The Vinegar Trick and Some Magic

Hi, folks. Been a while!

I decided to update this thing because I have discovered a really cool trick to help keep dishwashers (and your dishes) from smelling funky, and it’s too good not to share with the tens of readers who follow this blog. (And just a quick note, everything here is solely my personal opinion and I was not asked to plug any specific product.)

You know how your dishes can be “clean” right from the dishwasher but they smell disgusting? Like someone blow-dried on some nasty invisible funk smell? Well, that wet dog, “earthworm” smell indicates that your dishwasher itself needs a really thorough cleansing in the crevices you can’t reach. Think about if you dipped your toothbrush in the toilet–you wouldn’t want to put it back in your mouth, right? Well, that odor tells you that your dishes have gone in the toilet.

Okay, now that we’re all grossed out, I’m going to recommend a product called Dishwasher Magic.

dishwasher-magic

That stuff is the bees’ knees. We use it every 3-6 months in our household to clean the mechanisms in the dishwasher which do the actual cleaning of the dishes. It not only gets rid of calcium buildup but it disinfects; it claims to get rid of both salmonella and e.coli. That’s a winner right there.

But the second thing you can do, and the trick that inspired this post, is to use good old-fashioned white distilled vinegar as an in-between rinse. I do two things with this: I fill the rinse-aid container with vinegar instead of Jet Dry, which helps with spots and overall cleanliness; I also use a “vinegar rinse” every few cycles (or when I start to smell funk) and pair it with the light or delicate cycle. What that means is, I take a tall glass and fill it halfway with white distilled vinegar, place it securely on the bottom rack where it sits flat, and turn the dishwasher on the delicate cycle.

That’s it!

Seriously, that’s all it takes. I’ve even tested it by putting some “clean” dishes that smell like wet dog in the upper rack of the dishwasher with the cup of vinegar sitting on the bottom, and they come out smelling fresh (read: like clean glass and nothing else).

It saves your sanity, a little money, and you don’t have to actually scrub out the dishwasher itself.

It seriously works and, if you’re like me who has strong smell aversions, you will want to start doing this right away.

Hope this helps anyone out there who is washing everything by hand because the inside of the dishwasher smells like a garbage heap. Let me know if you try the Dishwasher Magic or the vinegar trick and what you think!

 

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Lit’rally the Best Brownies Ever

Brownies_zoesays

Hello, lovely readers!

We’ve been having gorgeous weather lately and last weekend, it was wonderful to throw open all the windows and let in fresh air, sunshine, and the sounds of birds chirping. For some reason, the pacifying gorgeous weather struck a baking chord within me. (I bet you were wondering how I would segue into brownies from pretty weather, huh?)

So, let’s get to the meat of things–or the chocolate of things, as the case may be.

I know there are a gazillion recipes out there for brownies. I mean, if you type in “brownies” on Pinterest, your Pinterest will hang for five minutes while it tries to deliver the search results.

A good friend of mine and I had a discussion about this treat not too long ago, which ended up being the catalyst for my search. I have yet to find a brownie at any bakery in my town that is what I dub a “Zoe brownie.” Frankly, it’s been a long while since I’ve consumed a brownie in a commercial or retail setting that was memorable.

Probably not a shock to those who know me but I am very picky about how brownies should look and taste.

My opinion is that they should be rich, not too sweet, very chocolatey, dense, chewy on the edges, and have nothing to distract from these qualities, e.g. nuts, peanut butter, chips, icing, etc.

When I conducted my aforementioned Pinterest search, the results returned were all brownie recipes that had a whole bunch of stuff on or in them. So I scrapped that, went back to good old Google, and narrowed my findings down to four solid looking recipes. After reading through them, I was able to narrow down the possible winners to two, both of which claimed to be the BEST brownies.

It then came down to ingredients and preparation. Based on that, I decided to go with one posted on Cravings of a Lunatic, entitled, “The Best Brownies in the WORLD!!!” I was ready and willing to prove whether this claim was, in fact, true.

Well.

There’s only one thing I have to say about that. Using the inflection of Chris Traeger’s character from Parks and Rec, I can say with no exaggeration that they were LIT’RALLY? the best brownies I’ve ever had. I have no idea how the original author came up with this outstanding recipe, but it is nothing short of divine.

