Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Take Me Home

"And if you believe in love, that will be more than enough
for peace to last throughout the coming year."
John Denver and Kermit, singing "The Christmas Wish"

Well, gang, this will be my last entry until 2008. I know, I know. Dry your eyes. I’ll be back in January. See, I’m leaving on a (jet) plane tonight and heading back home to Chicago for Christmas. And despite the fact that it’s going to be cold and snowy, I couldn’t be happier about the trip. It’s the first time in almost a year that I’ve been back, so it will be a busy 12 days trying to catch up with family and friends and visiting all the old stomping grounds.

So this is my official “Happy holidays!” post. And on that note, I wanted to talk about my favorite Christmas album of all time: "A Christmas Together" by John Denver and the Muppets. No, I’m not joking. When I discovered someone had downloaded clips from the 1979 TV special onto YouTube last week, it was literally like receiving an early Christmas gift. (Thank you, whoever you are.)

Here’s the matter how old I get, the Muppets never fail to crack me up and warm the cockles of my heart. I still howl with laughter when I see Beaker "meeping" at Dr. Bunsen Honeydew or Statler & Waldorf heckling the performers. I also get a wee bit misty-eyed whenever I hear The Rainbow Connection. Like many in my age bracket, I grew up faithfully watching The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. To date, I don’t think any other children’s show has ever been able to resurrect the same whimsical message of love and friendship that Jim Henson and Frank Oz brought us kiddies in those early days of programming.

That very message highlights "A Christmas Together," creating the perfect tribute to the holiday season. My family owns dozens of Christmas albums, including favorites such as Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, yet the Muppets remains at the top of my holiday listening list every year. I don't know - it could be the nostalgia factor - but listening to the music transports me back to a simpler time, when I wore pigtails, adored a non-creepy Michael Jackson, made popsicle stick ornaments in class and pedaled my bike with the flowered banana seat around the neighborhood with friends. But I digress.

Not only is the Muppets-John Denver collaboration funny (I KNOW you did not get through "Little St. Nick" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" without snickering!) but it's also heartfelt, thanks to gems like "Where the River Meets the Sea" and "A Baby Just like You." Check out these two clips - one humorous and the other more touching - as confirmation.

All in all, "A Christmas Together" expresses what I feel is the true sentiment of the season – peace on earth, goodwill to mankind and love of family and friends. As you can probably tell, I adore it as much now as I did when I was a kid. Now, if only Santa could grease the wheels a bit and get the powers-that-be to release this treasure on DVD. Please?

Either way, I’m hoping Jim Henson and John Denver are hanging out somewhere together right now, entertaining all the celestial revelers with festive carols. Guys, we miss you! Thanks for making this world a better place.

Happy holidays y'all. Be safe and I'll talk to you again in 2008!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ending world hunger, one word at a time

Guess what I did this afternoon? I donated 1,420 grains of rice to help feed the world's hungry. And it only cost me a few minutes of my time.

In recent weeks, I've been hooked on, an amazing Web site that tests your word skills with philanthropic results. Set up as a multiple-choice vocabulary test, 20 grains of rice are donated to the UN's World Food Program for every correctly answered question. In addition, each correct answer increases the difficulty of the following question. It almost reminds me of the SAT test - or the Scripps National Spelling Bee - where you try to guess the meaning (or spelling) of the word based on it's root or language of origin. For example, did you know that aphasia means speechlessness? Any thoughts on the meaning of oleaginous? If you guessed oily, you just supplied a starving person with 20 grains of rice. Bravo!

When I first heard about it a few weeks ago, I thought for sure it was a scam. But research shows it's legit. The site is the brainchild of John Breen, a 50-year-old computer programmer who also created both and to help raise funds to combat international poverty and hunger.

The game relies on ad revenue, with all of the donated rice paid for by the very same companies whose advertisements appear on the bottom of the screen when you play the game. What this means is that you essentially help generate the money that pays for the rice

On October 7, the day the site launched, a mere 830 grains of rice were donated. But those numbers have since grown exponentially. As of this posting, more than 9,123,269,430 grains have been donated.

Either way, this is one game that doesn't make me feel I'm wasting my time and brain cells by playing. So check it out! You'll expand your mind and help feed the poor. How can you lose?

In honor of the free rice program, here is a yummy ride pudding recipe that utilizes Splenda and only costs you 180 calories per serving. Not too shabby.


