Viva Las Vegas!

“Can you back the hell up outta my space please?”

That.

That, right there?

Is my lasting impression of Sin City.

I think my personal experience was a little skewed.  Firstly, during the day, I was by myself, my travelling buddy was at the hackers’ conference and I was wandering the streets of sin all by myself.  I think that makes a big difference – people see single women wandering aimlessly around, and it’s like dangling a zebra to a freakin’ lion.  Complete with overwhelmed, ‘Holy crap am I really witnessing all of this?’ doe-eyes, my first day really was spent wandering aimlessly up and down (and back up, and back down) the strip.  I was taking everything in (mostly heat stroke and golf-ball sized blisters over both feet) and everyone took this as an open invitation to get up in my business – It wasn’t.

Secondly, I’ve obviously had my wicked-cool ninja training from Houston.  My ‘be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to everyone and everything’ training.  From the second I woke up and stepped out of the hotel on to the strip, I was mentally exhausted.  I felt uncomfortable, constantly on edge, needing to stay focused and keep my wits about me, I had one hand free at all times and my phone wasn’t ever tucked too far away in case I needed to call for help.  I get that this sounds an extreme over reaction or an exaggeration, but it really did put me on edge and get my back up.

Here’s the first of my travel tips for Vegas – hydration is key.  Especially in the height of summer.  People tell you this all the time and you’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I got it.  No biggie.’ But it IS a biggie – if you’re drinking enough water to sink the Titanic and you’re not peeing? Drink more.  Carry a water bottle with you at all times.  If you get one of those novelty margarita glasses and you empty it? Before you refill it, down a round of H2O.  I landed myself with some (albeit mild) sunstroke, and it knocked me for six.  I thought I was drinking enough water, I wasn’t drinking all that much alcohol, and I didn’t feel too badly in the moment until it caught up with me.  Then I felt rough as hell.

Sunscreen – use it.  In ABUNDANCE. Usually I’m that idiotic pasty white Irish girl who doesn’t apply enough sun cream and winds up with second degree sunburn – and everything that goes with it, the peeling, the itching, tea baths, old wives’ remedies, aloe up the wazoo, and any amount of whining and moaning about my negligent-inflicted wounds.  But this time? I was ON POINT.  The Nevada summer sun overhead is intense, probably the most intense sun I’ve ever felt – and I lived in Texas for seven years.  But Vegas is hotter than Satan’s front porch, and it’s a dry, overwhelming, OMG I CAN’T BREATHE, kinda heat.  I could almost feel my skin cooking when I wasn’t in the shade, so I was on top of my sunscreen applications, I was applying in the middle of the street every half hour to an hour while I was outside.  Don’t be caught on this one, it’s painful and it’s dangerous.  Especially if you’re drinking, dehydrated and your mind isn’t at 100% – set an alarm on your phone if you have to.  Remind yourself.  Protect yourself.

Now those important things are out of the way, let’s talk about the fun things.  What to do, where to go, what to see and what to eat.

I gave a friend of mine completely free-reign over which shows I should go see.  They were comp tickets, she knows me well enough to know what I’d like, what I wouldn’t like and if it was left up to me I’d never have been able to narrow the BAZILLIONS of shows down to just the three nights I was there.

X-Burlesque

I guess most girls tend towards getting tickets to the Thunder Down Under, or some testosterone-filled male strip show.  But, having a friend as a burlesque dancer, having seen her troupe a couple times I was excited by this one.  I love burlesque.  That said, I was somewhat disappointed by this one.  I felt like a sardine in a tin can, kinda smushed up in behind the line of tables in front – so much so that my friend was able to manage some master level photobombing of the girls in front of us.  The venue is small, sure, but there was no real need to feel like my knees were wrapped around my neck.  Secondly, it was cold, freezing cold.  I get that the girls are constantly moving and they are hot under the lights, but I shivered the entire time – maybe that’s why the feeling of sardines in a can, so you can huddle together for warmth? I’m not sure.

So, from my previous experiences, I’d have said that the art of burlesque is about the seduction, the tease, the big-reveal.  It’s not necessarily always slow, but its sensual, tells a story, makes you use your imagination for a lot of it…it’s not just getting your clothes off, or from zero to bare boobs in 0.01 seconds.  This was more a naked dance show, and some tracks were just a little on the side of weird and totes awkward moreso than anything.  I mean, it was entertaining, and of course the dudes like it, naked girls getting their kit off multiple times to different genres of music, but I can’t in good conscience dub it ‘pure burlesque’.  I think I preferred the entertainment of watching the reactions of the men in the crowd, to the display of the dancers on stage.

Burlesque University

My friend thought she’d push me out of my comfort zone and pick me up a ticket to a burlesque class.  I was equal parts terrified and intrigued.  I’d jumped out of my comfort zone when I stepped in to Krav, so thought ‘What the heck?’ and walked in to the Burlesque studio with an open mind and a thumping heart.

Let me first say, that the majority of my problems with this class, wasn’t at all to do with the organisers, other than the fact that they didn’t interject much, they were WAY too polite, the other participants of the class spoke up before the ‘teachers’ did.  We had a boy in our class, a straight, heterosexual boy, with a full beard, learning to apply make-up and to do burlesque dancing – which is fine, but go with it.  He spent over twenty minutes asking questions about the waiver, legal questions, please explain this, what does this mean, well I’m not signing this type deal.  At one point the dancer turned and said, ‘look, I’m just a burlesque dancer, not a lawyer, we can’t go ahead with this unless you sign it’, so he amended it and finally signed it.  Then the make-up portion of the class started and he kept asking questions, what is blush? What is lipstick? What does this do? Where are my cheek bones? (Not even kidding here) Seemingly all deadly serious too – DUDE.  Give it up and GO WITH IT.  By the time we got to the dancing part, there wasn’t much time left for the dancing – the dancer even told me that if I wasn’t leaving a couple days later, she’d give me free tickets for a show the following week, because this guy was such a colossal disruption to the class.

Dancing wise, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the content, but, again, we didn’t have enough time cause of Mr-Questions.  So I think I’d need to do a do-over before I could give a fair and balanced review of this class.  The choreographer and the dancer were both lovely though!

Cirque du Soliel

I admit, I was a disbeliever.

