watkins-vanilla

Taste Test Tuesday — Mexican Vanilla vs. Watkins Vanilla

Attention, anyone who loves to bake!! What kind of vanilla do you like to use in your baking? I have been using Mexican vanilla for years, and I love it! However, one day my husband brought me home a bottle of Watkins vanilla and I knew it would turn into a taste test challenge for sure.

I first asked all my friends who liked to bake what kind of vanilla they liked to use. My great Aunt used to own her own bakery and pastry shop, and she likes Trader Joe’s vanilla. So I had to add Trader Joe’s vanilla to the challenge as well. Unfortunately, when I went to Trader Joe’s to get “their vanilla,” there were 2 kinds to choose from. So what did I do? I bought them BOTH.

So let me introduce you to the contenders:

vanilla-caramels-taste-test

A) Watkins Vanilla

B) Trader Joe’s Bourbon Vanilla

C) Trader Joe’s Alcohol Free Vanilla

D) Mexican Vanilla (yes, that’s the biggest bottle of them all! What can I say, I love to bake and I use it all the time!)

E) McCormick’s Vanilla (used only in the caramels)

In order to be completely fair to all the vanilla contenders, I made 3 types of vanilla items to taste: vanilla caramels, vanilla mini cakes, and vanilla pudding sauce. We had the most volunteer judges in the history of our taste tests….maybe because this sounded like a DELICIOUS opportunity?!

This was a blind taste test and each item was given a letter. The judges were instructed to rank each vanilla into first, second, third, and fourth place.

vanilla-form-and-plates

I held two separate taste testing sessions, in order to get all the judges in! And as the sessions progressed, I soon realized that the judges were voting for DIFFERENT vanillas for the caramels, pudding sauce and mini cakes! In fact, ALL the judges had different votes except for one judge who voted for the same vanilla in first place each time.

It was apparent to me that there was not going to be a CLEAR winner in this taste test. So I had to pull in a professional analyst: my husband. He quickly drew up a spreadsheet to tally the points for each contender. Here’s how the judges voted:

For the Caramels

In first place, was Watkins Vanilla, with 11 of the 15 votes

In second place, was Mexican Vanilla, with 8 of the 15 votes

For the Pudding Sauce

In first place, Watkins Vanilla

In second place, Mexican Vanilla

For the Mini Vanilla Cakes

In first place, Mexican Vanilla

In second place, Trader Joe’s Alcohol Free

 

**I was surprised by the votes. I expected my favorite (Mexican Vanilla) to take first place. But overwhelmingly, Watkins Vanilla placed first by a wide margin in 2 out of the 3 tests. The interesting thing was, the judges agreed that this taste test was DIFFICULT, because there really wasn’t a bad one of the bunch. In fact, most judges agreed that each item was delicious, however, a couple judges had a slight NEGATIVE reaction to either the Bourbon Vanilla or the Mexican Vanilla.

After much analyzing and deliberation, we have declared the winner to be WATKINS VANILLA!

watkins-vanilla

I am sure I will continue using Mexican Vanilla, but to switch things up a bit I am now adding Watkins to my vanilla repertoire. I should also mention that we used the Double Strength Watkins Vanilla, which contains more vanilla bean and less alcohol.

(NOTE: Many people have asked me where you can get Watkins vanilla, and so I am including a link HERE to a Watkins representative for your reference. Please note that I do not receive compensation for any vanilla purchases. However, I have been told by Jennifer that if you CALL her rather than place an order online, she may be able to SAVE you on shipping costs. :) I love to save money for my readers!)

So, what do you think? Do YOU agree with our results? Do you have a vanilla that you swear by? Let me know in the comments below.

Thank you, judges! Stay tuned for our next Taste Test Tuesday: VANILLA ICE CREAM. (Do we have a vanilla theme going on here?) I’m looking forward to it!