3 cups whole milk
1/4 cup SPLENDA® No Calorie Sweetener, Granulated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cinnamon stick
1/3 cup uncooked long grain rice
1 pinch salt
1/4 cup raisins or mixed dried fruit
2 tablespoons rum or orange juice
1 pinch nutmeg

1. Pour milk, SPLENDA® Granulated Sweetener, and vanilla into a medium saucepan. Add cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil. Add rice and salt. Cover and cook over low heat 30 minutes or until most of the milk is absorbed. Stir occasionally. Remove saucepan from heat. Set aside.
2. Place raisins (or mixed dried fruit) and orange juice (or rum) in small microwaveable bowl. Warm in a microwave briefly to plump the raisins. Add plumped raisins (or mixed fruit) to rice pudding.
3. Spoon into dessert dishes. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Serve warm or chilled.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Fondue. It's what's for dinner...and dessert

Merry Christmas to me! I had a "white elephant" gift exchange with friends the other day - and unlike most of the others that I'd previously participated in - this one actually featured nice gifts instead of fugly ceramic bowls, cheesy holiday socks, bottles of cheap liquor and Santa Claus ornaments.
So guess what I got? A fondue pot! I'm so excited. If you've never experienced a fondue meal before, it's a Swiss communal dish that often features groups of people, a metal or ceramic pot and a small burner. Most often, cheese or chocolate is melted in the pot and used to coat various bits of food - such as bread, fruit or pastries. It's delicious.
Back in college, a trek out to the local fondue restaurant often constituted date night. It was big bucks for us poor kids. And even last summer, I got all excited when I discovered the chocolate fondue fountain at a friend's wedding reception. So finally having a pot to call my own is pretty sweet.
Anyhoo, I just did a quick search of the Internet and have already found a handful of tasty-looking sugar-free fondue recipes. I can't wait to give it a whirl. Hmmmmm....maybe I'll have to throw an impromptu holiday get-together this weekend to show-off my budding fondue cooking skills.

Sugar-free Chocolate Fondue

2/3 cup dry unsweetened cocoa
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 cup skim milk
1/2 tsp vanilla or almond extract
1/2 cup Splenda granular

In a heavy saucepan, combine cocoa, cinnamon and milk; stir or whisk until there are no dry lumps of cocoa. Stir and cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil. Reduce heat; boil gently, stirring often for 5 minutes or until mixture is thick and smooth. Cool slightly. Stir in vanilla and Splenda. Pour into a small enameled fondue pot or heat-proof ceramic bowl.
Yield: 8 servings (1/4 cup each)

Hershey's Fudgey Chocolate Fondue

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
1/2 cup HERSHEY'S Cocoa
1/3 cup Splenda Sugar Blend for Baking
1/2 cup evaporated milk or light cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Melt butter in small saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat; immediately stir in cocoa. Add Splenda and evaporated milk.
2. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth and hot. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla. Fondue will thicken slightly as it cools. Serve warm with Assorted Fondue Dippers. About 1-1/2 cups fondue.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I'd like an edible house to call my own

In recent weeks, I have seen some fabulous-looking gingerbread houses decorating various store windows. As I've made clear in a previous post, I love me some gingerbread...whether it's in the form of flavored coffee or the tasty ginger snap cookies gracing the shelves of the local Trader Joes. Gingerbread is definitely one of my favorite sweet treats -- and of course, it goes hand-in-hand with the holiday season.
Fortunately for all you calorie counters out there, a number of sugar-free gingerbread recipes are now available. Here are two, courtesy of

Merry Gingerbread Cookies

Gingerbread Cake

And if you're worried about adding gingerbread to the list of other holiday treats, you can take comfort in the fact that ginger provides a number of health benefits. For one, it has a long tradition of effectively alleviating symptoms of "gastrointestinal distress" - i.e., it's a nice cure for that belly-ache. Modern scientific research has also revealed it has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor effects...all good news!
Another fun fact. According to the Guiness Book of Records, the world’s largest gingerbread man weighed more than 372 pounds and was made by the chefs at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver back in 2003. It was also nearly 14 feet tall and two inches deep. And while today's youth might not be familiar with the old Gingerbread Man fairy-tale -- remember? "Run, run, run as fast you can! You can't catch me, I'm The Gingerbread Man!"? -- they surely know Gingy from the Shrek movies.
Moving on, here's a pretty sweet video I found - utilizing a time-lapse camera - that compiles all the work done on the 16-foot gingerbread house built annually in the lobby of the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Created by Walt Disney World, it's apparently made using 1,050 pounds of honey, 140 pints of egg whites, 600 pounds of powdered sugar, 700 pounds of chocolate, 800 pounds of flour, 35 pounds of spices, tons of creativity, Disney magic and pixie dust. Woof-dee.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Creative Classes...