I didn’t buy in to the hype, I didn’t buy in to the cost, I didn’t buy in to the experience, I just didn’t buy it.  And then I got handed tickets to the LOVE, Cirque du Soleil – the BEATLES Cirque du Soleil.

For me, the Beatles are almost a religious experience.  On my first trip to the US in 1999 to visit my big brother in Atlanta, Georgia, I was exposed to a campfire version of ‘Let it Be’ – I was besotted.  I hadn’t heard the Beatles before, and, horrified, my brother bought me the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ album as a Christmas gift later that year.  I listened, I repeated, I obsessed, I loved.  I was officially a Beatles fan.  Over the years, I listened to more of their back catalogue and, had a random guy stood on stage with a plastic bucket and sang Beatles songs – I’d probably have given him a shot.

This? This was SO. MUCH. MORE. Than that.

I’m not going to ruin it for you, but it was interactive, it was 360, it was audio, it was visual and it was utterly incredible – I got choked up a time or two, and – despite her objections to the same, I’m sure I saw my girl Courtney get a lil choked up too.  If the Beatles aren’t your jam – find something that is, and go see it.  I do want to see the Mystere show now that I’ve popped my Cirque cherry.  Though, that would require a return trip to Vegas and I’m not sure it’s my kinda thang at all.

Tenors of Rock

Lastly, (but by no means leastly), I got tickets to see the Tenors of Rock – the ‘in house’ act at our hotel, Harrahs.  Being a choral singer, I was curious – just, how *does* one put on a Vegas level show, singing contemporary rock songs, with classical Tenor voices.

I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I got goosebumps, I cried, I sang, we danced – and Courtney, who didn’t have high expectations to begin with, admitted to being blown away too.  These guys were great!

Another up-side was that after the show, the guys came out for a meet and greet, picture and autograph session – being largely from England (and the lone Aussie) it was nice to have a quick chat and get a few snaps and signatures before we headed on our way.  Don’t dismiss the idea of going to the ‘lower’ level shows, I really did enjoy this one a lot, even though it’s not something I would have maybe chosen on paper.

Let me take a second here to mention the hotel.  It was a decent enough hotel and all – on the flight to Vegas, a lady was very snooty to me about the hotel I was staying in (Courtney’s work picked it) and I couldn’t figure out why.  It was perfectly nice – ok, it is one of the ‘older’ hotels on the strip and needs a bit of a facelift, and, if you compare it to the other, bigger, brighter hotels on the strip, you’ll be disappointed.  But it was nice.  Aside from restaurants on the ground floor, they had an in-house Starbucks and a little bar-type area, that had a GREAT in-house act.  Dave the Sax Man and his brother played there the few days that I was staying there – I loved them so much so that I set an alarm on my phone to call in for a drink and listen the next day too.   Gorgeous soul singers and great sax playing had strangers (including me) dancing together on the dancefloor.  It was a really nice way to pass a couple hours and take refuge from the blazing sun.

Between the pan-handlers, the pick-pockets, the people trying to get in your space about going to different clubs and venues in the evenings, those peddling wares from shirts and hats, to margaritas and henna tattoos (that they claim will last for a month, but DON’T!) and the dudes and dudettes dressed in character garb wanting a few bucks for selfies – the concept of personal space just DOESN’T exist in Vegas.  Everything is very much in your space.  If you want some ‘me time’, it’s probably not the right place to go – especially as most people are drinking, so there’s stumbling and bumping elbows, there’s also THRONGS of people – even in the skin-frying-height-of-summer.

That said? There were some pretty cool things we did, places we went and things we saw – things I enjoyed (other than the amazing shows of course!)

Food

First real night in town, we had dinner in a cute little Mexican called Canonita – deep in the belly of the Venetian hotel.  You should nab a reservation – especially if you want a river-side seat to watch the gondolas sail past you (we did!)  The food was delicious, we had some thick cheesy starter and I got some yummy fajitas, but it was more about the atmosphere and just watching the world sail by to be honest.  It was a lovely place to eat dinner, and I’d happily go back there again – even though it takes FOREVER to get to it from the street – plan an extra 20-minute walk or so in to your ‘walk to the restaurant’ journey – cause you don’t wanna end up arriving a big ole sweaty mess, to such a lovely place!

After picking up tickets to my Burlesque dance class, I went in to Gordon Ramsay’s Fish and Chips, which was RIGHT next door to the Flamingo.  I had high hopes.  I wanted British sausages, I wanted British chips – not American sausages and American ‘fries’.  Being disappointed on the sausage (not British sausages) and being told they were ‘fries’, I was disappointed.  But I loaded my fries with cheese and bacon and got the fish – aside from the fact that it was all swimming in grease, it was pretty darn good.  The fish, in particular was light and flaky and delish!

While waiting for our number to be called for the dinner buffet, Courtney and I went to the Payard Patisserie and Bistro in Caesars Palace.  I bagged a delicious hot chocolate and we split a lemon tart, it was really tasty – though a little on the expensive side, a tasty treat for sure.

Most people typically hit up the all you can eat buffets in Vegas – and we were no exception to that stereotype.  We tried three buffets while we were there, Cravings buffet (Mirage Hotel), Bacchanal Buffet (Caesars Palace hotel) and Flavors Buffet (Harrahs hotel) and of the three, Cravings was my favourite – the bottomless wine and beer helped for SURE, but I also preferred the food selections and quality in the Mirage.  I know, I know, Caesar’s Palace is THE BOMB of buffets – right? Hell, we had to wait over an hour for our number to be called.  And, sure enough, if I was in to seafood, I bet that this buffet would be my favourite, but I wasn’t impressed.  It was grossly overpriced compared to the other buffets, it didn’t include wine or beer, and while I loved the lamb and potatoes, I wasn’t thrilled at the stale bread and the clumps of fat posing as beef in the beef dishes.  Flavours rotisserie pork and rosemary potatoes were good, but the crème brulee was more like crime brulee, plus the service was grumpy and I didn’t like how sweet the pasta sauce was.  Cravings, on the other hand, I liked.  The staff were friendly and made solid recommendations of food, the wine was free – did I mention that the wine was free? And bottomless 😉 and we liked the chef station, Courtney asked the chef to throw together a pasta dish (his choice across the board) and it was delicious! Worth it.