 

May your days be filled with sunshine,
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rainbow-fruit-salad

Dose of Sunshine (and Rainbows) Monday — Rainbow Dinner Party

I hope you all had a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day. We had a birthday dinner celebration for my Mom’s birthday! And it turned out bright and cheerful. So for this Dose of Sunshine, I decided to share the Rainbow Dinner Party we had. I hope it brightens your day!

rainbow-dinner-party-storyboard

fruit-salad-table-2-picts rainbow-skittles

I was challenged to decorate for this dinner party with only dishes I already had! (Shop for dishes much? I guess my husband thinks I have too many! What? Is that even possible?) So I started out with some rainbow skittles in mini glasses and added a bit o’luck tags…can you see the gold (rolo) at the end of the rainbow? I used the “Little Bit o’ Luck” printables from here.

The gold chargers I already had, as well as the white plates (they are the buffet plates from Crate and Barrel). Other items I already had: the silverware, goblets, vases. I did supplement with some shamrock papers for the runner (from JoAnn’s), and flowers (daffodils and carnations from Safeway). I colored the water in each flower vase in a different color of the rainbow.

I love the way the individual fruit salads turned out! Strawberries, Clementines, Pineapple, Green Grapes, and Blueberries make for a happy rainbow fruit salad. (And delicious! I made a vanilla pudding sauce to go with the fruit salad, but I found that the fruit was so sweet on it’s own that we didn’t even use the pudding sauce).

rainbow-fruit-salad

For dessert, I made Texas Sheet Cake Cupcakes (a favorite around here)! And I found these sour rainbow candies at WalMart, so we of course had to make a rainbow on our cupcakes. I used a little stabilized whipped cream (from Trader Joe’s) as the clouds, cut the rainbow sheets in half and put them into the cream. My nephews loved this part! I even let them make their own rainbows on the cupcakes.

Four-cupcake-pict

We had some cupcakes to deliver to a friend who also has the same birthday, and so we wrapped them up in this cute cupcake box, tied with a green bow, and added a “Little Bit o’ Luck” tag to the top. I decorated only 2 of her cupcakes with the rainbows…since they are a little sour. Those chocolate cupcakes are so delicious on their own, but those rainbows are just adorable. So which one wins…adorable or delicious? I will let her decide! {Note: my nephews LOVED the sour rainbows…it might be a kid taste?}

flowers-and-luck-sign

We decorated with LOTS of flowers…a dinner party is made even more amazing with flowers! The ones on the left were a gift to my mom from a good friend (thanks, Erin, she loves them!) And I printed out the Luck printable in the frame from here.

place-setting-with-fruit

It was a colorful and fun dinner. And I used *mostly* everything I already had on hand.  I love that!

Have a happy Monday!

May your days be filled with sunshine,
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all-three-sparkle-books

Shamrock Search for kids — free printable!

Two of my adorable nephews are coming over this weekend for some St. Patrick’s Day celebrations! It’s also my Mom’s birthday so we are really going to have some fun! I put together these “Looking for Luck” books to help us on our nature walk (it is such a beautiful weekend)!

Looking-for-luck-activity-books

I had fun with my new glitter tape to add a little sparkle. Inside, I have designed a nature scavenger hunt, some games and activities, and a coloring page.

I thought it would be funny to bind them with Lucky Charms and Irish Spring packaging…or is that just plain weird? It’s bound to get a few chuckles.

I used my “Zutter Bind-It-All” to punch and bind the books. But if you don’t have a way to bind, just staple the pages together. (see picture above). You can use a little green ribbon to add some flair…but who am I kidding? These are for KIDS, they won’t care if they are bound with Lucky Charms or have a ribbon on them! So anything goes here, really.

inside-books

Here’s a quick view of the inside activity pages:

 

Nine_Square_Grid-activity-book

I think my nephews are going to have a little fun with this. Let’s just see how long it can entertain them!

To download the pages, please like my page here:

Then download the pages here:

2-13 looking for luck page 1 thru 4

2-13 looking for luck page 5 thru 8

all-three-sparkle-books

And, if you decide to try these out with your own kids, grandkids, neighbor kids, or nieces/nephews, please let me know how they like them! :)

May your days be filled with sunshine,
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precious-string-cheese-winner

Taste Test Tuesday — String Cheese

I like to have string cheese on hand for when I need a quick snack, so I thought string cheese would be a good taste test Tuesday subject. While it may not be as exciting as, say Salted Caramel Chocolate bars or Vanilla Caramels, I think some “healthier” options are also great for reviewing!

