Sangria Starter Kit: Bridal Shower or Hostess Gift

sangria kit title

This week has been packed with prep work: planning, cooking, and freezing lunches to carry M and I through camp, and finalizing registrations, schedules, and musical numbers, and learning choreography at work.  Punc has come in to the office almost every day as we squeeze in as much time with her as possible.  Luckily, our roommates’ work schedules are fairly light over the summer, so she will spend a lot of time with people in spite of M’s and my long days.  She’ll also get at least one trip to Grandma’s house to play with the other dogs for a few days.  Luckily, with such diligence during the week, I’ve been able to keep these final weekends mostly clear for some fun before camp begins.  Tomorrow, M and I will probably go out to a local wine festival after a trip to the Farmer’s Market, and on Sunday I plan to do a little more prep cooking and some final cleaning, but should still be pretty relaxing.

sangria kit recipes

Last weekend, M was wrapped up in work, but I was able to spend Saturday going up to see E and watch roller derby and also to attend a bridal shower for A, one of my close friends from high school.  A was one of the first people I met at HHS, several weeks before the start of freshman year during color guard camp.  She and I can spend months apart, and pick right up where we left off whenever we do get together.  Her fiancé actually went to high school with M (out of my close friends-group, 3 of us have ended up with RHS boys, to our amusement).  I am exceedingly excited for their wedding in the fall, where there reception will be on A’s fiancé’s boat (yes, he is a captain).  It should be very fun, indeed.  Intentionally or not, I’ve made all of A’s engagement milestones–we happened to get the old crowd together for David’s birthday dinner just a few days after A’s fiancé proposed, and were among the first to marvel at the ring.  I also made a mad dash, defying several traffic jams, to see her pick out the dress.  And I’ve been avidly following her wedding boards on Pinterest.  Needless to say, I was so happy to make it to her shower and catch up with old friends between bridal bingo and toilet-paper-dress competitions (I partnered up with A’s niece-to-be and we ran a strong game, let me tell you.  Competition beware!)

sangria kit top

I wanted to do something fun for A’s bridal shower gift.  While her ModCloth wedding registry was full of amazing items–can we pause and  appreciate that ModCloth does wedding registries?!  I had no idea!–I had been ruminating over some kind of “kit”.  I turned to Pinterest, and discovered all sorts of baking kits and kitchen towel cakes.  But, I knew A was living in a fairly-furnished house (she probably had oven mitts), and I knew that, at this point in time, she probably did not want 27 kitchen towels.  Plus, I wanted a little more pizzazz.  She did have a few pitchers on her registries, and while I was perusing the kitchen items in the store, I came up with an idea: A Sangria Starter Kit.  A pitcher, a nice big spoon, a citrus juicer, some wine charms, a bottle of wine, and other fun accouterments.  Perfect!

I found the largest pitcher that I could, but it still took a little bit of wheedling and careful adjustments to get most of the kit to fit inside of the pitcher.

sangra kit materials

In addition to the pitcher, I picked up a really nice wooden spoon, a nice ceramic citrus juicer/reamer, the most adorable kitchen towel, a bottle of red with a cute label, and a wine stopper with removable wine-glass-markers.  I also found a tiny, fun lantern and citronella tea lights.  Since sangria makes me think of outside patios, decks, balconies, etc, I decided to add those in, too.  I also wrote up three recipe cards for sangria: a red sangria, a white sangria, and an unusual sangria–in this case a cucumber-based batch that sounded super refreshing.

sangria kit close up

To start, I removed the tea lights from their packaging and filled up the lantern.  Then I started seeing how I could fit the items together inside the pitcher.  I wanted to keep the wine stopper-marker combo in its packaging for the directions, but I would have had a bit more room if I had removed that packaging as well.  Ultimately, I found that if I placed the wine stopper box and the juicer in the pitcher, I could tilt the pitcher and/or use the spoon to push them against the side while I slid the wine bottle inside the pitcher. The bottle does take up a fair amount of space within the bowl of the pitcher.  Then I could wedge the towel in to cushion the bottle and keep everything stable.  Finally, the spoon could just fit in the spout of the pitcher.  I tied the recipes around the outside.  I thought about trying to tie the lantern as well, but everything was more stable with it staying separate.  I also didn’t want anything to catch while she was trying to remove  the wrapping.

