Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (and the Rest of my Florida Trip)

Winter in central New York is brutal. I struggle with depression periodically and the short days, cold temperatures and overall gloominess really seem to exacerbate things--I suspect SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is to blame. In the first part of March, my sister surprised me with an early birthday present (my birthday is in a few days) and bought me a plane ticket to Florida during her spring break so that we could visit The Wizrding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. She knew the sunshine and sister time would help me make it through the rest of New York's seemingly interminable winter.

It was a whirlwind trip--only three short days and then I had to fly directly from Florida out to Utah for my husband's grandmother's funeral--but we fit so much amazingness into the brief time I was there.

As soon as my sister and niece picked me up at the airport we drove directly to the beach. We stopped at a locally famous seafood place for lunch--fish tacos for Taco Tuesday!--and then enjoyed a stroll along the beach. In blue jeans. It was in the teens temperature wise when I left New York so I wasn't dressed for the beach but the warm sand and the blue water were an instant balm to my winter-weary soul.

That evening we planned our next day at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure and bought our tickets online. We also did the sorting ceremony on Pottermore so we would know which Hogwarts house we belong to (HUFFLEPUFF!) We got to Diagon Alley shortly after the park opened and stayed at the two parks until closing time. 

Diagon Alley
Trying on hats at Madam Malkin's
Eeylop's Owl Emporium
The first order of business was visiting Ollivander's to see a  wand chooses the wizard ceremony. After that we hit Madam Malkin's and Eeylop's Owl Emporium then The Fountain of Fair Fortune for frozen butterbeer which we sipped while we waited in line for the Escape from Gringott's ride. The rides were incredible, virtual reality type rides. I have never experienced anything like them. The parks have so many amazing things to see and do. I really want to bring my boys to the parks one day so they can feel the magic of being immersed in the wizarding world.

Gringott's Money Exchange allows you to convert your muggle money to
 wizarding bank notes which are accepted throughout the parks.
This Gringott's goblin spoke to us and answered our questions.
In a back corner of Diagon Alley is the entrance to Knockturn Alley so we checked it out before heading to Hogsmeade.

Skelegrow Display outside of Knockturn Alley
Inside Borgin and Burkes in Knockturn Alley you can see the vanishing cabinet and hear a bird tweeting inside.
 We decided we needed to go for it and have the full magical experience so we changed our muggle money at Gringott's before heading from King's Cross Station to board the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade (we had purchased a park hopper pass so we could ride the train back and forth between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade).

Platform 9 3/4! 

Me and my niece after disembarking from the Hogwarts Express.
If you ever make it to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, do buy the park hopper pass. You are going to want to  be able to see Diagon Alley and Hogmeade and riding the Hogwarts Express is an experience in itself. 

At Hogsmeade we headed to The Three Broomsticks for lunch before exploring the villiage.
I had the Cornish pasties and they were delicious. The pear cider was also fantastic.

Hogsmeade--even the snow is magical! It doesn't melt in the Florida heat.
In Hogsmeade you can send a letter by owl, visit Honeyduke's, see Hagrid's cottage and say hello to Buckbeak and experience Hogwarts on  the "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride. Our longest wait of the day was for this ride, but it was totally worth it. I felt like I was really flying--so cool!

My niece sending a letter by owl.
Ron Weesley sighting outside of Madame Puddifoot's.

Hogwarts--don't skip this ride!

Chocolate frogs display at Honeydukes.
After standing in lines in the Florida heat we were ready for some refreshment again:

By this point we decided to we had seen what Hogsmeade had to offer and decided to head back to the Hogsmeade station and take the train to Diagon Alley for dinner at The Leaky Cauldron. Our timing was perfect and there was no line once we got there and were ready to eat. My sister, my niece and I decided to go all out for dinner; we ordered toad in the hole, fish and chips, the ploughman's platter (with scotch eggs) for our entrees and all tried each other's food. We had fishy green ale (a cinnamon, mint drink with bursting boba) and tongue tying lemon squash (a lemon squeeze) to drink. Dessert was sticky toffee pudding, chocolate potted cream and cranachan (kind of like a raspberry, custard and granola parfait). It was all delicious--although admittedly the fishy green ale was kind of weird.

Fishy green ale (photo from Yelp)
After dinner we decided to check out the Knight Bus and talk to the conductor and the shrunken head while we let our food settle so we could ride the Gringott's ride again. 

A peek into the Knight Bus earlier in the day.

There are all kinds of shows going on in the parks so we sat down for a minute and enjoyed a puppet show about the Deathly Hallows before making our way to Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes so that I could pick up chocolate frogs for all of my boys.

Puppet show about the Deathly Hallows.
Wesleys' Wizard Wheezes
U-No-Poo display at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes
Diagon Alley is just as magical at night as it is during the day--maybe even a little more so (even if it is a little harder to get clear pictures).

My pictures only represent a small part of what there is to see and do at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I loved every minute of it. I have been to DisneyWorld as well and if I could choose to go to one again I would choose The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in a heartbeat.

The next day we took it easy and rested out tired feet but we did make a trip to a farm stand for dinner. 