Here is the ingredients list and also my very minor tweaks in parentheses. (Please note that these amounts will yield a double batch, which fits into one 9×13 pan of brownies. A single batch is meant to go in an 8×8 pan but honestly, do yourself a favor and make the double batch.)

  • Two sticks of butter (I did one stick of unsalted and one stick of salted)
  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate (We happened to have Scharffen Berger 99% unsweetened dark chocolate on hand.)
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, beaten (Really beat the eggs with a fork–get the stress out!)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla salt (you can use regular salt for this–I used fine sea salt)

Here are the easy peasy lemon squeezy preparation instructions:

  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  • Line your pan with parchment paper. (I used Kim’s tip to wet the parchment paper to get it to stick to the pan.)
  • Melt the butter and unsweetened chocolate together over medium heat in a medium saucepan; I strongly suggest using a double boiler. (Kim suggests a wooden spoon–I recommend a rubber spatula for most of this process.)
  • Remove from heat and add the sugar. Stir well.
  • Now add your eggs and vanilla, stirring until it’s smooth. (Here is where you may want to switch out your rubber spatula for a minute and use a whisk.)
  • Add chocolate chips, flour, and salt. Stir until well blended. (Back to the rubber spatula we go.)
  • Pour into pan and place in oven. (Tapping the pan on the counter to settle the batter works and pops any lingering bubbles.)
  • Bake for 35-45 minutes, toothpick inserted should come out clean (or mostly clean) when done.
  • Remove and cool on a rack.
  • Serve and consume!

These brownies taste unbelievable after cooling a bit but are still warm, with or without a scoop of ice cream. They definitely require milk or coffee to accompany them.

They also keep! Boxed brownies, while they can bake up decently, usually just taste like hardened chemicals the next day, which makes me gag.

Not these babies. Granted, they don’t last very long because you can’t believe how good they smell and taste, and so you and your family eat them pretty quickly, but they DO keep. Breakfast, snacks, dessert, just because, whatever. If you’re a gym goer or don’t indulge often, I promise it’s worth the extra gym session or having a cheat.

These brownies are super rich and chocolatey, moist, fudgey, smell like a chocolate shop and everything good in the world, and come out of the oven with a delicious glossy crust. The edges are perfectly chewy and add a lovely bit of texture.

Make some for your office mates and share if you don’t want to end up eating half a pan of these sinful things.

What’s a blog post about brownies without photos? Here are a handful. I honestly didn’t get a lot because we pounced on them like rabid hyenas.

It goes without saying but here it is anyway: this is totally a Zoe Recommends!

 

Dark ChocolateChopped Chocolate Brownie pan

 

Brownies 2_zoesays

 

Year One of Not Owning a Microwave

retro microwave-1

I am not a “hipster.” I am not “retro.” And I’m not one of those people who can make doing things that aren’t mainstream look cool.

That said, I would like to tell you the story of how we came to get rid of our microwave and the ensuing results.

A year ago, we moved. We downsized from a very nicely sized kitchen to a small apartment kitchen, where it took real creative genius to figure out how to fit everything into the cupboards.

One of the most arduous challenges we had on our hands was prioritizing which appliances would sit out on the very limited real estate of counter top. Anything heavy or bulky wasn’t going to be able to go anywhere, and unfortunately, that pretty much meant all of the appliances needed to stay out by default.

Our microwave was one of them.

No matter where we plugged it in around our little U-shaped kitchen, it was butt ugly and/or forced out other appliances we used much more often. The situation became so dire, that I looked at Kevin and said, “What if….we got rid of the microwave?” Kevin didn’t hesitate for a second. He promptly unplugged it and put it on the dining room table right before he put it up for sale on Craigslist.

In my twenties, this decision would have been unfathomable. College alone is four years of living out of the microwave. Two previous boyfriends I have lived with heavily relied on the microwave for sustenance. I think my brother would actually starve if he didn’t own one.

