Monday, January 30, 2012

Best. Cupcakes. Ever.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you made Red Velvet Cupcakes with an Oreo bottom, a mini Reese's candy in the middle and topped it with Oreo Whipped Frosting? Thank goodness my friend Kelsie did, and we made them. We've dubbed them R Squared Cupcakes (Red Velvet Reese-Oreo). And they are delicious.

It all started with a simple photo e-mailed to her: a cupcake with an Oreo base and a Reese in the middle. The photo was a cross-section shot of the cupcake, so we could see exactly how it was constructed. The thing is...she doesn't like chocolate cupcakes. So we had to come up with a different flavor cupcake and then apply the candy-construction concept to the cupcakes. Thankfully we're both super smart, so we figured it out no problem.

She tackled the cake flavor and I tackled the frosting. Why yes, we do love the divide and conquer strategy. Thanks to my good friend Google, I found a terrific Whipped Oreo Frosting recipe. My only concern was that Kelsie is allergic to dairy, and the frosting was mostly heavy cream. She said it would be okay, that she just wouldn't eat a bunch in one sitting and she'd be fine. So we went ahead and baked the cupcakes, added the Reese's, let them cool (this way the Reese's soften and situate themselves within the cupcake). Then we made the frosting.

We whipped the cream, powdered sugar and vanilla until it was fluffy and forming into thick folds. Then we used a food processor to reduce some Oreos to mere crumbs and folded those in the frosting. Then we filled up our piping bags and got to work.

The result? Total and complete Aw--wait for it--some-ness. Total awesomeness. We rocked the cake worlds' socks off. Put that in your pastry bag and pipe it! (Sorry, still trying to work that phrase into mainstream media).
Total, utter deliciousness

Group shot

More photos coming when my lovely hubby gets them off of his phone :)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dancing Llamas: The Emperor's New Groove

         The first time I saw The Emperor’s New Groove was a bittersweet day: the last day of middle school. You may wonder why the last day of school—let alone the last day of middle school—would be bittersweet. One word sums it up: redistricting. Our school went from being comprised of mostly going to the same high school to being completely split down the middle. It was a sad day in those silver-and-blue bedecked halls. What made it sadder? Rain, storms, and field day being cancelled. The last day of 7th grade, we took a field trip to a huge park and it was like totally awesome. It rained while we were there, but it started after we got there, so our day wasn’t ruined. However, when it starts storming before your trip, your trip gets cancelled all together. This didn’t just upset the students—suddenly the teachers had to figure out what to do with a huge group of 8th graders about to explode with last-day-of-school energy
            In hindsight—especially now that I am a teacher—I can see what a difficult situation they were put in. Our school was set up as a central hub with several wings sprouting off in straight lines. In one hall, they conjured up a deejay for dancing. In another, the computer lab was open. In the auditorium, they started playing movies. I heard The Lion King was playing, but I was tricked: it was second. I was shocked to discover a very non-Simba-centric movie playing first: The Emperor’s New Groove. I was not pleasantly surprised. I even tried to leave—but once you were committed, they wanted to keep you in one spot.
            So there I was, expecting cake and getting carrots. But I ended up not hating the movie, even though I was being held against my will. I wasn’t dreading watching it again, but I wasn’t really looking forward to it, either. But with all quality products—and Disney does, as a rule, create quality products—I discovered something new as I watched it as an adult, instead of as an impatient 13-year old.