Fried tomatoes, tomato cucumber salad, homemade onion rings, salt potatoes and steamed green beans. Tasted like summer.
That night we went for boba (ours was tea-less--just a blended fruit drink with the tapioca balls). It was my first time trying it and I have been craving it ever since.

I left for Utah around 6:00am the next morning.

Although I would have loved a couple of more days with my sister, I think this is one of the best birthday presents I have ever received. New York winters make me feel like I can relate a little more to how Harry Potter must have felt having to return to the Dursley's house after Hogwarts let out for summer. It wasn't fun to come back to the cold and the snow, but the happy memories have helped  sustain me until spring arrived. Now the weather has improved, spring is here and I am feeling more human again. Life has become a little more magical.

So, are you a Harry Potter fan? Have you been sorted? Have you been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? What was your favorite part? Tell me in the comments.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Strawberry Sweet Rolls with Fresh Strawberry Cream Cheese Glaze

I was having a hard time finding my own words to describe these sweet rolls so I went to my boys for help. They each gave me three words to describe these bad boys:
Specs (age 7)
Tank (age 10)
Monkey (age 13)
Legiiit (he specified the spelling)
Tyht (i.e. "tight"--he also specified the spelling for this one)
Stretch (age 16)

So, what do you think? Are you tempted to give them a try?
Don't let all the steps and ingredients intimidate you. These only take about an hour to make, total, including baking time.

Sweet Rolls:
1 cup warm water
3/4 cup room temperature buttermilk (if you don't have buttermilk you can substitute 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice and add milk to make 3/4 cup then allow to sit for 10 minutes before using)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted and slightly cooled
3 Tablespoons dry yeast (not rapid rise)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs
5 to 6 cups flour (I used all 6 cups)

In the bowl of a mixer, combine water, buttermilk, sugar, melted butter and yeast. Stir well with a wooden spoon and proof for 15 minutes (this just means let it sit for 15 minutes so the yeast can soften and get activated). Add salt, eggs and flour all at once and mix with a dough hook for about a minute. Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix on medium speed for 10 minutes. Scrape the bowl again and allow the dough to sit for 10 minutes more.

While the dough sits, you can prepare the filling and glaze. You may want to preheat your oven now too (375 degrees).


1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon strawberry extract (more if you want a stronger strawberry flavor)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup butter, softened (you want this really soft--soft enough to spread easily on the roll dough once it is rolled out)
1 cup strawberries, chopped finely (optional)

Using a fork stir together the brown and white sugar, the cinnamon and the strawberry extract until well combined. Set aside.

Fresh Strawberry Cream Cheese Glaze:
4 oz cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup strawberries, washed and pureed in a blender or food processor
2 pounds powdered sugar
milk to thin out the glaze as needed

In a medium bowl beat together the cream cheese and butter until totally combined and fluffy. Add the pureed strawberries and powdered sugar alternately a little at a time making sure the glaze is well blended after each addition. Add milk to reach desired consistency. Set aside.

After the dough has rested for 10 minutes, turn it out onto a floured surface. Roll the dough into a 12x18 inch rectangle. Spread the softened 1/4 cup butter (from the filling step) on the rolled out dough and sprinkle with the sugar, strawberry extract mixture and the finely chopped strawberries, if desired.

Starting at the long end, roll the dough into a log. Pinch the seam together and using a length of dental floss or thread cut the log into 12 large rolls (to cut, loop the floss under the log of dough and pull up, crossing the ends--like you would if you were going to tie a bow or knot--and pulling tight until it cuts through the dough. This is a lot easier way to cut dough than with a knife). Place on a large Silpat or parchment lined cookie sheet and bake in a 375 degree oven for 15-20 minutes or until light golden brown (I did mine for the full 20 minutes).

When the rolls come out of the oven, spread the glaze over them while they are still warm.Sprinkle additional chopped strawberries on top for garnish, if desired and serve.

This makes 12 LARGE rolls. We all ate one last night and had one for breakfast this morning. I reheated mine in the microwave for about 20 seconds and it was every bit as good as the one I had last night. Seth ate his for lunch. He said "It was good" which is kind of high praise coming from him. :)

(This recipe is adapted from a couple of different cinnamon roll recipes located here and here).

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Leia & Han

I made a Valentine for my husband this year. It's kind of perfect for us.
I got the Han and Leia silhouettes HERE, from Natalie at Doodlecraft. Thanks for enabling me to make the perfect Valentine for my scruffy-looking nerf herder husband, Natalie.

Did you have any big plans for Valentine's Day weekend? I gave some little gifts to my boys (boxers and little heart-shaped boxes of chocolate) and I made a delicious dinner for my family--tortellini, spinach and italian sausage soup, homemade breadsticks and strawberry cake.

We didn't go out. The weather here has been pretty intense. Church was cancelled for tomorrow. The only other time I have had church cancelled for weather was in the middle of a hurricane when we were visiting Florida a few years ago. My kids missed their Valentine's parties at school yesterday because we had a snow day. With windchills of -15 degrees and below we haven't spent a lot of time outside so we're all getting a little cabin fever. 