The contenders are only 2, but they are the “Big 2” when it comes to string cheese. Here they are:

string-cheese-vs

Precious Stringsters, the brand you can find at Costco VERSUS Frigo Cheeseheads, the brand that claims to be “America’s Favorite.”

This was a very quick taste test, and easy, since there were only 2 contenders on the docket. And the judges actually liked both brands….they said “these are both good,” and “I would eat either one if I had them on hand.”

All good comments, and better than what I had to say about a less well-known string cheese I tried a couple months ago. It was a clear package with black writing on each individually wrapped string cheese serving. I searched to find this particular brand to report back to you, dear reader, but I could not find it! (If I do track it down, I will update this post). This particular string cheese was practically inedible. Nobody would eat it, except the dogs. [If you know the one I’m talking about, please comment and let me know!]

Back to the 2 contenders. After all was said and done, one edged out ahead of the other…

THE RESULTS

The judges declared that the winner was creamier and more pleasant (less chalky). And the winner is (drumroll please):

precious-string-cheese-winner

PRECIOUS Stringsters String Cheese #1!

So it seems that “America’s Favorite” was actually NOT the favorite this time.  While the Cheeseheads string cheese had a chalkier taste, some judges declared that it had a cheesier flavor! Even though they liked the cheesy taste of the cheeseheads, the judges said that the chalky-ness up front could not beat out the creamy taste of the Precious Stringsters!

[A special thanks to all our judges.]

What is your favorite snack? Favorite string cheese? Go give these two a try and see what you think.

Stay tuned for our next Taste Test Tuesday! All you Bakers out there, take note: the next taste test is VANILLA! What is your favorite vanilla to use in your baking? I can’t wait to reveal the results of this exciting taste test!

 

May your days be filled with sunshine,
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3-13-believer-of-luck-sm

Dose of Sunshine Monday: I believe in Luck

This is perfect for St. Patrick’s Day coming up! And one of my Dad’s favorites. So this is dedicated to my Dad.

Here’s an idea: take this printable and turn it into a sticker to wear on St. Patrick’s Day. Then you will be “pinch-proof!” Wishing you a little extra “luck” on St. Patrick’s Day!

3-13-believer-of-luck-sm

And here’s the printables! Please like my page first, then print.

3-13 believer of luck 3×4

3-13 believer of luck 5×7

May your days be filled with sunshine,
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nail-polish

A Little Bit o’ Luck FIVE ways

little-luck-logos

I had fun designing this printable for St. Patrick’s Day! It is such a versatile little gem that I’ve featured it in FIVE ways. With just a few different cutting techniques or punches, you can make it look completely different. I am sure there are plenty more ways to use this printable…so use your imagination and have fun! Little-luck-5-ways-sm

Let’s take a closer look at these ideas. I first put together these colorful cards. I can just imagine my nephews helping me to paint a water-color rainbow for this card…they would love it! I simply folded a card out of white cardstock, painted the rainbow, added a “snowflake” stamp to the upper left corner, and cut out a pot-o-gold with black sparkly paper. It was super easy to put together and I love that it turned out so bright. I used the word  bubble “Luck Logo” and just cut it out with scissors.

cards

The other card was made with a green cardstock base, a green square cut to fit, and a “plank” of tan paper embossed with a wood embossing folder. I cut the Luck Logo with an EK Success punch and used a green stamp pad to color the edges a bit. I cut out a shamrock that I drew free-hand and glued on some green glitter. Who wouldn’t love to get one of these colorful cards offering a “Little Bit o’ Luck?”

SECOND, is the adorable cupcake flag! I cut these with an EK Success punch and attached them to a lollipop stick.

cupcake-toppers

Can you imagine a row of these all lined up on your dessert table? I added a little glitter glue to the shamrock cupcake topper on the right…I think it adds just a little more pizzazz. So cute!

