Fun Halloween Party Foods (2015 Edition)

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Last weekend, we decided to repeat a tradition we started this past year: a pre-Halloween pumpkin carving party for friends and their kiddos.

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We already had some great recipes from last year including salmon sandwich ghosts and chocolate-dipped pretzel rods that we chose to repeat this year.  But I also expanded this year’s spread to include candy corn brownies, a “puking pumpkin” filled with guacamole, bruschetta with spooky mozzarella cutous, and mummies in a blanket.

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None of these recipes are really mindblowing, so I won’t go into the specifics, except for one: pumpkin spice jelly shots!

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup + 1 tsp boiling water
  • 1 cup chilled Captain Morgan rum
  • 2 oz Fireball
  • 1 envelope orange-flavored gelatin mix
  • 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice

Directions:

  1. Bring your water to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat, add gelatin packet and pumpkin pie spice, until all the gelatin has been dissolved.
  2. Add in cold chilled alcohol and stir until combined.
  3. Pour mixture into your individual cups or mold and put in the fridge to chill for at least 4 hours (overnight is easier).
  4. Enjoy!

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Trip Report: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Hogsmeade Village, in Universal's Islands of Adventure, on a Saturday around 11am.  It was packed, but luckily we'd already gotten all our attractions in by this point.
Hogsmeade Village was a packed mess by 11am – get there earlier to avoid crazy crowds.

Guys, I have a confession: I’m a full-fledged Harry Potter geek.

I have been for….quite a while now. I’ve read all the books at least five times. I’ve seen the movies even more frequently than that. I own The Tales of Beedle the Bard. I have an account on Pottermore. I’m an HP geek, and I’m ok with that.

So, it should come as no surprise that I’ve been dying to get back to Universal Studios in Florida ever since they opened their second Harry Potter themed area — Diagon Alley.

Our garden view King room at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Honestly, if it hadn't been for the Universal perks and the fantastic pool, I wouldn't recommend this hotel.
Our garden view King room at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the Universal perks and the fantastic pool, I wouldn’t recommend this hotel — the bed was lumpy and the halls were loud.

And this past weekend, we got the opportunity, when a friend’s wedding brought us to Orlando for a few days.  We flew in for free using Southwest points and our Southwest companion pass, then booked our hotel, The Loews Royal Pacific Resort, through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. (We paid cash, but got a 20% discount on the rate, earned 3x Ultimate Reward points, and got credit for a stay on Loews’ loyalty program.)

The short duration of our stay also presented it’s own challenges: at best, we’d have just one day, from park opening until 4pm, to get our Potter fill.

We made it onto Platform 9 3/4
We made it onto Platform 9 3/4 to ride the Hogwarts Express!

Luckily, we’d already done the rest of the attractions at Universal’s two parks on a previous Orlando trip.  So we set out to maximize our precious few available in-park hours.

That meant, above all else, we needed to stay in a Universal-affiliated hotel. When you stay at one of their properties, you get access to one of the Universal parks an hour before the general public — on this past weekend, that meant we got to enter Universal Studios at 7am, whereas the general public could enter at 8am, and the Islands of Adventure park opened to all at 9am.

A pre-dawn look at Diagon Alley.  With our early admission priviliges, we were heading towards Gringotts by 7am with just a few other guests.
A pre-dawn look at Diagon Alley. With our early admission privileges, we were heading towards Gringotts by 7am with just a few other guests.

This also set our schedule: we knew we needed to tackle all the high-popularity Diagon Alley attractions when the crowds were at their lowest, and then be on the train to Hogsmeade Village in order to arrive right around 9am as well. In this way, we could see both Harry Potter areas before the crowds (and the lines) got unmanageable. Our final plan was to take the return ride on the Hogwarts Express to see the London area (outside of Diagon Alley, but also Harry Potter themed) and a quick stop by the Simpsons attractions to cap off the day.

It’s also worth mentioning two additional tools that helped us in this; the first is that, as hotel guests of a Universal hotel, we got free Universal Express passes – meaning we got to skip the line at certain rides like the Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff.

Breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron consisted of eggs, beans, tomatoes, blood sausage...and of course, pumpkin juice.
Breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron consisted of eggs, beans, tomatoes, blood sausage…and of course, pumpkin juice.