Just the other day, I was brainstorming with friends about new ways to keep physically active in 2008. Yes, sadly I'm already talking about my New Year's resolutions - which hopefully I'll actually stick with this time around. Anyway, although I was thinking more along the lines of joining a master's swimming program -or taking up tennis or golf lessons - one buddy suggested trapeze classes at the Circus Arts Institute in Atlanta. Say what? Well, according to the institute's Web site, weekly sessions utilize equipment such as the trapeze, Spanish web (soft rope climbing with tricks), circus rings, balance boards and juggling, to name a few. And a little bit of online research shows that "circus arts" is one of the newer fads in fitness - with gyms like Crunch dedicating classes in its honor.

Remember when group fitness consisted of weight training, step aerobics and spin classes? Just a couple years ago, I was thrilled to take belly dancing, along with my first "urban rebounding" class - i.e. aerobics on a mini-trampoline - at Bally Total Fitness in Chicago. Now, those classes are virtually old-school. From mock Japanese sword fighting workouts to burning calories on a pogo-stick, gyms today are offering all sorts of imaginative classes to lure in new members and maintain existing ones.

Here are a few of the more unorthodox classes I saw offered up at gyms around the country.

Stiletto Strength. B.Y.O.H. – Bring Your Own Heels and strut your stuff runway style in this calf-boosting, posture-building, cat-walking diva class.

Ruff Yoga. This free yoga class will bring you and your pup closer as you do traditional and non-traditional yoga poses on the same mat. Mats will be provided. Class takes place outdoors, weather permitting.

Dodgeball. Get ready to duck. Dodgeball is back and this time it's not just for the schoolyard. This class includes a gym style warm-up, 3-5 rounds of the game, abs and final stretch.

Yoqua. A yoga class in water.

WarriorSati. A fast-paced flow of martial arts movements designed to increase precision, strength, courage and power.

Pogo Bootcamp. This fun, high-intensity interval workout using the Flybar 800 is a class that’s sure to have you jumping through the roof. Pretend you’re back on the playground while burning calories bouncing on these “ultra pogo-sticks."

Air Band. Rock your way to a rockin’ body with this head-banging cardio dance class. Get pumped up as you air guitar to the grungy sounds of Classic Rock and new Indie Pop.

Pole Dancing. The dancer’s pole isn’t just for professionals anymore. This challenging and sexy class combines intense upper body and core strength, coordination, and balance to turn even the shyest performers into toned and sultry vixens.

Hula Hoop Pilates. The class incorporates traditional Pilates movements and techniques with the addition of core routines using hoops, bands, foam tubing and 7-inch fitness balls.

Indo-Row Strength. A circuit class incorporating 30 minutes of rowing with 30 minutes of weights.

I'm digging the sound of some of these classes. Who knows? 2008 just might be the year I finally stick to that pesky "exercise more" New Year's resolution.

If you know of any more fun and fascinating classes, holler! I'd love to hear about them.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Diet soda delusions...

Back in college, I wrote a paper for a journalism class on the misconceptions of Pop Rocks, those fruit-flavored nuggets that fizzled in your mouth. Turns out that even though the urban legend had been proven false years before, a number of people (classmates included) still thought that mixing the candy with soda could cause your stomach to explode. According to legend, this deadly mixture even claimed the life of Mikey – the little boy from the old Life cereal commercials. Obviously, all of these rumors are false. And little Mikey is alive and well, working as an advertising-account manager at a New York radio station.
I bring this up because it seems the old "diet soda makes you fat " fallacy just keeps popping up. Although it's less dramatic than the Pop Rocks/Mikey misconception, it's a recurring food myth nonetheless.

Here are the facts, for those who are interested. Numerous studies over the years have shown that products - like diet soda - that are sweetened with low-calorie sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame can help with weight management. For example, drinking a diet soda instead of the regular version can save 150 calories a day. Over the course of a year, that daily calorie savings could result in a 15-pound weight loss. In fact, the vast majority of scientific literature confirms the safety and benefits of using low-calorie sweeteners and low-calorie products for weight control and weight loss.