            What I noticed kind of surprised me: Yzma, the villain, is a cougar. Not like the jungle cat; the real, modern-day slanging for an older lady chasing a younger guy. Apparently Kronk is her prey, a young-if-dumb beefed up muscle man. However misguided his soft brain may be, his ability—and willingness—to talk to squirrels and chipmunks makes him okay in my book. Especially once he escapes the evil clutches of Yzma.
            I just finished a Walt Disney biography, and I believe his goodness permeates this film, released so many years after his death. I think the Disney animation studio made a lot of mistakes after Walt’s death (any straight-to-video sequels qualify for this category). Every now and then, I come across something I think Walt would have approved. The message of goodness radiates from Pacha, John Goodman’s voice is the perfect balance, partially because Pacha just looks like him so much, the connection is easy. And as long as I don’t think of John Goodman from the 80’s, with the Roseanne and that general category of ‘things I don’t like’, it’s great. For some reason I can’t really explain or justify, or really feel the need to justify, I love John Goodman. Pacha is the same way. He’s kind, but funny. He’s huggable, but in an uncle sort of way. He’s just a good guy. While I still don’t love the whole movie, I do love that character and the goodness he represents. Goodness is the foundation for greatness.
            Beginning this past Tuesday, I resumed my tutoring at the University. Only now, since I teach in the afternoon, I have to be here early in the morning. I’m not especially a morning person, so this isn’t exactly fun for me. But, as I was driving in the mad darkness that is Alaska at 8:40 a.m. in January, I was rewarded with a lovely sight: a yearling moose in the halo of a streetlight. My first thoughts were of how pretty it was and how thankful I was that it was in that yellow circle of light near the highway without stepping onto the highway. Then I realized that since it’s so dang dark, I couldn’t see any moose if they weren’t near streetlights.
            Fun fact about Alaska: they aren’t a fan of street lights. While this is nice at night, when there aren’t any lights shining in our room, in the morning and while driving it isn’t so nice. They (they being the mysterious people who do things like put up street lights and fix the roads when they’re torn up) added many street lights from Eklutna to Anchorage over the summer. This is great—once I get to Eklutna. But that means for half my drive, I have only my headlights. Because of the vast amount of snow we’ve received so far this year—much more than is typical—the moose are hurting. Their food is under two feet of high-winds-packed snow. This is drawing them out further and further, and bringing them closer to the roads. There’s a sign along my daily drive that says “Mat Su Moose killed this year:” and a steadily increasing number. When I finished tutoring in January, that number was between 100 and 150; I can’t recall exactly. It is now at 269.
            For the rest of my drive, all I could think about was the moose that could be lurking in the shadows of the majestic mountains I so love to see every day. Every uprooted tree, mound of dark snow, deserted cars and exit sign made my heart stop with fear that it was a moose, any moment about to step into the road. Thankfully we’re rapidly gaining daylight and this won’t be a problem for long, but the morning drive seems so much longer when I spend half of it straining to see moose that may or may not be there.
            Sadly, I also saw a moose—or part of one—on my way home. A truck was driving in the opposite direction and all I saw were antlers in the back, but not mounted style, and I knew where they led. I looked away before my eyes could confirm what my mind already knew.
            Despite the now ever-present fear of hitting a moose with my car, the sunrise over the mountains will never cease to amaze me. Today I came into work late and was able to witness the glory that is sunrise over the mountains: pink-lit cloud rushing towards snowy, shadowed peaks. It makes me want to drive to work with a video camera strapped to my head, so everyone could see the beautiful land I now call home.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ichabod and Mr. Toad...or is it?