I didn’t drink much alcohol while I was there, but the margarita I got from La Salsa (on the strip close to M&M world) was delicious!

To do

So.  The M&M store may be one of, if not my *favourite* store in ALL THE WORLD.  There’s, like, FOUR FLOORS of M&M stuff.  From a WALL of M&M’s – in a variety of flavours and colours, to everything from t-shirts and pjs, to cups, glasses and aprons.

Of COURSE there’s a mark-up on, well, EVERYTHING.  I’ve NEVER spent so much money on a single bag of candy in my entire life, but you get totally caught up in the moment, and in the desire to test the fact that M&M’s are resistant to the Vegas heat (the crunchy shell prevents them from getting all melty and smushed – it’s pure genius.)  That said? My pj bottoms got a hole in them, before they even hit the wash for the first time – can you believe that? The most expensive pair of pjs I own and they got a hole.  UGH.  I spent a lot of time in here, I explored each floor, looked at ALL THE THINGS and came away with a bit of a haul of goodies.  It’s a great place to stop in and have a poke-around.  Plus? Who doesn’t want to get their picture taken with a giant M&M?

The Coke store didn’t really impress me much at all, but it may be worth poking your head in for a bit of a look-see.  They had a couple of cool things to see – plus, y’know, aircon.

The day we left, I had a late flight – Courtney wanted to head to the airport and hang out, however, upon arrival to the airport, we discovered we were in different terminals and we went our separate ways.  Being WAY too early for even bag-drop, I decided to pay an EXTORTIONATE amount of money for a taxi from the airport to Fremont Street (and back).  It was a quick trip, cause of traffic and the time of day and it was one of my fave parts of the trip.

This is what’s known as ‘old Vegas’, it used to be the old strip – and I felt MUCH more comfy and at home here, than on the current strip.  It was, I dunno, something.  More relaxed? A little more at home.  If you need souvenirs – go here.  Much better selection, and certainly a better price than on the strip.  I got a glimpse of somewhere I’d have LOVED to visit while I was there, the Mob museum, totally my cup of tea and very accessible from Fremont street.  If I ever go back to Vegas, I’d go to the museum, and probably spend my time in town, on Fremont street for sure.

I didn’t gamble a single penny while I was there, I wasn’t even tempted, I think if I hadn’t gotten sunstroke and busted up my foot (I truly thought for a moment it was broken) I may have been a little more inclined, but I think I was quickly over the ‘scene’, the cat calling and whistling, the propositioning and the indignation at being turned down.  It was off-putting.

I dunno, I guess I was over Vegas, before I was under it.  I didn’t have the same experiences that a lot of other people have in Vegas, I wasn’t blinded by the seafood or the gambling or the glitz and glam.  I enjoyed it, but different aspects to those that typically love it.

Would I go back? Maybe.  To see and do specific places and things, with specific people.  But.  And this is a BIG but.  It wasn’t, anywhere near close to my fave city in the US and I feel like for the same money you’d spend there, there’s any number of *better* places you could go – so, I’d rather go to those places instead.

A New Year’s Feast!

Something you’ll quickly learn about me, is that whether it’s just Col and I at home alone, or whether we have a house filled with friends, I love to grab-on to *any* excuse to make a nice meal for us – especially if the excuse can validate the use of multiple courses.

Birthdays and Valentines day, we tend to head out to eat but for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Boxing day and New Years, I’ll cook at home, usually a three-course dinner that we’ll either tuck in to, together, or we’ll bring people around to help us eat.

This year, we were scheduled to dine ‘alone’ on NYD, but whilst chatting to a friend on NYE, I discovered that I could feed two more mouths – and that was that!  I had already pre-made my starter and dessert, so, as folk at home would say, we threw on a few more spuds and invited them over.

First, let’s take a moment to admire Col’s table-setting skillz, not bad going consider we were originally due to leave the US on NYE/NYD, eh?

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I cheated a little with the starter, my timing for NYD, coincided with making a ma-hoosive pot of a very commonly made soup here in Casa McMaster, so I just left some in the fridge (I froze the rest) and used that, served with some fresh crusty load from HEB.  Delish!

I’ve mentioned this soup before on this blog, it’s an easy-to-make, smooth vegetable soup that I found over on the lovely Siobhan at Slimming Eats blog.  I make it ALL the time, it’s delicious, it’s quick, easy, you can have it chunky, semi-chunky or smooth, it freezes well, it defrosts well, it’s Slimming World friendly (so, I guess by extension, it’s also Weight Watchers friendly too) and, did I mention it’s delicious?!

To make it yourself, the recipe can be found here.  Sometimes I make it as the recipe says, sometimes I add butternut squash and/or half a head of white cabbage to it, to up the veggies in it.  It’s a very versatile soup indeed.

For our main course, I used a recipe that my friend Liz sent me a few days prior, it’s a ‘one-pot Sunday lunch‘, though, I have no idea who has a big enough casserole dish or roasting tin big enough to hold all of the food they want you to cook in one-tin.  We ended up with two tins of food on the go.

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I was too busy trying to feed people when it was cooked to take a picture, so y’all get a raw-picture for a change. Haha!

Instead of the cider vinegar, I used balsamic, I used boneless and skinless chicken thighs (to keep it a little more Slimming World friendly), I also didn’t use parsnips – I used butternut squash.  It was nice, it didn’t blow my mind and no one flavour was particularly strong – I expected it to be a little stronger in the flavour department – but it was tasty, everyone cleared their plates, it was quick (half an hour to cook), prep was also quick and easy and, since it was all cooked in one (two) tray(s), clean-up was pretty darn easy too.  I even made something similar (at least veggie-wise) the next day, it was seriously convenient to make.

Unfortunately, one tray cooked quicker than the other (which is weird cause they were on the same shelf side-by-side, so mine and Cols veggies were a little charred (even though I checked them at the 15 and 25 minute mark) – that said, my oven is as old as the hills and SUCKS, so just keep an eye on both trays if you happen to split the dish.  When I make it again (which, let’s face it, we all know I will!) I’ll perhaps put the meat in first for 5-10 minutes and add the veggies (tossed in the mixture beforehand) a little in to the cooking process, that, or cut my veggies a little bigger, so they don’t cook quicker than the meat – it’s a balancing act – and I’d throw in some garlic and perhaps a smidge of rosemary even.