sangria kit together

All in all, I was quite happy with this little kit.  The biggest advice I can offer is to find the largest pitcher possible: more room to pack up the kit, and, ultimately, more sangria.  I also liked that I could pass on handwritten recipes.  This would also make a very cute hostess gift.  It could easily be modified into a margarita kit: replace the wine with margarita mix (and tequila, if you can fit both bottles) and the wine stopper with a package of flavored salt or sugar for rimming the glasses.

sangria kit back view

Sangria Starter Kit

  • large pitcher
  • bottle of wine
  • citrus juicer/reamer
  • wine stopper
  • wine glass charms/markers
  • wooden spoon
  • kitchen towel(s)
  • lantern (optional)
  • candles (optional)
  • recipe cards
  • twine

Assemble as many items into pitcher.  Secure remaining items, or package together.  Write sangria recipes on cards and secure around pitcher.  Let the party begin!

Caramel-Oat Cookie Bars

caramel bars

M and I chopped off all of our hair today.  Or rather, I chopped my hair and he buzzed his off.  It is hot here.  If it isn’t humid and blazing sunshine, it is pouring rain.  And summer camp starts in ten days.  Yes, camp, that stretch of July when all our time and energy is funneled into the herds of students gathering to learn choreography, diction, improvisation, film acting, and getting said herds of children to all of these activities at Point A, Point B, Point C…

I love camp.  I really do, but it is also all-consuming.  What free time I do have is usually spent catching up on sleep.  Every year, I have disappeared during camp season.  I plan to, as always, do my best to post something.  I have weekly pot-lucks that allow me to feed everyone and test out recipes on a crowd, so hopefully I will have enough inspiration to prompt a few posts during the crazy weeks.

caramel bars 6

In the meantime, it is now crunch-time for lunch prep.  If I can get my act together, I would like to make a huge batch of my meatballs that featured in my Swedish Meatball recipe.  I plan on adding a little oregano to a big batch, and then cooking them all off in the oven.  I’ll make a batch of gravy and a batch of marinara sauce and package it all up into lunch size portions.  If I am really productive, I’d like to make a batch of Asian potstickers as well.  It has been ages since I made them, but making the filling, then the dough, and wrapping up all of the dumpling parcels is even more time-consuming than the meatballs.   We will also stock-up on some individual mac and cheese, miso soup, and asian noodle packs in case of extremely time-crunched mornings that necessitate tossing a package into a lunchbox and heading out the door.

caramel bars 5

My meal plans will focus on dinners with a quick turn-around time and the option to keep as leftovers for lunch the next day.  In past years, I have seriously under-utilized my crockpot, so perhaps I can make up some freezer packs.  After M and I successfully made sushi a few weeks ago, I know I can wrap up a few rolls using cooked fish or vegetables–a smoked salmon philly roll or a shrimp salad roll–without too much trouble.  M definitely prefers a “hot lunch” or, at least a lunch that feels more like dinner, rather than a sandwich.  Usually, it works in our favor, since I will make dinner to feed four people and pack up half for lunch the next day.  Throughout the year, I typically aim to cook for three so that I have leftovers, since I bring my lunch every day and eat while working at my desk.  M sometimes has the time to come home for lunch, and does go out with the crew occasionally.  When summer rolls around, it isn’t that hard to up each portion of ingredients to serve the pair of us twice over.

caramel bars close 2

As mentioned, we have a weekly potluck for staff that is always exciting.  I’ve had some fun challenges given the wide variety of dietary needs and inclinations of our staff: gluten-free, vegan, nut-free, dairy-free, depending on the week and on the dish.  It certainly keeps me on my toes!  We rotate courses, so over the summer, I will bring a main dish, a side dish, and appetizer, and a dessert.  These simple, unassuming-but-delicious caramel bars just might make it onto the potluck table, or I might try substituting ingredients to make them vegan and nut-free.  The chewy caramel sandwiched between crunchy oatmeal crusts is just too perfect.  I have to share it!  I’ve already used the same crust to make some rhubarb bars, that will also be appearing shortly.

Do you have any ideas for packed (gluten-free) lunches?  I do have access to a microwave, luckily!

caramel bars close

(Salted) Caramel-Oat Cookie Bars

Serves: 15-24, depending on cut size | Prep: 20 min. | Cook: 30 min.