For example, a team of researchers from Harvard spent two years investigating how the addition of aspartame to a multidisciplinary weight control program would affect obese women. They found the low-calorie sweetener not only helped with weight loss, but also with long-term weight loss maintenance. Another study – published in a recent issue of "Pediatrics" – discovered that overweight children could prevent further weight gain simply by walking another 2,000 steps a day and reducing their calorie intake by 100. This was done by replacing sugar with Splenda and consuming beverages sweetened with sucralose. Low-calorie sweeteners can help combat obesity because they reduce the energy density of foods while maintaining the palatability.

However, they are not a magic bullet. A person who drinks 12 diet sodas a day or regularly consumes a gallon of sucralose-sweetened ice cream should not expect to lose weight. Instead, low-calorie sweeteners are another tool to incorporate into an overall healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and a balanced diet. The American Diabetes Association, as well as the American Heart Association, agree that diet beverages are a good option for those who want to control their weight and maintain a better lifestyle. A healthy weight can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses.

So enjoy your diet pop. It will do your body - and your waistline - good.

For any old-schoolers out there, here is the Life cereal commercial featuring Mikey.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

I'll drink to that!

As someone who attended one of the top party (i.e. lots of boozing) schools in the nation, this report comes as welcome news. After years of back-and-forth on the benefits of alcohol consumption, it appears research is finally pointing in alcohol's favor.

Now, that's not to say you should go get blotto tonight in an effort to avoid heart disease. You can, however, take comfort in the fact that an alcoholic drink a day just might keep the doctor away - or at least provide some quality health benefits. Granted, my liver still hates me for a college-era involving beer bongs of warm Bush Light, drinking Franzia from a box and doing shots of Goldschlager and SoCo...but I'm proud to say my tastes have improved significantly in recent years and moderation has become the name of the game. Sadly, though, I now officially have a champagne taste on a beer budget. Sigh.

Here are some happy alcohol-related health tidbits.

* Moderate drinking raises good cholesterol, helping reduce the risk for heart disease and possibly stroke.
* A drink a day may help regulate insulin (and blood sugar) levels, lowering your risk for Type 2 Diabetes.
* Indulging in three-plus cocktails a week can protect against rheumatoid arthritis
* Women who imbibe alcohol are twice as likely to report good health than women who don't drink.

To top off this sundae of sweet news with a cherry, here are a few Splenda-licious martini recipes for all you sugar-free dieters out there. The first one comes courtesy of my bartender gal pal, Jen, while the other two are from Hungry Girl.

Yes, I know. Thank me later. Cheers!

Berry Mojito
Combine a handful of rasberries, blueberries, blackberries and sliced strawberries with mint, Splenda, white rum, cranberry juice, pineapple juice, lime juice and club soda.
Shake well and serve.

Cherry Vanilla Thrilla'
(70 calories, no fat - 2 points)
1/2 cup Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper
1 oz. Vodka
1 oz. Sugar Free Black Cherry Torani Syrup
Lots of ice
Pour ingredients into a shaker. Shake. Pour. Garnish with a Maraschino Cherry.

Hittin' The Peach!
(80 calories, no fat - 2 points)
4 oz. Diet Sprite
2 oz. Hansen's Natural Juice Cocktail, Low Calorie Peach Mango (or Minute Maid Light Mango Tropical)
1 oz. Sugar Free Peach Torani Syrup
1 oz. Vodka
Shake with ice and enjoy this tropical treat!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fashion Faux Pas

"I know nothing about football except it's the one time on television that spandex is acceptable." - Steven
"Does he like hot pants?" - Chris

Despite the fact that my idea of "designer" brands basically ranges from Old Navy to Gap, I love me some Project Runway. Now in it's fourth season, the deliciously snippy (pun intended!) reality show rounds out my relatively short list of must-see TV, which includes Lost (I miss you, please come back!), Pushing Daisies, The Office and 30 Rock...And I'm particularly grateful to have it around now that it appears the writers strike will stamp an early season ending on all of our favorite shows.

Anyhoo, I missed last week's episode but finally caught the re-run this weekend - and it was fantastic. No, the designers did not have to create a couture gown out of shrubs or recycled newspaper and aluminum. And on paper, the plot actually sounded boring. Basically, our motley crew of contestants had to work round-the-clock to create an on-air outfit for uber-hottie Tiki Barber, the former New York Giants running back turned Today Show correspondent. However, just the idea of creating menswear stirred fear among these folks. And based on some of the designs I saw later, I'd say they were right to feel very, very afraid. Despite Tim Gunn's advice, many of them just weren't able to "make it work" - and panic, chaos and hilariousness ensued.