THIRD, a simple napkin ring made from paper. Having a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, brunch or dinner? Add some extra luck to the table settings. I cut the “Luck logo” into a rectangle and added a little excitement to the edges with a scallop cut. It’s actually the same punch as the cupcake topper on the left, but just a part of it. (can you tell by looking at the picture above?)

napkin-ring

FOURTH, this adorable glassine bag, embellished with some green! My creative and crafty Aunt Marilyn donated these little bags to my crafting stash and, boy, have I been having a ball decorating them up! (Thanks, Marilyn, I love them!)

glassine-bag

I added a bit of green glitter tape (love this stuff!) and green washi tape. {A quick shout-out to my dear friend Shellie, who graciously gave me the green washi tape when I saw it in her bag! She had “extra” and kindly gave me 2 rolls!! Shellie, you are awesome!} To the top I added the bubble Luck logo. You could use this at your table setting as a gift bag…I filled mine with butterscotch candies. I think it would be just as cute with rolos or skittles!

FIFTH, a small gift, represented here by green glitter nail polish.

nail-polish

This green glitter nail polish would be welcome by any gal wanting to avoid any pinching on that 17th day of March! I am going to give this to my amazing Mother (shhh…don’t tell) whose birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day! I secretly hope she will share it with me!

To add a little dimension and shine to the shamrock, try using Diamond Glaze…be sure to let it completely dry before you try to attach it to your gift. (ahem, not that this happened to me….!)

I hope you enjoy spreading a little bit o’luck with these printables this year! Enjoy!

2-13-a-little-bit-of-luck-8-up

To download the printables, please like my page here:

Then download the printable here:  Little Luck Logo

May your days be filled with sunshine,
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yakisoba-veggies-in-pan-sm

Food to Make you happy — Easy Yakisoba

We are celebrating around here for making our goal of 100 likes to our new Facebook page! Thank you, friends and dear readers! And what could be a better way to celebrate than with VEGETABLES!?! I’m serious! If you know me at all, you know that I LOVE my vegetables and I drink (yes, drink) them every morning. I will be sharing my delicious breakfast drink soon!

But I have been getting SO many requests for my Yakisoba recipe that I decided to post it today. I have to keep my favorite people happy!

Easy-Yakisoba-small

Truth is, this recipe makes me so happy…and I think you will agree when you try it out. It’s easy…it’s delicious…it’s filled with color. That is celebration right on a plate, friends! (Can we please officially change the title of this recipe to “Celebration on a Plate”?)

Let’s get started with the Yakisoba.

First, assemble your favorite veggies. I like to use all the colors of the rainbow (except maybe blue, I can’t even think of a blue vegetable!) My favorites for this dish are:

Onion, Carrots, Zucchini, Summer Squash, Red pepper, Broccoli, Red Cabbage, Garlic

Slice your onion (I use yellow onion). In a large pan (or stir fry pan), warm 2 T. of olive oil on medium high. Once oil is hot, add onion. Let this cook for 5-7 minutes or until the onion is soft and browned.

While the onion is cooking, cut your other veggies. Cut them in similar sizes for even cooking. When onions are browned, add carrots and zucchini. Cook for 4-5 minutes. I like to let the zucchini and squash cook without stirring for a few minutes. This allows them to get browned on one side. Oh! My mouth is watering just thinking about it! Turn them over to brown on the other side.

yakisoba-veggies

Once zucchini is browned, add peppers and broccoli. Allow those to cook for a bit, then add the cabbage.

While that is cooking together, get your meat ready. I used chicken for this recipe, but you can also use beef or pork, or keep it vegetarian! I cut my chicken (3 chicken tenders) into bite-sized pieces. Then warmed a small amount of olive oil in a separate skillet. Add chicken and cook, stirring occasionally. Add a couple cloves of garlic (minced) with the cooking chicken, if you like. (I like!)

When chicken is done…it only takes a few minutes! Add to the vegetables. Then, add your noodles, water, and seasoning mix from the package. I usually include 2 packages of noodles, both seasoning packets, and 1 cup of water. Here are the noodles I like to use:

yakisoba-noodles

[Note: If I don’t have these on hand when I crave Yakisoba, I have also used angel hair pasta or spaghetti…and I make sauce using a bit of soy sauce, cornstarch, and water!] You have to coax these particular noodles to separate, but please be careful and don’t break them. It just doesn’t taste the same with broken noodles!

Now, dish up and enjoy! (here’s another secret: I sometimes add a bit of low-sodium soy sauce to mine)

yakisoba-veggies-in-pan-sm

How’s that for a celebration!?