Dessert was another cheat (bad Las!) I’d made Nigella’s sticky gingerbread cake back in November for the Gingerbread and pumpkin trifle I made for Thanksgiving day.  But the cake was so huge that I was able to freeze the extra two slabs of cake, so I just defrosted one of the slabs for dessert (served with Aunt Bessies powdered custard made-up, and some vanilla Bluebell ice-cream).

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The cake freezes VERY well indeed, it tasted as fresh as the day I made it and maintained it’s sticky consistency.  It’s kind of like McVities Jamaica cake, just on the milder side, not as strong-flavoured and not quite as sticky, but it’s still pretty darn tasty – and has become an instant favourite here in the McMaster residence!

So there you have it folks, another New Year’s day, another three-course meal.  What did you feast upon this new years?  Any great recipes you’d like to share?

You could do worse than Christmas at the Alamo!

Due to some rather crappy confluences of circumstances, we ended up having absolutely nothing to do for Christmas, in a house that was filled with packed boxes and severely lacking in any ‘holiday cheer’ (no tree, no decorations, minimal presents).   We were originally supposed to be in Dubai (again with the, WE WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE!!) the timeline got pushed, so we were then supposed to be in the UK for a few days, the timeline got pushed again, so we were then supposed to be in DC getting documentation accredited and then the move got postponed for at least six months, so we decided to make the best of a bad situation, and go somewhere, ANYWHERE, that wasn’t here.

We originally looked at going to Iowa (Amber had kindly invited us for Christmas ages ago!) but considering the stress we’d been under of late, we concluded that not going through the hassle of airports, security etc during one of the busiest flying times of the year, probably wasn’t the best idea.

So we moved to a road-trip, we looked at Atlanta or Mississippi, but, again, considering the stress-factor, we decided that an 18+ hour road-trip wasn’t the best option either.

Finally, we settled on heading back up to good old reliable San Antonio, a short drive away, yet far enough from home to be considered a getaway and somewhere that had a sufficient amount of holiday cheer.  We decided to pay over the odds, stay on the River-walk itself and enjoy not driving, just strolling to and from the River-walk from the hotel.

Christmas experience?

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This wasn’t our first Christmas ‘alone’, we’ve spent four out of our five Christmases in Texas, ‘just us’, and we tend to love it.  This *was*, however, our first Christmas travelling somewhere and spending it at the mercy of the hotel and restaurant industry.  In context, it was exactly what we needed, a few days down-time from all the insanity, somewhere where you didn’t even have to make your own bed, or pick up towels from the floor.

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For Texas, it was as Christmassy as you can probably get, the River-walk was covered in Christmas lights, mariachi bands were singing Christmas carols table-side, the hotels had been decorated with exterior lights and huge trees and for once, the weather was proper Christmassy (in that it was cold enough for snow, but we never saw any).

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We didn’t do much, walked the River-walk quite a lot, just dandered to and from the hotel, watched lots of cheesy 80’s movies and bad TV (we watched a lot of housing renovation programmes) and relaxed – which we needed.  It was truly blissful and I may have even burst in to tears when the insane world stopped and we found ourselves just spending an afternoon in bed, watching TV.

As Christmases go, it was pretty classy, we enjoyed getting some glad-rags on and taking in a posh dinner in a beautiful hotel – and I must admit, having someone else cook, even if it wasn’t what I, myself would have cooked for Christmas day? Was pretty damn nice indeed!

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I’m definitely no longer averse to going away for Christmas, like I once was, and San Antonio really has a lot to offer during the season – it’s a pretty good place to give some consideration to, should you find yourself needing somewhere to go for the holidays!

Here’s my ‘review’ on the place we stayed, the place we ate Christmas dinner, and somewhere you should try when you’re on the River-walk, whether it’s Christmas, or not!

The Hotel: Hotel Contessa

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After doing some extensive researching and price comparing, we settled on the Hotel Contessa, for three nights – which was a good deal for that hotel, don’t get me wrong, it’s just a lot more than WE would usually pay for a hotel, we are bargain travellers.  I’m not sure what I expected from a 4 Star hotel in the USA.  We normally stay in Holiday Inns or “lower priced” 2.5 stars – 3 star hotels that we Price-line, get for great prices and, more often than not, they are exactly what we need them to be.  Personally, I feel, for $200 a night that you should come away feeling that if you were to come back to the River-walk that you couldn’t possibly stay anywhere else on that river, other than Contessa cause it was so awesome.  I’m sorry, but I just didn’t feel that!

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Perhaps if housekeeping had treated my teddy lion better, I’d have enjoyed it more? Lol! It’s actually become quite the accurate barometer of a hotel, some housekeeping staffs put him in bed when they are done making it, some have him peeking out from behind the pillows, some have him on the floor or tossed on the bedside table – Contessa falls into the later.

For those money conscious reading this (my couponer self, loves getting a deal, I love making my money stretch further than just what somewhere charges for something).  We had read the reviews before leaving Houston (thanks yelpers!) and parked in the garage (not even a block away) for $12 per day, as opposed to the mandatory hotel valet parking for $30 – saving of more than 50% a day on parking before we’d even started.  We spent $6 more for three days parking across the street, than ONE day of parking at Contessa (plus, Contessa probably would have added tax etc) – score!

Check-in is later than any hotel I’ve been to, 4pm.  You can pay (!!!!) $40 to check-in early.  What a ridiculous policy!! We actually didn’t know this ahead of turning up at the hotel, so I guess we got lucky that our room was ready at 2.35pm when we rolled up to the check-in desk, as we didn’t have a problem.

Contessa charge $20 extra per day for the River-walk view, is it worth it? Who knows?  We opted to stay on the quieter side of the hotel, though we also ended up with a partial view of the river which was a nice surprise.

We were woken up on our first morning in the hotel at 7am by some dudes clock radio alarm playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers, someone running a shower above us and cleaning crews going door to door.  I dunno, call me fussy, but with a 4-star hotel, I expect the walls to be a little thicker than paper and more sound proof than those in the Holiday Inn or Best Western!  I expected better quality of sleep, a quieter night, and, should I have wanted it (and we did!!) a lie-in!