I nearly busted a gut watching some of the judges' reactions during the runway show, which featured a level of fugly never before encountered on the show. First off, Ricky's train wreck of an outfit was literally held together with safety pins, while in addition to creating horribly ill-fitting pants, Carmen tried to hide her model's lack of a shirt by draping a piece of blue fabric around his neck. And then there was Sweet P, who crafted a shirt so horrendous, that all I could think was "Gordon Gartrelle." Anyone else know what I'm talking about? During an infamous Cosby Show episode way back in the first season, Denise tried to make a copy of a designer "Gordon Gartrelle" shirt for Theo to wear out on a date. Of course, it turns out to be a hot mess and Theo is humiliated... until his date raves about it, finding it completely original. They just don't make 'em like they used to!

I'll be back later this week with more sugar-free diet tips.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Gingerbread goodness

As I've made clear in a previous column, I'm not one of those people who rushes off to Starbucks every weekend to plunk down nearly $5 on a non-fat, soy-milk, no-foam double-shot latte. And on the few occasions I do spend money on coffee (rather than making my own), you're more likely to find me visiting the local mom-and-pop style, independent neighborhood cafe. However, I did make a trip over to the local Starbucks this afternoon after hearing this fabulous tidbit: they're now offering a sugar-free Gingerbread Latte. For reals! And that news absolutely made my day.
For me, the seasonal Starbucks Gingerbread Latte is like McDonald's Shamrock Shake around St. Patrick's Day - I have to order at least one every year. It's definitely my favorite of the holiday coffee drinks. And the fact that they've now cut the calories and sugar is the icing on this java-licious cake. If you order a tall, nonfat, sugar-free gingerbread latte, you're only taking in 90 calories and 14g carbs...which ain't bad when you compare it to the 200-calorie, 38g-carb original version.
However, if you prefer to make this latte at home, I'd suggest investing in some Splenda-sweetened, sugar-free Gingerbread Syrup from Da Vinci Gourmet.
That and a little whipped cream will do the trick!
Either way, this delectable treat is like a liquid dessert that doesn't pile up calories.
If you're looking for some other low-fat, low-cal replacements for some of Starbucks' most popular drinks, the crew over at Hungry Girl has whipped up a few yummy-sounding concoctions.
Seasons greetings!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tastes like used mouthwash? Hook me up!

"If you are inquiring about your cough mixture tasting like expired milk, trash-bag leakage, a post-pedicure foot bath, a state fair porta-potty, decomposing meat fat, monkey sweat, used denture soak, New Jersey, or hippie-festival runoff, please hang up. Your cough will be gone shortly." Radio spot for Buckley's Cough Syrup

When I first heard about the Buckley's advertising campaign a few weeks ago, I laughed out loud. It's not often a company will openly compare the taste of their product to perspiration, spring break hot tub water and used mouthwash. Talk about a courageous approach. This is the straight-up truth, folks, no apologies given. And I love it!

In Canada, Buckley's is already as familiar to the sniffling, hacking masses as Robitussin is here. But as they expand into the U.S. market, they are quickly garnering local attention thanks to their catchy slogan, "It tastes awful. And it works."

In addition to the radio spots, short TV ads feature blindfolded customers conducting tastes tests between Buckley's and a public restroom puddle, trash bag leakage and pig tongue scrapings, to name a few.

This method certainly seems to be working, at least in terms of the buzz factor. After seeing the ads, a friend - who was battling a severe cough and cold - bought a bottle of the medicine the other day. I can't even begin to explain the look of absolute disgust on her face when she guzzled a dose of it down. She claims it was the worst stuff she'd ever tasted. I did get a whiff and let me tell ya, it smells heinous. Think battery acid. I guess it's not too shocking seeing as how the product's ingredients include camphor, menthol and pine needle oil.

Despite the vile taste, though, my friend is hanging onto the bottle because she was feeling worlds better by the next day.

Interestingly enough, Buckley's is now running a contest on MySpace asking viewers to submit pictures - or videos - that capture their expression upon tasting the syrup. The winner gets a trip to Alaska. If only we'd had a camera, my friend could have easily competed for the grand prize!

Seriously, though, I applaude Buckley's for their campaign. They could have easily gone the predictable route and pretended the taste wasn't an issue or loaded it down with sugar to appease customers. Instead, they turned the gross factor into a humorous - and apparently effective - campaign hook.

Although I like tasty treats, I prefer to be in good health. So next time I wind up with a sore threat, hacking cough or runny nose, I know what I'll be purchasing. After all, 'tis the cold season.

For giggles, here are a few more Buckley slogans from years past, along with a YouTube clip featuring one of the faux taste tests.