For the Base:

  • 2 c. rolled oats
  • 1/2 c. oat flour
  • 1/2 c. brown rice flour
  • 1/2 c/ tapioca starch
  • 1/4 c. ground flax seed
  • 1 c. light brown sugar (not packed)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 8 Tbsp. butter (1 stick)
  • 4 Tbsp. coconut oil
  • 1/2 c. chopped nuts, optional

For The Caramel

  • 3/4 c. white sugar
  • 3/4 c. brown sugar (not packed)
  • 1/2 c. honey or maple syrup
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt*
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • 8 Tbsp. salted butter*
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract

*If you use unsalted butter, add up to 1/4 tsp. additional sea salt.  

Make the Crust Base

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Whisk together oats, flours, starches, flax, sugar, and salt in a large bowl until the thoroughly combined.  Melt the butter and oil, then add to the dry mixture.  Stir until the liquid in mixed evenly throughout (sometimes it’s easier to mix with your hands).  The mixture should be crumbly and clumping.  Reserve one heaping cup of the mixture and press the remainder into a 9″ x 13″ pan.  Bake the bottom crust for 10 minutes.  If adding chopped nuts, mix into reserved crumb topping.

Make the Caramel

Please note: you will need a candy thermometer or an instant-read meat thermometer.

Dice the butter into small cubes.  Mix the vanilla and salt with the cream.  Add both sugars and honey to a deep pot.  (When adding the butter and cream, the mixture will boil up.  Please use a pot (like you would for boiling water) rather than a shallow sauce or frying pan.)  If using a candy thermometer, clip to pan now and make sure it is not making contact with the bottom of the pan, but that the end is submerged in the sugar-honey mixture.  (If using an instant-read thermometer, wait until later!)  Cook sugar and honey over medium heat.  Whisk constantly.  The sugar will begin to melt.  If it gets clumpy, turn the heat lower and whisk slower.  Continue whisking as sugar liquifies, until mixture begins to boil.  Stop whisking.  Do not stir the mixture, but allow it to cook over medium heat until it turns copper-brown.  Once you stop whisking, this is when you begin to watch the thermometer.  If you are using an instant-read, submerge the end into the liquid, but be sure to keep it from touching the bottom of the pan.  When the temperature read 245 degrees, remove the pan from the heat.  Whisk in butter, one piece at a time.  After all butter is melt, whisk in cream mixture.  The mixture will bubble with the addition of butter and cream.  Continue whisking until all ingredients are thoroughly mixed.

Assemble and bake the bars

Remove the par-baked bottom crust from the oven.  Carefully pour warm caramel over the crust.  Crumble reserved topping evenly over caramel.  Return to oven and bake for 20 minutes, until golden and bubbly.  Remove from oven and allow to cool.  Before completely cooled, cut bars.  Cool completely before serving.  Store in a tightly-sealed container for up to one week.

The Birds in My Life

photo1 I can clearly see the turning point.  Sometime towards the end of elementary school, we watched my neighbor’s cockatiel while they were away.  I had already been harboring a growing fascination with her, observed in the copious amount of time I spent at their house.  They were right across the street and had several small children.  I had always liked babies, and I was approaching the age where I could be deemed responsible enough to babysit.  Nothing was more appealing to Preteen-Me than the idea of getting paid to play with kids.   Thus, many of my after-school hours were spent outside and inside that neighbor’s home.  And while I certainly had fun with the kids, I also watched Keiko a lot.  I have a vague memory of an earlier neighbor’s parrot–something green and noisy that talked if you gave him a peanut.  But Keiko was on of the first I could observe up close.  And when we took her in her cage onto our dining room table for a few days, I was captivated.  Now, Keiko was not very nice–at least when I knew her.  She was getting on in years and, at that point, had five small children in her house.  She liked her space and would make certain that you knew that, too.  But even for all of her warning hisses, that bird-watching gig was definitely the turning point.  By the time Keiko went home, I had decided that I wanted a bird.