            The last package film of the 1940’s is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Thank heavens. I love Disney movies (obviously), but the package films were getting seriously old (oh, what a terrible pun. Forgive me, Walt. Forgive me). We’re back to real features from here on out.
            Different cinematic adventures have different appeal. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was enjoyable, but in a Saturday morning cartoon way, and not in a Disney feature way. Of course, had it been a Saturday morning cartoon, it would have been the most beautifully animated one. Ichabod’s story was actually second, with Mr. Toad’s short film occurring first. Because of this switcheroo from the title, I was distracted by their out-of-order-ness.
            Once again, the special features called my name. This time, I was only disappointed by the lack of more special features. The one on there, an early Mickey Mouse cartoon titled The Lonesome Ghosts, was worthy of being the only special feature (other than games). I really enjoyed this little addition for multiple reasons. For one, since it was made in 1937, Walt Disney himself voiced Mickey Mouse. Secondly, there’s a level in Epic Mickey called Lonesome Manor, and I can clearly see all the tie-ins to the animated short. And finally, it’s hilarious! The combination of Mickey, Goofy and Donald is just great one. Although I’m thankful I had two friends watching with me—I can never understand Donald Duck! Lucky for me, one of my friends could, and served as my Donald translator.
            While Mr. Toad was amusing, I was more concerned with Ichabod from the start. To begin with, the legend of Sleepy Hollow terrifies me. This is almost entirely due to that terrifying movie that came out in the early 2000’s called Sleepy Hollow, starring Christina Ricci. There are scenes from that movie that still haunt me. I have a semi-photographic memory; that is, I can’t picture blocks of text as a photograph, but images from films and life remain in my brain for pretty much ever. This can come in handy, such as when we’re at the grocery store and James asks me to list everything in our fridge. It can also bite me in the toosh though, especially when it comes to movies.
            I love movies. Long movies, short movies, animated movies, live action movies. The only movies I don’t love are scary movies. I can’t handle them even in the slightest. Most of the ones I’ve seen I can blame my parents for, because they watched them when I was little and I was there and so I watched them too. This explains my intense phobia of spiders (Arachnophobia, age 3) and why I was terrified of dark T.V. screens for years (Poltergeist, there’s really no telling as it came out before I was born yet I vividly recall certain scenes I can’t think about or else I’ll have nightmares for a month).
            So scary movies aren’t my friend. But I thought with Disney’s version of Ichabod I’d be totally fine. Well, I was, because I had two friends there with me. However, I was acutely aware that we’d turned off all the lights and it was super dark out because it’s Alaska in winter and the blinds were off the sliding door from letting the dogs in and out and so there was a reflection and suddenly I wasn’t so totally okay with watching this not-supposed-to-be-scary movie. Okay, the phrase totally fine may be overstating it slightly. But I didn’t have nightmares, so that has to count for something, right?
            Also, FYI, I thought Disney would make the movie less scary by having the headless horseman be a prank. They didn’t. He was an actual demon. It was terrifying. I was so worried for Ichabod’s horse. He looked so scared!
            This month, I’ve been distracted by a double dose of Disney (I’d say trifecta, but it’s only on stage and the big screen). Beauty and the Beast is both back in theatres and the Broadway version is currently touring with a stop in Anchorage. While it’s no secret that The Lion King is my favorite Disney film, Beauty isn’t far behind. Of course it isn’t making this double appearance during the time I need to be writing about it. And because we’re still settling into new jobs, Broadway tickets are a bit out of our range at the moment. But I loved seeing it in 3D, and will tell all about it in the Beauty chapter.
            Speaking of new jobs, January marks my first month in my new career—teaching. Between the house and the new jobs (for both James and me), I’ll admit the Disney project has gotten a little behind. I love teaching, but I’ll admit I was shocked at the amount of preparation work that goes into each and every class. I have a deeper respect for all of my teachers.
            Another factor slowing down my Disney project is Netflix’s amazing ability to send the wrong movie over and over again. The most recent issue wasn’t with this film, Ichabod, but rather with the next. The Emperor’s New Groove wasn’t available from our local shipping center, so they sent the next one after that. Unfortunately, they sent the wrong next one. Back when I first started this whole project, I went on Netflix and put the movies I didn’t own in the proper order. Dinosaur kept moving to the saved section when it was marked Blu-ray, so I changed it to DVD and put it in its proper place. Somehow---without James or me moving it—it magically moved to the wrong spot way after all the Disney movies. So instead of sending Dinosaur, they sent Alice in Wonderland. Which is 4 movies away (Emperor’s New Groove, Cinderella, Dinosaur, Alice). So I am once again frustrated with Netflix.
            Back to Ichabod. I wish I had more to say about it, but while it was enjoyable, it wasn’t anything special. And that’s okay—it was one of the last ones they were working on during the war years. The fact they produced any films—in addition to the training films for the military Walt did at cost—while there was a world war and the entire studio was being used for military purposes will never cease to amaze me. And I’m grateful for the films that did come out of that era, as they funded the Disney Golden Age of the 50’s (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc). At the same time, I’m glad to get back to the smooth flow of non-package films. And to jump into the princess films, of course.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Adventure vs. Courage: Atlantis