My kids don't have school all next week (midwinter recess) and I'm starting to wonder if we'll all survive--it has the potential to be worse than being stuck in a cave with a wampa ice creature. A planet like Tatooine with two suns sounds kind of appealing right now. We may have to get a pet tauntaun if this keeps up much longer.
Sorry. I'll stop with the Star Wars references now.

I hope you had a nice Valentine's Day. Feel free to save my Leia and Han valentine for next year if you'd like.

 And because I can't resist, here's one last little bit of Star Wars wisdom for you this Valentine's Day:


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Bear Hugs and Teacher Valentines

Here are the Valentines that my two little boys are giving this year. I wanted to get them finished and posted earlier for anyone looking for a cute valentine printable, but extenuating circumstances prevented me from completing them until this afternoon. If you are looking for a last minute idea, you are in luck. If not, you can always pin it for next year.

I was looking for a treat that was allergy-friendly for any kids in the classes that may have food allergies. These are mini Haribo gummy bears and they are peanut, tree nut, soy, wheat and dairy free. They are also extra cute because they are tiny. I was thinking you could use cinnamon bears or even Teddy Grahams if you can't find the mini gummy bears (although I'm not sure about the allergens in those things).

They are super easy to put together. All you need is scissors and a stapler. Cut out the bears and staple them to the bags of gummy bears. Done. My kids didn't bring home class lists this year, so to make it easy they just signed their names to the back.

I also did some quick teacher Valentines. The teachers are always in need of classroom supplies and I know one of the teachers specifically mentioned that she needs dry erase markers so I am sending these with the boys as well.
 I printed and cut out the Valentine cards and attached them to the markers with washi tape (because who doesn't love washi tape?! Am I right?). It doesn't get much easier than that.

Here are some bear hugs and teacher valentines for you to print if you'd like. You should be able to just click on the image and then right click and save as. Let me know if that doesn't work because I saved them in PDF format too and I could share them that way as well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Card Therapy

The first weeks of February leading up to Valentine's Day always give me a creative itch. I haven't taken much time to do anything crafty lately, but I did make a card. When my youngest was a baby and toddler I used to make cards almost daily, then life got in the way and while I still enjoy it, I fell out of the habit.
So, here's a simple little Valentine I created.

I started a card inspiration board on Pinterest. There are so many talented card makers out there. It makes me happy to see their cute creations. My inspiration for this one came from a card by Teri Anderson (see it here).

I had grand aspirations to get Valentines mailed to all our loved ones this year. It didn't happen. January and February are by far the hardest months for me. It feels like the never-ending snow has buried us. The banks on either side of our driveway are at least 6 feet tall in places. It has been so gloomy too. I'm calling it a victory that I made cookies yesterday and cleaned my house today.

Card making was therapy for me at one time. Maybe I need to allow myself a little more time to do it more often.

What do you do to get through the bleak midwinter days?
Have you made anything fun lately?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Chess Pie

I am kind of in love with this pie. It might not be all that handsome, but it is sweet and rich and humble. It has all those attributes that might make a pie attractive and irresistible.

What exactly is chess pie? Let me tell you: It is a simple, custard-y, old-fashioned, southern plate of deliciousness.
Sometimes when I only have one pie crust and I'm trying to decide what to fill it with I'll opt for chess pie. I always have all the ingredients on hand and really it couldn't be easier.

This is the recipe I like to use from Southern Living.  The cornmeal and vinegar keep it humble but don't let the odd ingredients scare you.

prepared pastry dough for a one crust pie
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, slightly beaten

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Roll out your dough, trim, flute edges and prick with a fork and use beans or pie weights to keep the crust from shrinking.  I use this awesome Williams-Sonoma pie weight that my favorite in-laws gave me for my birthday last year.
3. Bake crust for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove pie weight. Cool the crust completely before proceeding to the next step.
4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
5. Stir together the cornmeal, flour, salt, butter, milk, vinegar and vanilla. Add the beaten eggs stirring until well combined.
6. Pour the filling into the crust.
7. Shield the edges with aluminum foil to prevent over-browning (my crust got a little browner than I typically like it because our oven isn't calibrated properly so I have to watch things and I got distracted, but it was still so good!)
8 Bake for 50-55 minutes or until set. Remove the foil the last 10 or 15 minutes of baking and allow the crust to brown.
9. Cool completely on a wire rack. The pie should be fine at room temperature for a day or two (if it lasts that long) but if you're worried, keep it in the fridge.

Can you almost taste that buttery, custard-y goodness? It is really rich and pairs well with a glass of 2%. You really only need a sliver but it's so good you might want seconds. Lemon chess pie is a good classic southern variation. I also love it with freshly whipped cream.

Two things--1. the recipe says you can use margarine or butter. Just say no to margarine. Butter all the way, baby. 2. Opt for pure vanilla extract. I know it's more expensive but it is so much better than artificial vanilla flavoring.

You should try it. Seriously. Grab a fork. Let's go
Now if it could only wash the dishes and do the taxes...