We ordered room service once and my main problem with it lies with the fact that the guy delivering our food, left the food and took the silver warmer cloches off and left the room with them.  WTF???? I wasn’t ready for it just yet and it was COLD when I got to it.  Who the heck takes the cloches off and leaves with them???!?!? The menu is also pretentious to the utmost degree.  I asked for their posh fish and chips and expected some king of the ocean to appear, not chewy fish nuggets, bland aioli and cold fries (though the cold could have been because HE TOOK MY CLOCHE!)

No condiments to go with the in-room tea or coffee? Seriously? Even the cheap-@ss hotels have sugar, sweetener, half and half and stirrers!!!!! The mini bar costs are extortionate (moreso than other hotels I’ve been in) – if you didn’t bring provisions, just walk the two blocks go to the CVS on the River-walk, which is more expensive than a ‘regular’ CVS, but much cheaper than the minibar!

Aside from the suite being fairly nice and spacious, (though no room in the fridge, no in-room microwave, not even a free bottle of water!) and considering that it was CHRISTMAS and the best “treat” we got for spending our Christmas in Contessa was a $5 off a movie on the in-room system.  Thanks :-/ Again, I wouldn’t be encouraged to pick this hotel for next Christmas, especially considering how amazing the Hyatt’s Christmas buffet was and how fab their staff were.

And while i’m on the rampage, their website is terrible, spa packages have basic information (they don’t tell you the extent of services), no prices, the restaurant didn’t have a menu up, they also didn’t have their Christmas menu online.  Everyone lives online, it’s the age of technology, just give me everything I need to know BEFORE I get to the hotel please!

Check out is early enough (at 11am), DO NOT have housekeeping hound me (by banging the crap out of the door) from 9.30am (and again at 10.30am!!) to be granted access to a room I’ve paid for til 11am!! Classless.  Absolutely classless!

I can’t quite figure out what the price per night “up-charge” is for, other than the fact that it’s on the River-walk and even then, there are some cheaper 4 star hotels with better reviews out there, but we opted for Contessa for something a little more plush and luxurious than the others.

Maybe it’s *because* we are used to finding fantastic hotels at rock-bottom prices that I left feeling short-changed?  For example, we stayed at an EPIC Sheraton a few months ago, for $57 a night, and while there was really nothing badly wrong with Contessa, I just can’t, in good conscience, rate it on the same level as previous hotels we have stayed in, for much cheaper.  I feel like the “River-walk factor” gets away with way too much, and it just doesn’t cut it! (end rant!)

Christmas dinner: Q on the Riverwalk

Col lookin' VERY excited to have seen the buffet on his way in!

Col lookin’ VERY excited to have seen the buffet on his way in!

Google is your friend, though it took us a while to investigate which restaurants were open, if they had a specific Christmas menu, if so, what was ON their Christmas menu.  It’s like it’s some underground network of nods and winks to find Christmas dinner on the River-walk.  Be warned, Irish/British expats, finding a traditional Christmas dinner, is nigh on impossible – even from the British and Irish bars along the River-walk, which was highly disappointing.  Can you imagine the influx of expats if they offered even a carvery dinner for Christmas? I’d be first in line!

Make a reservation, we used open table.  I think they quietly allocate an hour for your table, but we weren’t rushed out of our spot – we tried to savour each plate and enjoy our experience, instead of hitting it hard like the Tasmanian devil and being stuffed after the first course! Lol! It was busier than I anticipated it would be, but not so crowded that you were all up in your neighbours business.

Per person cost was $46 + tax and 18% gratuity (or there abouts)  it worked out at around $116 for the two of us – this is a bargain, even at twice the price (which is more what you’d expect for a Christmas dinner).  It was an EPIC feed!!  The price includes all the food in all the land (buffet), free champagne, mimosas, fruit juices, sodas, tea and coffee – which we didn’t know ahead of time, but we were very happy to discover.

I counted 5 courses, but you could probably count more or less depending on how many plates you use and how highly they are stacked 😉

All of this is recalled from my food-coma memory, so bare with me – thankfully I took pictures to aid my memory recall! Lol!

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Salad bar: 3 types of lettuce, 4 kinds of dressing, and about 7-8 pots of “toppings”, cucumber, onion, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, bacon and croutons.

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Behind the soup/bread there were also 3 drawers of salads, broccoli salad, pasta salad and what looked like sweet potato salad but I could be wrong.  Fresh, fresh, fresh! As salads go it was delicious.  Start small though, you wanna build up to the meat!

Soup: butternut squash bisque – just a little cup, but dear LORD it was delicious.  I could have enjoyed gallons of the stuff! Don’t overload on bread at this stage.  DON’T DO IT.  1 or 2 slices, max.  Save the bread for the cheese course, if you can manage it by the time you get there!

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We left the cheese and antipasti station for the moment, but it’s right there – so you WILL be tempted.

Entrees: carving station (pork loin, prime rib) here you’ll find the mashed potatoes, apple sauce, mushroom demi-gravy, and – weirdly, bread pudding, which you *may* if you’re my husband, mistake for stuffing!

I tried the pork, it was great.  It wasn’t dry, the dude can slice as much or as little as you’d like.  Prime rib was wayyyyy too raw for me but hubby loved it.  Mash potatoes were EPIC.  Hubby who doesn’t tend to like potatoes, loved them.  It was great to see brown jus-gravy and not thick creamy white gravy.

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On the other side of the salad bar, you have the other entrees, carrots and asparagus, crab topped rainbow trout, braised short rib, sweet potato mallow gratin, stuffed chicken breast, wild game paella… I’m not kidding, ALL THE FOOD IN ALL THE WORLD!!!

I loved the veggies, the braised short ribs rocked my world, like freakin’ amazing.  The trout was perfectly cooked too.  Least fave was the chicken, I just didn’t care for the stuffing inside and it was a little dry and boring compared to the other treasures on offer.

Next it was the cheese, bread and antipasti/cold seafood.  If you have room.  The breads were fresh and delicious, the cheeses were just sitting right there – it was tempting to take an entire block, and hubby could have camped at the antipasti table all day….and night….and the next day!