May your days be filled with sunshine,
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contenders-Storyboard-small

Taste Test Tuesday: Salted Caramel Chocolate

I have to admit, I was very excited about this particular taste test. I mean, who wouldn’t be when Salted Caramel Chocolate bars are on the agenda?!? (Actually, I shouldn’t even ask…my husband hates salted caramel, my 2 sons do not like chocolate, I also have a friend who does not particularly like it either, and my grandma is allergic to it!) But for perhaps everyone else in the world, this is an exciting taste test!

The results were also a little shocking, but practically UNANIMOUS. But first, I must introduce you to the contenders:

contenders-Storyboard-small

THE CONTENDERS:

1) Good & Delish – generic bar new to the scene that I picked up from Walgreens. Retails at $1.99

2) Lindt Caramel with a Touch of Sea Salt – a seasoned performer as far as brands go, but this is a new flavor for them. Retails at $2.99

3) See’s Candies – Butter Caramel Milk Chocolate. This served as a control, but backfired just a little. I went in to find a salted caramel to add to our list of greats, but See’s is very traditional and does not carry a salted caramel. This was the next best option, and at just under $4.00 for 5 pieces, was also the  most expensive of the bunch.

4) Godiva Milk Chocolate Salted Caramel – another well-known and well-loved brand, this one also boasted salted toffee pieces. Retails at $2.99, but I got on sale for $2.50.

5) Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Bar, Caramel with Black Sea Salt – this bar was supposed to be the heavyweight contender, with much talk and support of fans, but it did not stack up well in this competition! Retails at $1.99

6) Ghirardelli Dark & Sea Salt Caramel – another well-loved competitor! I purchased this one on sale at $2.50, the small bags sell for around $4.69.

 

THE SET-UP:

plate-of-chocolate

This was, of course, a blind taste test. We cut the chocolate bars into small pieces and distributed them onto their corresponding numbered plate.

chocolate-paper-tray

All panel contestants took 2 pieces of each contender and put them onto their “placemat” with the matching number. We also provided water so the judges could analyze the flavors without them fighting each other. (Some chocolate flavors were stronger than others, but that didn’t necessarily mean they took first place).

THE JUDGING:

We had multiple categories for judging: Texture, Caramel taste, Chocolate Taste, Saltiness, and Overall Taste. We also added Smell as a category at the last minute, as requested by the judges.

Here is the form we used:

!Taste-test-form

(If you’d like to conduct this taste test in your test kitchen and you’d like this form, please let me know!)

THE RESULTS:

Are you sitting down? Because 9 out of 10 judges chose the ONLY contestant that didn’t officially have “salted caramel” in their description!! The See’s Candies milk caramel took this whole contest by surprise! It does say something about tradition, though, doesn’t it? Sometimes the oldies REALLY are the best!

Unfortunately, the See’s Milk caramel had to be disqualified because it snuck into the fight without all the qualifications. However, I wanted to note this crazy turn of events, for you, dear reader! Because it’s worth taking a second look at an oldie. (And I was afraid that if I didn’t acknowledge this little gem, the judges might come after me!)

THE REAL WINNER:

Godiva Milk Chocolate Salted Caramel !! (Crowd goes wild!)

Truth be told, the real winner actually came in SECOND place, but the first contender was disqualified for not actually having the “salted caramel” in the title. This Godiva bar was introduced to me by a good friend and neighbor (thank you, Sherri) and the results showed an all-around love and admiration by all!!

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Good & Delish (yes, the generic one!) AND Ghirardelli (still a favorite, although it came in third place with a wide margin between 2nd and 3rd).

STRONGLY DISLIKED:

Lindt. Yes Lindt. Many judges were VERY vocal about their dislike of this particular contender. To me, the chocolate had a strange coconut taste, but other judges said: 1) it had a strange after-taste and 2) they wouldn’t want to eat an entire bar of this.

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate with Black Sea Salt. Some judges said it was too salty. Some said the chocolate was just too bitter. Another said it had a chalky taste. One judge even choked a little after eating this one! [editor’s note: I am very saddened by this report. I heard many great things about this bar, and eaten alone it may be good, but it just didn’t have what it took to stand up against the other contenders!]

Godiva-winner   Congratulations, Godiva!

