchy inside. I've had to wait a while for this extra step to happen, so this is why you need to account for some extra time.
Every TSA experience is different - In NYC, I experienced the most thorough screening of my milk bottles, bags, and the ice packs. It took several minutes to get security clearance there. And then when I was leaving Austin and had mostly frozen bags of milk (the only time I have traveled flown with frozen milk), the TSA agent x-rayed them and then told me "as long as it's frozen, it's good!" I'm pretty sure that is not the case per these TSA guidelines.
Ask the TSA agent to change his/her gloves - They've been wearing them and touching other people's luggage and personal items for likely their entire shift... clean gloves are a good call before handling your baby's food. Thanks to Erin for that tip!

Once you are through security, follow the tips at the top of the post regarding pumping at the airport before your flight. And most importantly, enjoy your few hours of alone time on your flight before you get home and enjoy being a mommy again!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Traveling While Pumping: What To Pack

Fair warning: This post is not about food. If you don't care to read about breastfeeding or pumping, stop by next week for the return of tasty recipe posts!

I've been back at work for more than two months now (time flies) and have already been back in the air for two work trips since. Besides the obvious (being away from my baby), one of the most worrisome aspects of business travel for me these days is pumping. Breastfeeding and pumping are new adventures on their own, but add in the TSA and hotel stays and it's a whole new level of anxiety. So, this week I wanted to share a little bit about my experience in pumping while traveling (which is a compilation of my own experience plus advice from my more experienced mommy friends) so that any of you new or expectant moms out there can feel a little more at ease if and when you find yourself flying solo in those first few months.

What to Pack:

I want to begin with a list of what to pack for your flight sans baby. First, you're obviously going to want to pack your pump and necessary accessories like breast shields, connectors, and your charger. In addition, I recommend 4 storage bottles (so you have a set to pump into and one for backup) and a set of extra tubing because that's super delicate and you don't want it to get damaged in transit. Here's what else you should have packed:

  • Manual pump - I was not originally on board with this suggestion, but one of my coworkers who is a more seasoned traveling mom insisted I pack my Medela Harmony. Thank goodness she did! When I arrived in NYC several hours late on a recent business trip I needed to get to my room and pump quickly before running to a lunch... and after I unpacked it all and put it together, my pump stopped working! Thankfully, I got it to work again later that day but I was desperate, in pain and without a lot of time to deal with it. Having a manual pump on hand saved me in that moment and I haven't taken it out of my pump bag since.
  • Nursing Cover - Don't forget one of these! That same coworker (she's basically my working mommy mentor) reminded me that I'd probably need to pump at the airport and possibly on the flight, but that I wouldn't want to do it in the bathroom (because... ew, airport restrooms) so the nursing cover allowed me to pump discreetly in a quiet corner of the airport before my flight. I like this apron-style cover because it is super easy to slip on right over your clothes and it allows you plenty of room on the sides to situate things underneath too.
  • Hands-Free Pumping Bra - Wearing one of these is the most efficient way to pump because it allows you to pump on both sides simultaneously and without use of your hands. It's great for when you're in the airport and you're pressed for time-- just zip it on over your open nursing bra and you're ready. And with your hands free, you have the ability to do other important things like eat breakfast or check email while you pump.
  • Hand Sanitizer - Airports and airplanes are notoriously germ-filled, so be sure to quickly clean your hands before you begin handling your pump parts.
  • Cleaning Wipes - These wipes are ideal for any time you are pumping on the go, but especially in an airport or airplane when you don't have access to a proper sink situation. One wipe can clean all of your pump parts from one session, so a package of these is an absolute necessity. I don't know of any other brand that makes these besides Medela, but these are great and they're alcohol-free and made specifically for this purpose so you can also rest at ease about them touching parts that will touch the milk you feed your baby.
  • Extra Thin Ice Packs - The Medela Freestyle comes with a cooler bag and an ice pack that fits inside it and snugly between 4 milk storage bottles. However, for air travel I prefer these slim ice packs instead and leave the big one at home. You can layer them in and around a cooler bag and fill it with your storage bags or bottles, allowing you to carry way more than the 20 ounces those bottles max out at, while still keeping them chilled.
  • Thermal Bag - I bring the aforementioned Medela cooler bag with me, but also bring a larger collapsible thermal bag in my suitcase too. Mine is one that a client gave me with their logo on it (like this) and when I'm on my way home I slide the little Medela cooler inside this bag (since it is sturdier) and it's a perfect fit. I fill the little one with the more delicate storage bags of milk and any additional (like what you may pump at the airport) in bottles can sit on top. It also folds nicely into a suitcase on your trip out and only really needs to be out and in use on your trip home.
  • Disposable Breast Pads - You should always have a few of these in your pump bag, but especially when you're traveling in case of any delays in pumping that may cause leakage or if (god forbid) your checked bag gets lost. And while I love the washable ones, make your life easier and travel with the disposable kind. Throw them out when you're done instead of figuring out how to pack potentially wet pads back into your luggage.
  • Dish Soap - If you'll be staying in a hotel, bring along a small bottle of dish soap for washing pump parts and storage bottles in the sink. I love this little carry-on approved size that Dapple makes!
  • Microwave Sterilization Bag - You'll be away from home and likely without access to a dishwasher, so sterilizing your pump parts and bottles in a hotel room can be a challenge. I have some thoughts on that if you read my follow-up post later this week, but these microwave sterilization bags are my go to's at home and in any hotel room with a microwave. Just add water and you've got an easy and super portable way to steam clean all of your pump accessories.
  • Milk Storage Bags - An essential for storage while you're away! While I prefer the sturdy weight of Medela bags, these Nuk bags win out because they can store 6 oz. instead of 5, which is where the Medela bags top out.
  • Permanent Marker - This seems weird, but you'll want to keep one in your bag at all times for labeling the dates, times, and measurements on each of your storage bags when you fill them. You can also use it to tick off the number of uses for your sterilization bag too.

Stop back on Friday for a follow up post: Traveling While Pumping: Planning & Tips!

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