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If you’ve any room left, the dessert table is round the corner beside the bar.  I had a small piece of cheesecake with raspberry coulis which was light and tasty.  I thought the cake was chocolate cake, it wasn’t (unfortunately), it was the strongest coffee flavour EVER.  Pass.  Not my bag.

I also managed half a slice of the key lime pie – hands down the single best key lime pie I’ve ever eaten…and wished I could have taken the other half back to the hotel in a box to have eaten whenever I was eventually hungry again (around 10 or 11pm!!)  Hubby also tried a swiss-roll type thing that he said was nice.

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Things they need to improve this fab meal?  A wee bit of stuffing (it’s CHRISTMAS dangit!!!!) custard and/or whipped cream and pleeeeease label each dish, you’d probably reduce waste if people know what they are picking up!! I ended up accidentally getting Caesar dressing instead of ranch, cause they all looked the same in unmarked jugs!

Service was really great, he was bubbly, friendly, attentive and didn’t rush us or treat us any different for not ordering any alcohol and when I asked for tea, he brought me like six kinds!

Notable mention: Waxy O’Connors

Ok, first of all this place should obviously be split into two sets of reviews.  Bar vs food – if you read the Yelp reviews, the food gets rave reviews and the bar-service gets poor reviews.  At first glance you could be tempted not to come here as there are places with better reviews around and 3.5 stars isn’t everyone’s bag.  Don’t be.  Give it a whirl.

Disclaimer: most of my readers know that I am IRISH, we’ve lived in TX for 4.5 years, but have a very high standard when someone brands their bar and food as an Irish pub, with traditional or authentic food.  I am VERY fussy when it comes to “Irish fare”, but in spite of expecting disaster, we discovered that not only was this place great for food, but it was one of the best, complete meals we have had in a loooooong time!!

Upon reading yelp, I told Col (yes, he had no choice in the matter!) that he was having fish and chips and that i’d have the bangers and mash.  We also ordered a side of the fresh brown bread cause I was curious.

The fish was delicious, flaky, lightly battered and plentiful.  The chips are more akin to “Five guys fries” and not the “real” chips we were expecting, but they were yummy too – and yes, we even ate the peas, which was unusual enough that our server commented on it! (I ate most of them with my bangers and mash) lol! Bangers and mash was delicious, the gravy was excellent, best sausages we have tried this side of the atlantic and creamy, smooth mash potatoes.

The brown bread could have done with being warmed and a smidge less sugar, but it was as close to wheaten bread as i’ve found outside of home.  Even the butter was room temp – which I can’t even find at home ! Lol!!

For dessert we shared apple pie with ice cream.  The apple pie was delicious (hubby says I need to mention the crust being outstanding!) and the ice cream came in a separate wee bowl so it didn’t melt all over the pie – genius! And delicious – all they are missing is a lick of real custard!!

I can’t say enough good things about this place.  Service was fast and very friendly, food was hot and delicious, great quality food across the board, but the best sampling of “Irish” food that we have found since crossing the Atlantic 4.5 years ago!

Trifling with Thanksgiving!

I’m begrudgingly posting about 2013’s Thanksgiving, because (and I’m saying this a lot recently), we weren’t supposed to be here.  So we weren’t supposed to have Thanksgiving.  Had I known with enough advanced warning, that we *were* staying here, I’d have done what I’ve done for the last four Thanksgivings, and had people over – I love my expat Thanksgivings y’see (that, and for some reason no one invited us anywhere for Thanksgiving this year) so it ended up being ‘just us’.  Which isn’t normally a bad thing, if we CHOOSE it, but those who know me will understand how crappy it was to have an a-typical Thanksgiving.

The only reason I’m posting about it at all, is to share this sublime recipe (I used previous years side dishes and what not that I’ll link you to later) but I used two new recipes that beg being shared with y’all.

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My friend Sue on Facebook, who I actually know from a diet group, sent me the recipe for a deliciously new and different dessert, it looked so appetising, that I pretty much dropped everything and crossed HWY6 for ingredients.  I’m not normally a trifle fan – mushy cake inside jelly, with a tin of fruit cocktail – not my bag at all!  But this? This interested me.  A lot.

In turn, I think about four or five friends on my Facebook went out and made this after having seen my picture.  It was a mini-epidemic! It’s a Paula Deen recipe (found here!) – which I’ve never really gone wrong with before – and this was no disappointment.  It was seriously delicious.

Based on Sue’s advice, however, I did make some tweaks, firstly, make it a day ahead – something magical really happens to the flavours if you leave them overnight.  Trust me!  Secondly, use a tin of pureed pumpkin, rather than the pumpkin pie filling, and add your own heaped tbsp of pumpkin pie spice to it – this contains a lot less of the processed ‘muck’ and is a lot ‘cleaner’.

One other thing I did as well, because I absolutely abhor using box-cake-mixes for ANYTHING I make, I made from-scratch gingerbread (recipe here!)  A Nigella recipe, that I ended up using for my New Years day dessert as well – it turns out a particularly delicious cake.

I think, if you’d rather leave out the pumpkin, that you could add some pumpkin pie spice to the pudding itself and you’d still get a tasty blend of flavours, or, in fact, just some cinnamon if you favour something a little more plain.

For previous McMaster Thanksgiving’s, including recipes (and pictures) go here: 2012,  2011 and 2010!

I won’t be fooled again next year – international friends, be warned, if you’re here for Thanksgiving, we will celebrate damnit!

Crafting a nifty 4th July!

As you all know (if you don’t, you must be living under a rock) Pinterest is my go-to place for inspiration when I get wind of a holiday, a party of any kind, or any potential stolen moment of free time that I’d like to fill with crafting.

The 4th July was no different, this time, however, I had a craft-buddy.  My friend Lindsay, a recent SLB/SSA transfer from Houma, LA.  We got together, and attempted to do, what, in theory, we are told, is an ‘easy’ craft, make pompoms.

It’s quite possible we over-shopped, between the two of us we have enough 4th July stuff to have parties for the next 3-5 years (or more!)

Fold and fan!

We attempted red, white and blue

We joined two together cause one side was flat every single time!!!

However, as you can see, that didn’t go well at all.  We followed Martha Stewart’s tutorial to the letter, however, our pompoms ended up looking more like butterflies than any kind of poms! Linds ended up taking most of her tissue paper home with her and we’ve decided to get together with our friend Shelley at some stage for a proper education on how to make these frustrating little suckers.