Birds were new and intriguing.  At that point in my childhood we had had dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, fish, hermit crabs, mice…possibly even the gecko and the hamster were in our possession at that time, or else quickly approaching.  Most of those animals were still around.  But, I was of an age where buying a “pet of my own” was looking more achievable.  Just as I had in the years before when I decided that we could absolutely support a miniature horse in our backyard, I dove into research to justify my wish for a new animal.  Unlike the mini-horse, I refrained from making a binder, and I was fairly successful in my quest for a bird.  Cockatiels, like Keiko, were pricey and, for once, I listened to my parents as they guided me towards an easier, “first-time bird owner” option.  In other words, something cheap, that did not have a lifespan longer than most dogs.  I finally decided on society finches.  They were slightly less common than Zebra finches in the pet store, which made them more alluring.  I wanted a boy and a girl, one fawn and one dark, which were the only colors I had seen in the pet stores.  After saving enough money for two birds and the full cage set-up, and after a long time with a very patient employee who helped capture and ascertain gender of the boy and the girl that I wanted, I was now a bird owner.  We could add yet another animal to our list of pets.  Reno and Lexi stayed in my room and I doted on the tiny finches.  I soon got them a nest, since it seemed cozy and the allure of eggs was too much to resist.  To their credit, after the broods of guinea pig babies, my parents hardly batted an eye at the idea of eggs and baby birds.  Reno and Lexi had at least two, if not three clutches of babies, several of whom I investigated and prodded petted often enough that the babies became reasonably tame, sitting on your finger outside the cage and flitting around your head.

Feather fever had struck hard with my darling finches.  I was soon saving up and researching once again.  Now that I proved that I did truly like birds and that I could care for them, I knew I could set my sights higher.  I wanted a cockatiel.  I was lucky enough to find an amazing breeder about a half hour away from us.  She had amazing credentials, beautiful birds, and was very open to talking to me.  I found there was a whole slew of colorations and details to cockatiels that I hadn’t never realized.  After a lot of back and forth, I narrowed down my options for what I wanted: a pearl female (males will lose the pearl coloring as they grow) or a normal gray male.  Since my favorite colorations were fairly common, I could have a baby in just a few months.  My family and I visited the breeder’s home and were extremely impressed.  It wasn’t long before we were back.  The round of eggs had hatched and the babies were growing.  I had moved my first choice up to a normal gray male and the breeder suggested a few babies that I could come to meet.  For those of you who don’t know, until their feather grow in after a few weeks, cockatiel babies look like tiny balding dinosaurs.  They are the most adorable things ever.  So I played with the babies a little–or mostly, I tried to pet them while they tried to get fed from my fingertips (these were hand raised and being fed by syringe every few hours).  After another visit one week later, I definitely knew which baby was coming home with me: a sweet, snuggly little boy.  While I racked my brains for names for a baby coming home in, my mom and whomever else was visiting the babies with me played with the other quickly-growing baby birds.

One in particular, seemed to show partiality to my mother.  Caught up as we were in the excitement of a new pet, my siblings and I starting to plan how to surprise my mother by purchasing the bird for her.  Luckily, the breeder told us that we would have to tell our mother–she wouldn’t sell us a second bird if she did not know that my parents wanted another cockatiel.  She also told us that the baby who seemed to like my mother was under reservation.  Another couple had reserved a cinnamon-colored male and this baby fit that reservation.   We did tell our mother our plans, and, somehow or another, she was not adverse to another cockatiel coming home with us.  But, of course,  the baby she liked was going to another family.  Now, regularly-colored cockatiels show early markings that determine gender (the distinct yellow faces of the males only develop in maturity).  But as more and more color mutations get added to the mix, those visual clues are less reliable.  Male cockatiel babies start to sing fairly early–early enough for it to be used as a deciding factor in gendering when a client requested a specific gender.  The other customers and the breeder waited for the cinnamon to sing, to be sure…..and kept waiting.  The bird did not sing.  Finally, we came to visit my baby, Cacique (Portuguese for “chief” and, culturally, the person in the tribe who could wear a crest of feathers on his head), for one of the last times before I could take him home.  The breeder was laughing when we arrived.  She explained that the couple who had reserved the cinnamon baby had chosen a different bird, since that cinnamon baby was female and not singing.  She had been excited to tell us that we could take the cinnamon girl home, now that there was no claim on her, and then, the day after the other couple took another bird, the cinnamon baby started singing.  He was male.  And through the odd twist of fate, or perhaps bird-brained planning, he was ours.