In spite of my dependence on my microwave lessening as I got older (though I went through a fairly serious Hot Pocket phase between 2008 and 2010), I still liked having one around with which to zap too cold ice cream and the occasional butter or cream cheese when I was baking. (Not a frequent occasion.) Note: some people are avid beverage makers in the microwave. Not I. Microwaved coffee has an abhorrent “flat” taste, and anything else I would make, e.g. hot cocoa, I make from scratch.

Popcorn addicts, I haven’t forgotten about your sputtering objection to getting rid of a microwave. There are probably people who subsist solely on the varieties of microwavable popcorn out there. I, too, love a good bucket of buttery popcorn. Once upon a time, I used to consume the stuff like it was Twinkies being taken off the shelves.

When we traded in our microwave, we bought an air popper that we were able to put away, so we can still make popcorn whenever we want. It’s probably been a good year since we’ve made any, however. The best way I enjoy it is overpriced and “buttery” at the movie theater, with getting freshly made kettle corn at a fair being a close second. I think most people forget that you can still make Jiffy Pop on the stove, too.

So here are the ten pros, as I see them, to ditching the microwave oven:

  • Gaining back primo counter space.
  • Becoming closer with my stove and oven. While softening butter in ten seconds is certainly faster and easier in a microwave, the two times a year I would need to do so don’t merit owning one.
  • I can stop worrying that what I’m reheating is putting cancerous toxins in my body (word to the wise: microwaving anything plastic is BAD).
  • I don’t have to clean up splattered food that has gone everywhere inside the damn thing. Huge pro.
  • I don’t have to be afraid that heating up a cup of soup or anything else mostly liquid is going to explode in my face.

    microwave explosion

    Seriously. Gross.

  • I don’t have to eat rubbery, microwaved food. Anything worth reheating is worth taking an extra ten minutes in the actual oven to warm up.
  • Funky smells will no longer assail my nose in my own home.
  • I don’t have to hear that infernal beeping noise when it’s done heating.
  • I don’t have to walk into the kitchen and obsessively/compulsively click “Stop/Clear” to get it to go back to the clock, since I’ve found that most of the population opens the door before the beep but doesn’t bother to clear the timer.
  • No more wondering whether I’m standing too close to the door and making myself sterile while it’s on.

I’m not on a crusade to get others to join me but I will laud the ditching of the microwave. In a year of not having one, neither of us have said we miss it or even thought about getting another one. It really is a beautiful thing.

**Update:** It’s been 2.5 years since we’ve lived without a microwave; life is still good and we have never wavered with our decision. We do get a kick from weirding people out when they realize there is no microwave to be had in our wee kitchen.

Lickety Split Recommendation

Naturally FreshI’m making this super fast this morning. As a follow-up to my long ago post about B.O., I wanted to put forth a recommendation to anyone out there who wants to try or has tried natural deodorants but wasn’t sure if anything really worked.

I personally did not enjoy using the Crystal brand, as it stung too much using it on shaved underarms. To each her own, though.

However, I decided not to give up on my au naturel journey and started using the brand above: Naturally Fresh. (I find it at Wal-Mart but I am sure Drugstore.com or Amazon has it.)

Previous to using this kind, I had never ever ever been a roll-on type girl. I always stuck with the invisible deodorant sticks, like Secret or Dove. (I actually do love me some Dove but I love not using chemicals on my body more.)

This has a very clean smell to it and lasts all day, providing you roll on enough. Translation: you do have to roll on more of this than you would regular deodorant/antiperspirant, which only takes a few swipes. It takes a while to get used to having wet underarms in the morning before going to work but I find the following pros have helped me stick with this:

  • No white residue on clothing, ever. And I wear a LOT of black.
  • My white shirts no longer get the yellowish stains in the pits, ruining their wear long before I’m ready to give the shirt up.
  • Paraben free! (Parabens are bad, y’all. Look it up.)
  • It’s inexpensive. I buy two of these at a time just so I don’t run out unexpectedly.
  • It doesn’t sting on freshly shaven underarms.
  • It works.

In sum, Zoe Recommends Naturally Fresh roll-on natural deodorant. As always, with anything, do your research before you buy and make sure you aren’t allergic to anything in the ingredients list.

Let me know if you’ve tried it and what you think!