Secondly, I’m a HUGE fan of the site TouringPlans.com and their affiliated apps. The geniuses behind this site (which started with the Disney parks, but now includes Universal) have all kinds of advice, strategy, and tools to help you plan your theme park vacation according to your own preferences. So you could, for example, create a custom itinerary just for families with young children that maximizes the tamer rides and theatrical shows, and minimizes excess walking. Or, if you’re us, you create a custom itinerary that only focuses on Harry Potter attractions, and minimizes standing in line.

TouringPlans also offers apps with the posted and actual predicted wait times currently being experienced in a park, ride outages, and even a predictor of whether the line will go up or down in the near future. It’s a great in-park tool.

As a result of this planning, it seemed like we were about 10 minutes ahead of the lines all day long. Our longest wait was at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and the trek through the greenhouse took about 15-20 minutes.  We did Escape from Gringotts with less than a 10 minute wait. (Both attractions frequently see 2+ hour waits and no Express pass option.)

Our wands chose us (to part with $50 for a novelty toy...)
Our wands chose us! Their first spell was to make $50 disappear.

Another nice attraction worth hitting up early in the day is the wand-sorting ceremony at Ollivanders.  In this ceremony, they pick a lucky young “wizard” to try out wands, and in my particular group — it was me! Apparently, I was set out for an oak wand with a dragon heart string core.  The ceremony itself is fun, but if you actually buy the wand, you can also use it around the park at designated spots to make some of your own magic happen. We had a lot of fun with these, but again, they’re only worth doing in the early morning — by 11am or so, you were looking at a 10-minute wait on each magic spot, and they honestly aren’t quite *that* cool.

All in all, we had a great time. We stayed in the park until about 1pm, at which time the crowds were getting pretty crazy, and the heat and humidity were too.  We retired to our hotel pool for a quick dip, then squeezed in a quick nap before we headed off to the wedding.

Let me know what you want to know about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and I’ll answer in the comments below!

The World’s *Second* Best Chicken Salad

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My chicken salad recipe is legendary. It always get compliments, people request it for special occasions….it’s just damn good.

But lo and behold, I actually make *two* really good chicken salad recipes.  And after a summer full of the traditional one, the hubby has started requesting the alternate: curry chicken salad.

Spicy, tangy, savory, sweet — it’s delicious. If you’ve ever had Whole Foods curried chicken salad from their to-go bar, this is similar, but I think mine is better. Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients:

  • Boneless skinless chicken breast, cubed or shredded
  • Green onions, finely chopped
  • Celery, finely chopped
  • Slivered almonds
  • Craisins, rough chopped
  • Mayonnaise
  • Curry Powder
  • Tumeric
  • Rice Vinegar

You’ll notice I don’t add amounts there.  And that’s because it’s too difficult to say exactly — you want to just eyeball it until you have the right moistness and flavor mix. A lot of it is personal preference, too.

First, you cook the chicken.  You can boil it in chicken broth, or roast it in the oven.  Either way.  Cook it, then into the food processor and pulse it until the chicken is in bite-sized pieces.  But be careful here: you don’t want to overshred it, or it will take on a tuna salad like consistency.

Once you’ve cooked your chicken, put it in a container and chill it for at least 2 hours. While that’s happening, you can make your curry sauce. The mix here is essentially 1 heaping tablespoon of curry powder, 1 teaspoon of vinegar, and 1/2 teaspoon of tumeric for each cup of mayonnaise. Mix it all together, tasting as you go, and get it to your own specifications.  Note that at this stage, the curry sauce is likely to taste somewhat grainy, but this will die down when added to the chicken.

Finally, once your chicken is cool, combine it with the curry sauce and add all your remaining ingredients.  In the end, you want it to be moist enough to bind everything together, but not a whole lot more. (It’s less moist than the traditional chicken salad.)

Then, as tempting as it might be — do not eat your creation.  You technically *could* eat it at this point, but it will taste oh-so-much nicer if you wait until the flavors have had a chance to meld, and 6-8 hours in the fridge will work wonders on this dish.

Serve with crackers, on bread for sandwiches, or in a salad. Enjoy!