We said Apollo chose our mother.  That he pretended to be a girl long enough to enable him to come home with us instead.  As was typical in our home, where we already boasted a guinea pig called Crybaby and a dog called Bunny (neither of which were the animals’ real names), the birds soon garnered nicknames of their own.  Cacique refused to give up on his baby-bird crying–a strange sound that most cockatiel babies use to demand food and he soon began to use as a cry for attention.  With his noise and his snuggly, shamelessly-attention-seeking personality, he soon was dubbed “Ca-squeaky”, which would further diminish into Squeaky, Squeak, Keekick, and finally “Keek” which is most used today.  My sister, E, had also started the process to reserve a cockatiel and brought home Luna, a white female, a year after we brought home the boys.  Luna was the baby and a bit of a brat.  Particular and quick-to-strike, but with a laughably-soft mouth that did no harm–her nails put more pressure on your skin.  Paired with her penchant to shy and fly at the slightest provocation; plus the fact that she inherited her flying ability (or lack-there-of) from her grandsire (a bird appropriately named Flip Flop); Luna was soon cementing her own nickname of Luna-tic.  Apollo, though, was always dignified.  He was all-the-more dignified considering he shared a cage with a mussed, silly boy and an unpredictable girl called Squeak and Lunatic.  He was magnificent and knew it.  Truly, though, it took Apollo years to admit that, yes, head-scratches were awesome, and even then, if the clumsy human’s fingers messed up his crest feathers, he let his displeasure be known.  He was a fantastic specimen of ‘Tiel-kind: large and heavily built, with the longest crest I have ever seen on a cockatiel.  The feathers were long enough to start to curl back  over themselves to tip towards his beak.  Even the avian vet we visited for the birds’ check-up, after revealing that she showed cockatiels, asked if he was available for breeding.

Our trio settled into life in our wild home.  Through my middle school years and high school years, and even when I went off to college, they remained quite content in their cage, singing when you talked at them and generally trying to rule the roost.  My freshman year, I came home with a mission to save a cockatiel from the winter weather after the brother of one of my floor mates picked the “big box” at a White Elephant exchange and found himself with a cockatiel.  Nativité (Tivi) joined the flock.  Her gray feathers and lack of cheek spots proved her to be a female White-faced gray mutation, and her baby crying led us to believe she was fairly young.  She was not hand-raised as effectively as our trio, eluding any hands that might come her way in the cage, but allowed us to pick her up when she was out of the cage.

After my four years on campus and the span of time until I was out on my own, post-graduation, I had settled on the fact that I could not take Cacique with me when I moved.  Cockatiels are sociable creatures, and after over a decade with Apollo and Luna (and several years with Tivi), it would not have been fair to try to separate him from the flock.  The quartet were quite happy in their cage at my mother’s, just a few amongst the zoo that remained.

Tivi died a few months back.  We still don’t know what caused it–something sudden.  A glitch in one internal system or another.  Certainly no outward signs or disease was the culprit, since the other birds did not seemed affected.  It was sad, but, truth be told, with her reserved nature, we didn’t have much of a bond.  Life continued as normal.  This week, we found Apollo on the bottom of the cage, distressed and wheezy.  A trip to the vet wasn’t very conclusive, but they suspected what we had guessed: he had aspirated a seed.  There was an option or two, each carrying several risks and “if”s and stretches of hope leaning on the spindly legs of luck.  He needed supplementary oxygen.  He was stressed and in pain and having trouble breathing.  All of those “if”s and “maybe”s didn’t add up to enough to outweigh all of that.  We had to put him down.  Apollo was twelve years old.

The weight of this loss is surprising.  It shouldn’t be.  His life was as long as many dogs.  We often said that our ‘tiels were like puppies.  Cacique snuggles up in tight spaces.  All of them beg for head scratches.  They can convey their moods, their likes, and dislikes as much as a dog or a cat.  Of course, with Cacique being the same age and Luna just a year behind, I know they are in the latter half of their lives.  But this fluke, this accident, is harder to swallow than the slow decline of old age.  It isn’t fair.  This isn’t how things were supposed to happen.

The house is quieter, now.  Apollo was the singer of the group, talking throughout the day, especially if you spoke back.  When I saw them the day before yesterday, Squeak and Tic seemed to be alternating between quiet befuddlement and facing off for the newly-open position of ruler of the roost.  This proud little bird has left a pretty big hole.  His life and our love for him is a collection of small moments.  I have no big stories to prove his worth, nor handfuls of funny tales to make those of you unfamiliar with cockatiels able to recognize his intelligence. I can simply say that he radiated pride, even arrogance.  He deemed to let you pet him.  Somehow, in a ‘tiel, these traits are more amusing than annoying, were tolerated, not discouraged.  He was a character, through and through, and we loved him for it.  Though it is far too soon, all that is left to say is: Goodbye.