Needless to say, we were both pretty deflated, so, after another squizz though pages and pages of Americana ideas on Pinterest, we came up with a few other crafts to do for the ‘social gathering’ (because, again, y’all know, we don’t have parties in this house 😉 lol!)

Wind socks – excuse the mess of my kitchen!!

Firstly, we took some floral stems, wrapped them around a vase to get a circle shape and twisted the ends together.  Then I cut equal lengths of crepe paper in red, white and blue and attached them around the wire (using regular sticky tape that you’d use on wrapping presents).  They were quick, easy, and to hang them up, I bent a floral stem around the sides of the circle to create a hook/hanging point and hung them from some metal loop studs in my kitchen ceiling (I’ve no idea what their real purpose is, but they make great decorating loops).

Next, I took these 3 ingredients and worked on something that I’d fallen in love with on Pinterest a while ago.

Glues-a-dryin’

I’ve never before used Mod Podge, but it’s a clear-drying glue that most definitely did the trick for me.  I cut strips of tri-colour crepe paper (some in long strips, some in small strips) and glued them to the inside of two different sizes of jars (twelve total) and popped some battery-powered tea lights inside them.

Finished products along my garden path in day light

They are luminary jars for lighting up along your garden path.  Ok, Linds made a good point that it doesn’t get dark here until almost 9pm in Houston during the summer, but we left them running until after midnight so they were seen by some people…maybe?

In the dark!

Who knows! All I know is, they looked pretty – the ‘fake’ tea-lights glow a little too orange for my liking, but they still looked good!

My centre-piece was up next, I took an old clear vase and spray-painted it white, used some florists foam as a base inside the vase to stick my decorations in to (we tried just stuffing plastic bags in there, but that didn’t work, neither did the foam you stuff cuddly toys with).

Lindsay picked up the pinwheels for me, the Flags I got in Target (3 for $1), the glittery stars at the front, were 5 for $1 in the 99c store.  The ribbon, I pinched from Lindsay – but I think she picked that up in Hobby Lobby.  The most expensive bit was that crazy straggly piece at the back from Hobby Lobby, even at 30% off it was still a few quid.

When it was put together, Lindsay remarked that it looked a little bare around the bottom, so she stuffed some red and blue tissue paper in the bottom and that small adjustment, really brought the whole thing together and made it POP!

We also had a couple of foodie inspirations from Pinterest too, Lindsay put together this great ‘stars and stripes’ inspired fruit kebob platter.  It’s simple, but striking and, importantly, it’s healthy and delicious!

Lastly, something else I’d fallen in love with on the Pinterest boards, a wholly American holiday treat, that was an absolute necessity for our 4th July celebration, was a ‘smores station’.  I thought it was adorable, so I threw together a quick version of it before the guests arrived.

I found some red, white and blue, star-shaped marshmallows which I stuck on skewers, with little bowls of graham crackers and chocolates.  I don’t know if you’ve discovered the wonder that is Ghirardelli chocolates, however, those squares are the perfect thickness for smores and, the ones with caramel in them add another delicious element to smores.  Next time I’m going to try the mint version!

Lanterns a-go-go!

It was lots of fun, I enjoyed the crafting – pompom calamity aside, it was easy, quick to do and it all looked great, together with well placed bunting from the Dollar store and some nice paper lantern lights, our house was well and truly kitted out for a fun 4th July party!

Most of the food

Home sweet house!

I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it is to finally be home!

Like I’ve mentioned time and again, it’s been two years, almost to the day, since we were last ‘home’, properly, in the “country of my birth” kind of home, not Texas where we’ve grown to call home.  Here I sit, writing a blog a week after we landed in sunny Northern Ireland.  Normally I’d say that, dripping with sarcasm, however, the weather since we got home, has been fab (especially by Norn Iron standards!) I haven’t even needed my first ever rain coat that I bought in Academy Sports before I left in preparation.

We may have been home a week, but it only feels like a few days since we disembarked the plane in the International Airport.  Time is flying.  Maybe it’s cause we’ve been so busy, maybe it’s because we’re having so much fun, or maybe time just goes quicker on the little emerald isle!

We’ve been up and down the A1 like a yoyo, we’ve already seen a half dozen of the people on our ‘to see’ list and we are almost booked up a week in advance.  It gives me a warm feeling to have been missed and for people to be so keen to see us.  I’ll be honest, with a few people, I was a smidge apprehensive, but, so far, so good.

In spite of the fact that our apartment is falling down around our ears, it’s good to be in our home by the Irish sea.  So far, our washing machine display has no bulb, it’s burned out, (meaning that you can’t see what you want to programme it to do), the tumble dryer is sounding like a machine gun and we’ll probably need to call the Hot Point engineer out to look at both of them before I can trust them with a load of our clothes.

My dishwasher threw an E1 error (meaning it wasn’t getting an water), when we fixed that, it threw an E3 error (meaning that one of 3 parts have gone), so we’ve ordered the cheapest of the three replacement parts and are hoping that will sort the issue.

My kitchen sink tap has a small leak, my kitchen extractor fan light isn’t working (which is more problematic than you might think), my shower fixture has rusted clean off the wall, (so now when you have a shower, you have to hold the shower head yourself,) and my neighbours have covered our landing and stairs with boxes of crap and rubbish – and don’t even get me started on the price of petrol! We just paid £72 (or around $125) to fill up this little Ford Focus we’re driving…and people back in America are up in arms that gas is approaching $4 per gallon!

In spite of all of that, we still couldn’t be more happy to be home.  Between family, friends and food, we’re having a great time being on this side of the Atlantic and I have started to take my camera with me everywhere we go – to save you all from blurry, poor quality camera phone pictures! My brother and my soon to be brother-in-law, tell me I’m acting like a tourist and my friend Liz, said, ‘I don’t know you’ and ran away when I took my camera out to take pictures of the cherry blossoms on the canal!

I have started to type up a day-to-day blog, but, for now, however, I’m knackered and going to attempt to find something to watch with my honey, on our four-channel TV and take in a nap before we watch Round 1, Game 1 of our home-from-home team, the Houston Aeros in their play-off run 2012!

Heading for a drive up the Co.Antrim coast!