The Lustre of Mid-Day (to Objects Below)

Happy Feast of St. Nicholas! I don’t know about you but before researching this a little bit, I had never seen a photo of St. Nick before. So here you go.

Bam!

The lean and holy Saint Nicholas (pre fat and jolly Santa).

If you want to read a very in-depth back story, click here where this other blogger has laid it out so nicely for us.

The real question is…did anyone receive any coins or chocolates in their shoes this morning?

I don’t know about you guys, but when I was a kid, December 6 helped to build up our anticipation of Christmas Day even more because my mom liked to have us participate in the ritual of putting a shoe out by the front door. In the morning, we’d run to check it and we’d usually have “gold” (chocolate) coins and a few other candies stuffed inside our shoes.

In our chocolate induced haze, we came to associate St. Nick with Santa Claus, though I never really understood the motivation behind having the mini Christmas (or “feast”) versus everything we did on Christmas Day. Wikipedia does a nice job of filling in some holes, though.

Now that I’m all grown up, I’m not currently celebrating the chocolate-in-the-shoe thing but I definitely reflected briefly with a hint of excitement that Christmas is getting closer and closer (and if I were a kid, I’d have enjoyed some chocolate with breakfast…or for breakfast).

Instead, I’m using the Feast of St. Nicholas to do a quick Zoe Recommends. I thought the St. Nick’s day thing would be a fun segue. Today’s Zoe Recommends is…a sunrise clock! It helps to make your room glow with “the lustre of mid-day to objects below,” a line I snagged from the classic poem Twas the Night Before Christmas, which features our boy St. Nick, just in case anyone hadn’t clued in on that.

What’s a sunrise clock, you say? It’s a lamp which you set to go off at a certain time in the morning and for about a half hour, the light goes from very dim to very bright (you set the highest bright setting) and the natural “rising” of the “sun” helps to wake you up more naturally than traditional alarm clocks that we all want to throw through a wall every morning.

Some sunrise clocks look like this:

And others look like this (including mine):

I don’t know if all sunrise lamps come with sounds but mine will not just use the light, it forces you to choose an ambient noise, such as birds chirping or meditation sounds or the radio. I choose the meditation sounds because they’re repetitive but not awful and between them and the light, I much more easily awaken in the morning, especially in the winter when the sun doesn’t come out until after 7 o’clock.

Both Kevin and I have found it sooo much easier to wake up in the mornings with this little baby. We’re in better moods upon getting out of bed (most of the time) and we’re not as aware of the pitch blackness going on outside.

Our sunrise clock is the gift that keeps on giving, year after year, day after day, Feast of St. Nicholas to Feast of St. Nicholas. It’s the new chocolate/gold coins in my shoe.

Italianness

I am exactly 50% Italian. My mother’s side bears the Italians while my father’s is a mesh of Europeans, descending from England, France(?), and I believe even Scandinavia (which would explain my fair complexion). Somewhere way back when, Daniel Boone is a relative, though from what I understand, he bore many, many, many children.

Any cultural routines I have I attribute to my Italian side. I did not grow up Catholic, though both of my parents were rooted in Catholicism. I grew up “free to choose your relationship with God.” I mention this only because religion will play no real part later in this post. I admit that most of the time when I see or meet other Italian families, I assume they are Catholic; whether that’s right or not, I just wanted to clear it up for anyone who may also have made that assumption.

I have come to discover that I really value certain traditions deriving from one particular culture or heritage. I have a fondness for homemade Italian food, as my mother is one hell of a cook and baker, as was my grandmother. I love hearing the plethora of funny stories about my Italian relatives. My grandfather came over from Italy when he was six and my grandmother was first-generation American. There is a rich history of Italians in Rochester, NY where my grandparents raised their family. My grandfather had a successful construction company which built many of the still-standing buildings in Rochester today. To me, that’s seriously cool.

For being half Italian, I am extremely fair-skinned and grew up with blonde hair, which has darkened over the years. My mother can get tan walking down the street, whereas I will burn swiftly and assuredly if I am in any kind of sunny, tropical environment and not wearing at least SPF 40. My brother was able to tan a bit better, but neither of us look remarkably Italian. It’s one of those things where if you knew both of our parents, you would catch a feature here and a feature there.