This isn’t going to cover Atlantis in particular or in detail. A lot has been happening that needs to be shared, and it’s lightly linked with Atlantis. I’ve now seen it twice—I rented it as a tween/teen and then watched it again for this project. The first time, I loved it. The second time, eh. It was okay. But more important than the movie itself is what it encourages. It’s about courage and adventure. I’m reading a Walt Disney biography (and loving it, of course); if Walt was one thing, he was courageous. I’d already vowed to myself to work on being more courageous when all of the sudden, I had to be. But first, some backstory.
       There’s a difference between having an adventurous spirit and being courageous. I’ve always been adventurous. If adventure wasn’t to be had, I was inventing it in my mind. As a tween and teen, I’d go on long walks through the “woods” (I use quotes because what constituted for woods in Indiana to a 13 year-old is completely different from what I would say are woods in Alaska and as an adult) and down to the creek near our house and imagine whole plot lines taking place in other time periods with fictional people. Sometimes it led to paranoia. In fact, I once returned home from a walk with a friend and we reported to my sister we’d seen a serial killer.
       “How do you know he was a serial killer?”
       “Um, he was in the middle of the woods.”
       “…So were you.”
       “Yeah, but he was like, crouching in the bushes.”
       “Maybe he dropped something.”
       “…Or maybe he was a serial killer.”
My poor sister. Anyway, overactive imagination and all, I’ve always had an adventurous spirit. Without it, I wouldn’t have ended up living in Alaska, one of the most adventure-filled places I’ve ever been. It’s the same reason I became a trapeze artist and climbed a waterfall. Adventure and I, we’re BFF’s.
       But courage? That’s totally different. It took me years to work up the courage to simply be myself with everyone I knew, instead of different versions of myself. Add more years to work up the courage to always take responsibility for my own actions, instead of trying to blame it on circumstance. Lately I’ve been working on the courage to do the right thing, even if it involves this thing I hate: confrontation.
       Here’s the thing about me and confrontation: hours before or after the incident, I have an entire script planned out. But when it actually happens… It’s like I black out and become a silent, fuming, angry-crying non-confrontational shell. Also angry people scare me (to tears—see anger-crying above). Not exactly a good combination.
       I think James is often surprised by me. Acting out of character (generally in a good way) is part of my character. But it’s rare that I’m surprised by myself. One such instance occurred the Tuesday after Christmas, and I wound up standing up the counter in my kitchen and pounding the ceiling while yelling, “Stop” repeatedly. But we’ll get there.
       Back in October, we put an offer in on a house in Alaska. It was accepted. We were supposed to close the week of Thanksgiving-- didn’t happen. Then sometime before Christmas-- didn’t happen. Finally, the week after Christmas, we were scheduled to close and record on the same day. We closed, but didn’t make the recording deadline to get the keys the same day. We had to wait until the following day.
       For a short while, our upstairs neighbors had improved. They were quieter. We didn’t hear them yelling obscenities at their dogs. They were no longer leaving their dogs outside, tied up, unattended, with little water and no shelter, for extended periods of time in adverse weather conditions. I seriously began to wonder if they were on a three week vacation. Now I know it was the quiet before the storm.
            Before I continue, let me just say: I’ve put up with a LOT from these people. Screaming matches between the girl and her at-the-time assortment of lovers. The sounds of physical fights and things breaking because of said fights. I’ve even called the police because I heard a male voice say, “I’ll do it, I’ll kill myself,” followed by another male voice, “Put down the gun” (that was a lovely 6 a.m. wake-up call) (FYI, I called 911, heard glass shatter, was informed to stay inside with all doors and windows locked and was then told that Troopers were already on the scene). I’ve heard her on the phone, telling the world how that guy is now in jail (she even held a party. Someone who lived with her tried to commit suicide, and she threw a party). Countless nights I had to fall asleep blaring Taylor Swift to cover the When-Harry-Met-Sally (but way, way louder) moans coming from upstairs. I once had to listen to terrible drunken renditions of every minor hit from the last ten years—with drunken acoustic guitar accompaniment—until three a.m. (I don’t believe in calling the police and wasting their time unless it is an actual emergency, thus I didn’t call the police. I did report multiple times to the property manager, but nothing ever came of that).
            I put up with all of that. But there is one thing, it turns out, that spurs me to action right past my fear of confrontation. That thing, it turns out, is the sound of a dog being viciously beaten.
            I was sitting on the couch, disappointed to learn that we hadn’t been able to record that day and thus would have to put off moving yet another day. Nala was curled up beside me, being all adorable. All of the sudden, I heard stomping followed by the saddest, most excruciating noise I’ve ever heard. It was pain, pure pain, and terror. I could tell it was the beagle that lived upstairs. I jumped up and ran to wake up James (he was still working nights at this point and thus sleeping during the day). I told him what I thought was going on and went back to the living room.
            I heard the man shout, “What are you gonna do about it/ What the f*** are you gonna do about it” while the terrorized beagle continued to howl. “Shut up/ Shut the f*** up followed. “What are you gonna do—you gonna bite me? Bite me! F****** bite me!” More stomping followed.
            I’d been in the process of looking up the animal abuse phone number when I heard the dog continue to make that noise. The next thing I knew, I was standing on the kitchen counter, banging on the ceiling and yelling “Stop it, stop it right now” in the angriest voice I had ever heard. I couldn’t believe my own voice. I was shaking with anger and fear for that poor dog. The noise immediately stopped.
            I dialed the number. Someone knocked on the door. It was the man who had been staying with the girl upstairs. James was in the living room in a flash, and at the door. He shouted through the door, “Get away from my door now.” The man left. I called the police, who referred me to the borough (we lived outside city limits). I told them my story, and they instructed me to fill out a statement on their website. The statement was filled out with what happened that day and all the other injustices I witnessed those dogs go through without enough evidence to report the owner.
            I was informed an investigation would be conducted since I only witnessed via sound and not visually. I’m continually praying for the safety and well-being of those dogs. She had three living there. I’m also praying that justice is served to that man.
            There are certain times that I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I know precisely why our house closing was delayed and why we didn’t record that day. I was supposed to be in that apartment to finally get the evidence I needed to save those dogs. I can only hope and pray that they will, in fact, be saved. But I’m confident they will be—otherwise God would not have put me there at that time.
            In Atlantis, Milo has to choose between doing the right thing and giving up. It’s appropriate I had this movie to watch at the time I did. By moving away without getting that evidence, I would have given up and those dogs would have had no one fighting for them. It takes courage to do the right thing. That dog-beating coward knew when he was caught, knew he was busted, and that’s why he stopped.
            Horrible things are always happening in the world. If you walk away without doing anything, you’re giving up. But by having the courage to do the right thing—the way Disney teaches us—we’re making the world a better place. Walt wanted to improve the world, to teach through entertainment. His dream lives on, even with the films he had nothing to do with.