Travelling to D.C in slow motion!

Alright, our journey to D.C was pretty much stalled and delayed at every, single, turn.

Model plane in D.C airport!

Even when we fly domestic, we get there two hours before departure time.  That should, realistically give us enough time to get out stuff together, combat most issues and get our butts to the gate with a nice amount of time to spare (and, in many airports, enjoy the free WiFi).

We normally leave one hour before this two-hour window, as it takes us around forty minutes to get to the airport, giving us around two hours and twenty minutes at the airport.

In the past, we’ve attempted to leave on a Friday evening, this hasn’t worked very well and we vowed NEVER, not EVER, to do it again.  However, this time, due to the last minute nature of our flight (and buying it through the Continental – yes, they’re still Continental to me!!) we did it and boy did we suffer!

A forty minute journey took one hour and forty five minutes – seriously! The traffic was chaotic, rush hour, north of the city, on a freakin’ Friday night! Disaster! We had enough time to get there, dump our bag, rush through security, pick up a dinner from Wendys (yuck!!! So much for our leisurely dinner in Terminal E!) and get to our gate before they boarded us on to the plane.

In spite of our delay to the airport, check in and security were surprisingly empty, which, I guess I should have been suspicious about, after having rushed through security and our food, we boarded and were told that there was a delay, we were waiting for a ‘weight’ report before we could take off.

Twenty minutes later, we’re told there’s yet another delay, as the electronics have gone a bit daft on the plane, so we waited more.

While we were waiting, I saw an ad for a movie that I wanted to see, so, I swiped my card, flicked through the movies, only to discover that the stupid movie wasn’t there, so I got stuck watching Happy Feet II, which, while cute and adorable for kids, wasn’t exactly the period drama I had my heart set on watching.

Once we were airborne, we started to hit some turbulence, which the pilot informed us, was the remnants of the storms that had blitzed through the mid-west, leaving a path of destruction.

We were told, shortly after we got through the turbulance, that our assigned runway was  closed and that the new one was much shorter, but, and this is the kicker, it was ‘still legal for a plane like this’, uhmmmm….ok?! LOL!! The landing was pretty bumpy, with a lot of reverse thrust.

When we got to the baggage carousel, there was another delay, seriously.  At every stage, we were delayed.  I was not a happy camper!!!!

Finally we were on our way, ok, in a smoke filled taxi, but we were on our way!

The hotel was pretty cool, the room, on the 17th floor, was your typical hotel room (though we had no fridge), in spite of the fact I had it set to 67F in the room overnight, we still cooked alive, they charged for internet, per day (not 24 hours) and per computer, and the walls were paper thin (the neighbours were fighting for a large chunk of the night).

By the time we got to our room, it was 12.07am, and we were totally famished.  We called room service, but, they said they closed at midnight.  Great.  Thanks for the help *insert eye roll here*.  We’ve been in hotels before that have gone above and beyond the call, and, given that it was so close to the kitchen-close time, they threw stuff together for us.  Instead, here, they recommended Dominos pizza, so that’s what we had before passing out.

Our room 🙂

Las’s travel tip: Even when travelling domestically (I.E in the country that you’re living in) it’s wise to leave at least two hours ahead of your flight time.  Ok, you could end up waiting for ages in the departure lounge, but, on the other hand, you may encounter something unexpected and need the extra time!

St. Patrick's day weekend in Houston 2012…

Well, I can’t say I’ve celebrated St. Patricks day in the last few years, but, given that I’ve not been home in almost two years now, I felt a strong calling to my ‘green roots’ this year.  I missed the stew cook-off (took place in mid-February) though, I think that may have been for the best, because God only knows what kind of stews I’d have found there, though, I’d put money on not many of them having been Irish…

My Irish gal pal Aileen was going up to the parade with her hubby Dave, his mum, niece and nephew so we decided to tag along.

The sun was splitting the trees, the temp wasn’t too high (which is, more often than not, the concern here in Houston) and the spirits were high, because today I was being brought a little closer to home, right?

Wrong!! Man, I can’t begin to tell you how un-Irish a lot of this parade was!! Aileen and I stood saying ‘That’s not Irish’ and getting mightily frustrated throughout the whole thing!

Let's get this party started!

I’d love to say that they at least had the flag side covered, but, it must have been at least a third of the way through the parade before the first vaguely Irish colours appeared – and it was the Tricolour, fashioned in to a ‘stars and stripes’ flag.

Yes!! A REAL tricolour!!!

When the first REAL tricolour appeared, we cheered, Aileen hollered her approval to the guy carrying it and he appreciated her noticing it was a REAL tricolour.

The most traditional Irish Dancing group of the day - not just cause they carried an Irish flag 😉

Some of the floats in the parade were very well done (see below)

Horse and cart - another typically Irish 'thing'!

It's a leprechaun!!

and some were, well, pretty awful…pray tell where the Irish is, in this picture, aside from the colour?

uhm??

I guess when you have people paying to enter, you can’t really regulate it? Right? *eye roll* There could DEFINITELY be ‘guidelines’ set up to make this parade a bit ‘better’, so much for everything being bigger and better in Texas!

In spite of the fact that most of the parade was about the US, Texas and not in the least Irish (though most people in the crowd was wearing green), we had a really great, afternoon and, for an hour, 5,000 miles didn’t feel QUITE as far away as it has done lately.

My friend Aileen and I at the parade!

I’m contemplating speaking up on behalf of the Irish and talk to the parade committee about increasing the Irish content in the parade next year…or, I may just quit fighting, ignore it and adopt the American version…

The McMasters at the Parade

Irish Wheaten Bread

A friend of mine gave me this recipe only a few days ago, I’ve already made three loaves – it’s DELICIOUS!! I love it, it’s quick, easy and requires minimal ingredients (that is, when you manage to find them!)

A little rough round the edges perhaps?

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Magners Brown Butter Blondies

I’ve been having a really good poke around on Pinterest and other food blogs, at all of the many, many St Patricks day themed recipes out there.  As ‘untraditional’ as most of them are, I have stumbled upon a few, that I really wanted to try, all in the spirit of St Patricks Day – rather than tradition (mostly because they look so absolutely delicious!)

Blondies washed down with Magners, Ahhhhh! Perfect!

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