If I ever have children, the gene pool will be further divided and they will be 25% Italian, 25% mutt of whatever else I am, 25% Irish, and 25% German.

I don’t know that I will pass down much of my Italian heritage to my children as I don’t speak the language or cook more than one or two dishes I’ve learned over the years. But as I scrubbed the bathroom today, my mind began to wander as it usually does during the monotony of the routine, and I started chuckling to myself as I thought of a few things I deem distinctly Italian.

And so, in the spirit of sharing, here are a few I thought of:

Something isn’t clean if it’s not done with bleach. I believe all Italian mothers pass this on to their children. To that end, my favorite bleach product to work with is Soft Scrub.

Clean: nostrils burning and skin dried out.

I know this seems like an ad placement but it’s not. (I should put it under Zoe Recommends, though!) It not only blasts through soap scum and germs but it makes a sink shine. I use it for both bathroom and kitchen sinks. See how pretty?

The other cleaning agent is vinegar. I can’t tell you how many windows I cleaned over the years when it was Cleaning Day with my mom and I was using a spray bottle with a mixture of distilled vinegar and water. Though I loathe the smell, it really does do the job of cutting grease and getting things to sparkle. You know, if you’re not using bleach.

Take your bow, vinegar!

There are certain words for which the only acceptable pronunciation is the Italian one. I can’t say “ricotta” in a nasal, Midwestern twang. It’s “rrrri-gotte.” Just imagine that with an Italian intonation. When I go to Subway, I would prefer to ask for “pepperoncini” but I say “banana peppers” because nine times out of ten, it’s easier that way to convey what I want to the Subway worker.

My mother prefers saying mozza-rrelle for “mozzarella.” Same way for “biscotti,” sometimes I heard it as bis-got. I feel silly saying any of these things this way except to my family members, so holidays for me have a few Italian food words thrown around quite often, amongst a few other phrases of the dialect my mom and her siblings grew up with.

When it comes to Italian cookies and pastries, we are absolute snobs. (Same with Italian restaurants, too, but I’ll stick with just the cookies for now.) I absolutely adore Italian cookies but they can not come from just anywhere. I have yet to experience what I consider real Italian cookies outside of Rochester, NY. My favorite place to get them from is Gruttadauria Bakery. It is still a family owned place after multiple generations with age-old recipes for their pastries and cookies. And the smell? Ooooooooohhhhhmyyyyyyygaaaaaaaahhhhhhhdddd. If I can afford to, I will have their delectable cookies grace my wedding reception. When I see my mom at the holidays, I usually try to get a box. Zoe Recommends Gruttadauria Bakery with my whole heart and soul!

And lastly….

I mentioned spray bottles before with the vinegar and water (and sometimes my mom had them filled with watered down bleach, too). Because I now associate spray bottles with the “Italian way to clean,” Febreze is my generation’s Italian cleaning tip. It probably sounds silly but it is what it is. We’re big Febrezers.

Febreze is a genius product.

I would absolutely love to hear from any Italian-American readers if you have anything in particular that you do or say as a direct result of growing up with Italian family members. I will always be proud of my Italian background, no matter how watered down the gene pool becomes.

Until next time, mio amici.

Tide-Me-Overs

Today, I had a small epiphany while I was eating a little snack.

And when I had it, I looked something like this:

Same euphoria as, "ME? You want ME to be the director of your Christmas play?"

So there I was, minding my own business and eating a Peanut Butter Twix, when it hit me.

“Why, this tastes EERILY similar to one of the all-time greatest snack cookies that ever existed – Tagalongs!” I thought to myself. If you don’t know what a Tagalong is, I fear for you, unless you hate chocolate and peanut butter, one of the greatest combinations of foods ever to grace our planet. (If you are allergic to peanuts, I am very sorry for your loss.)

Tagalongs are the chocolate enrobed peanut butter patties that the Girl Scouts sell every year, when they finally deign to emerge from the cookie factories with untold number of boxes, ready to be sold in offices of the parents of Girl Scouts nationwide.

A Tagalong looks like this:

I don’t really have a photo of what it tastes like but the one of Charlie Brown above is a pretty accurate representation. They’re just….little miracle cookies, is the best way to put it. Of course, I am decidedly NOT shunning Thin Mints or Samoas, because those also hold a special place in my heart. But I am one of the rare few who outright states that this is my favorite Girl Scout cookie.