A special thanks to all the judges and assistants: Jenn, Jay, Shellie, Kerri, Lindsay, Linda, Kait, Kari, Sherri, and Lann. You are truly professionals at what you do!

So, what do you think? Did I miss any strong contenders? Do you think you would have chosen the same winner if you conducted this taste test?

chocolate-bars

So if you do like Salted Caramel Chocolate, go out and try our winner and let me know what YOU think!

{Stay tuned for our next Taste Test Tuesday!}

May your days be filled with sunshine,
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3-13-miracles-happen-3by4

Dose of Sunshine Monday : Miracles Happen Every Day

The printable I’m sharing with you today is very near and dear to my heart. A saying I made up (and even sang it to a little song) when I was having many serious health and relationship challenges.

But even so, I always believed that you should never give up on a person because Miracles happen every day! And they do. What miracles have you seen in your life lately?

3-13-miracles-happen-3by4

If you would like to download this pretty little printable, please like my page here:

and then download the 3×4 or 5×7 printable here:

3-13 miracles happen 3×4

3-13 miracles happen 5×7

Notice the miracles…enjoy!

May your days be filled with sunshine,
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maple-pecan-waffles-with-cinnamon-whip-cream-2

Maple Pecan Waffles with Cinnamon Whipped Cream

It’s my husband’s birthday…almost! He’s a leap year baby, and so he really doesn’t have an OFFICIAL birthday this year, but don’t worry: he figures he can celebrate for TWO days this year.

I had a different post all planned, but it just didn’t seem right on this celebratory day. So this post is dedicated to my sweetie, who helped me test out this recipe on Sunday: Maple Pecan Waffles with Cinnamon Whipped Cream! (Yum!)

maple-pecan-waffles-with-cinnamon-whip-cream-2

My husband is the waffle-maker in our house. He loves waffles, and he has a nice collection of waffle irons. He has round, square, belgian, and farm animal waffle irons! I’m surprised we don’t yet have a Mickey Mouse waffle iron, but I’m sure we will eventually. And I’m not complaining….NO! I LOVE that he has taken over as waffle chef in our house. His absolute favorite waffle iron is one that I got him a couple years ago on super-sale and he reaches for this one the very most: Check it out here

It will make TWO belgian waffles at once and that is great when you have a lot of mouths waiting for their waffles! We love to host a waffle party…and we even sometimes eat waffles for dinner….or lunch. When isn’t it a good time for waffles?

So let’s get to the “recipe.” It’s so simple (I love a simple recipe!) This comes together in minutes!

First, chop up some pecans.

Then, whip up your heavy cream (PLEASE use the real stuff! My kids are fine with the frozen whipped topping, but that just won’t do for this recipe…You need the real stuff here…believe me, you’ll thank me later)

When the cream is nearly fully whipped, instead of adding sugar to the cream, add CINNAMON/SUGAR. It is so delightful!

pecan-maple-waffle-collage

Now for the waffle part. Don’t laugh: my husband has found a shortcut to his waffle making secret. He uses Krusteaz waffle & pancake mix to start with! Fifteen years of trial and error and testing every waffle mix out there, and he has found this to be the best. We buy it in the giant bags at Costco! Make it using the instructions on the back. Then, add a bit of cinnamon and a bit of Mapleine.

Put your waffle mixture on your pre-heated waffle iron and sprinkle on some of the chopped pecans. Now let the waffle iron do the rest of the work. {Note: we tried this recipe two ways: one with the pecans sprinkled in the waffle batter, one with pecans sprinkled only on top. The winner: Pecans IN the batter!}

with-or-without-pecans

Add your Cinnamon Whipped Cream, a few more chopped pecans, maybe a strawberry or two!  These waffles are amazing. When you try this recipe, let me know what you think!

waffle-smothered-2

Before I go, I wanted to share that this “recipe” has me giggling a bit. It reminds me of a cartoon I once saw YEARS ago (If I can find it, I will post it here). It started out with the “Dad” of the cartoon getting ready to make breakfast. The kids say “Mom says that everything tastes better when it’s made from scratch.” The Dad replies “Then that’s what we’ll do!” The next slide shows the Dad pulling a box out of the pantry, and the kids say: “What’s in the box?” He replies: “Scratch.”

Gosh, I love my husband!

May your days be filled with sunshine,
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