According to this blog post, Girl Scouts changed up some of the names of the cookies a few years back. Since I don’t always get a chance to order Girl Scout cookies each year, I had no idea. This woman was pretty incensed about it, however. Apparently Samoas are called Caramel deLites? Pretty lame. And I don’t know who decided to downgrade Tagalongs to “Peanut Butter Cookies,” but are you kidding me?

Here’s my favorite excerpt:

The new names are depressingly literal. I loved that the old names were either bad puns (“Samoas,” like “some mores,” get it?) or filled with obscure Girl Scout references.

“Trefoils” are the insignia scouts wear; “tagalong” is a game they used to play.”All Abouts,” were stamped with Girl Scout values–like “confidence” and “character.”

They’re now called “Thanks-A-Lots,” which sounds sarcastic (“thanks a lot), although the cookies are earnestly printed with the word “thank you” in five languages. (The ad copy on my daughter’s form describes them as “heart-warming shortbread cookies dipped in rich fudge”).

I will forever be delighted to overlay the “Thanks-A-Lots” with a sarcastic tone from this day forward.

If you’re like me, and you are frustrated that Girl Scout cookies can not be available at least one extra time of year (could they not make a killing right before the holidays?), take heart! Peanut Butter Twix tastes pretty much exactly like a Tagalong, with the exception of a chocolate cookie inside instead of a vanilla one. The cookie flavor itself doesn’t make as much of a difference, but perhaps the Twix people have some kind of inside knowledge of the kind of peanut butter filling the Girl Scouts use in the Tagalongs, because the consistency is almost identical.

Basically, Peanut Butter Twix are Tagalongs in disguise (and ‘stick’ form). And! They’ve been around for almost thirty years. Pretty clever, if you ask me. I don’t regularly buy candy bars and the like but I was craving something of this ilk today when I was in the drugstore, and when I passed by the display, I pulled another Charlie Brown:

"THAT'S IT!!!"

My advice? If you haven’t ever experienced a Tagalong and don’t want to wait until February, or whenever the damn cookies are sold, get thee to your nearest drugstore and purchase a Peanut Butter Twix, otherwise known as Tide-Me-Overs. Break your Tagalong virginity. Zoe Recommends!

Mandatory: cleaning with music

Happy Labor Day!

I hope all of you are enjoying some (much needed) time off. Out here in my neck of the woods, we’re enjoying some spectacular autumn weather. It’s sunny and breezy and in the high 60s. It doesn’t get much better than that for a day off.

While a certain law student I’m dating is at the library studying, or whatever it is that law students do on the weekends, I’ve been occupying myself at home. I edited some photos, answered some emails, Facebooked, Google Plussed, let the dog out to play in the backyard where he wooed at our neighbors’ dogs, and then I got tired of sitting at the computer and decided I should straighten up a bit.

I grabbed my ‘Pod, attached it to the stereo and cranked up the tunes while I went to work in the kitchen.

This is something that has been an absolute must for me since I was a wee tween. (Well, I wasn’t “wee…”)

I can not do housework without listening to music. It is absolutely impossible. Maybe this is why so many people hummed and whistled back in the day. It really helps keep up one’s motivation. I’m not a fan of doing dishes, vacuuming, or folding clothes, but if there is a fine beat pulsing throughout the house (or my ears, if I’m ear-budding it), it makes it just shy of enjoyable, if mindless work can be considered enjoyable.

There is something to be said for blasting music throughout the house more than just listening on headphones, especially if I’m by myself and it’s not going to bother anyone else. Pro to living in a non-metropolitan city: no one lives above or below me and won’t come knocking on my door because of a high noise level. Win.

So in order to keep my cleaning mojo going, I’m going to go crank up the tunes once more and tackle the virtual mountain of clothing there is to be folded. I know, it’s Labor Day, and I’m working. But at least I’ve got a few weeks’ worth of music ready to accompany me.

Zoe Recommends: listening to music while you clean/do chores/tend to your home. It soothes the weary soul – especially if you’re like me and this lady.