Made with oil of pine needles. What did you expect it to taste like?
People swear by it. And at it.
Feared by more people than ever before.
Your cough won't know what hit it, neither will you.
Our largest bottle is 200 ml. Anything larger would be cruel.
Not new. Not improved.
How bad does it taste? That depends. How bad is your cough?
I have recurring nightmares in which someone gives me a taste of my own medicine.
Since 1919, we've been leaving Canadians with a bad taste in their mouths.

Monday, November 26, 2007

It just keeps growing and growing and growing....

The size of my belly, that is. Or at least, it will grow if I continue eating this way.
Y'all, Thanksgiving is already ridiculous in terms of calories, carbs and fat grams. But you make that feast Southern-style and it's insane in the membrane.
Case in point: Since I wasn't able to make it home to Chicago, I joined about 20 other friends for a Turkey Day dinner in Atlanta. From about 2 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., we noshed on sausage balls, gourmet cheese and crackers, rosemary almonds, beverages and a tasty little appetizer made with fillo dough, brie, walnuts and fig preserves. Let's not even get started on the beer, wine and bloodies.
Then, after gorging ourselves on apps half the day, we finally ate dinner, which consisted of three birds - two deep-fried and one roasted - along with squash casserole, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato souffle, cheesy hashbrown casserole, collard greens, blue cheese macaroni & cheese, pasta and so much more.
I tried, gang. I mean, I worked out in the morning and I ate a healthy, balanced breakfast. I also attempted to cut down on the snacking and stick to fruits and veggies as appetizers. But there was too much temptation around.
And have I told you yet about the desserts? Good gravy! There was pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple spice cake, banana pudding (with the yummy layers of nilla wafers), chocolate clusters and more...And four words: Krispy Kreme bread pudding.
I watched my buddy chop up two dozen glazed doughnuts, then add sweetened condensed milk, canned (undrained) peaches, salt, cinnamon and eggs. It gets better. Before popping it into the oven, he topped it off with a stick of butter, about a pound of confectioners' sugar and some rum. It was fabulous but after only a few bites of overwhelming sweetness, I literally had to stick a fork in it. I don't event want to know how many calories and carbs were in that delectable dish. By the time I left that night, I felt like Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory - after she ballooned into a giant blueberry and had to be rolled out the door.
Of course, the rest of the weekend was a bit of a food bust as well, between the various holiday parties, college football tailgates and leftovers.
Oh well. Today is a new day and the start of a new week. And in an effort to stay as trim as possible heading into Christmas and New Years, I'll be exercising regularly and eating lots of salads, veggies, fruits and lean meats. And when I do partake in a dessert, it will be the sugar-free version.
On that note, I found a low-cal bread pudding recipe! Of course, it doesn't involve Krispy Kremes...but it still sounds absolutely divine.

Check it out!

Sugar-Free Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce

The ingredients include French bread, milk, eggs, sucralose, vanilla, margarine, raisins and whisky. The recipe is a modified version of one found at the popular Bon Ton Cafe in New Orleans. And that's certainly a city that knows how to make a fabulous meal. Beignet, po' boy or muffaletta, anyone? I'm getting hungry just thinking about the food in that town.

For a little Monday fun, (and the blue feeling that often accompanies the start of the work week) check out this video all about little Violet's blueberry inflation - along with the fabulousness that is Gene Wilder and the Oompa-Loompas.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Nutty for peanut butter fudge

Growing up, I had a friend who was deathly allergic to peanuts. And I always felt so bad for her. After all, in the eyes of a child, what could be worse than never being able to enjoy a simple PB&J sandwich? Even today, peanut butter remains one of my favorite treats. I slather it on bananas, use it to spice up Asian vegetable and meat dishes, and, of course, it's a fabulous ingredient in any number of dessert recipes…Which brings me to today's topic. Happy National Peanut Butter Fudge Day! And really, it couldn't come along at a better time. For all of you trying to figure out what sweet treat to bring to the big Thanksgiving meal Thursday, this certainly qualifies - and your dish will stand out in what will likely be a sea of pumpkin and pecan pies.
For me, peanut butter fudge invokes fond memories of Christmas in Chicago. Every holiday season, my mom (shout out, Mom!) makes killer peanut butter and chocolate fudge. She always has to make several batches, though, because it's so in-demand with friends, neighbors, old sports coaches…you get the picture…all clamoring for a few pieces.
If you're worried about adding more goodies to what will be a food-filled week, look on the bright side: peanut butter is good for you! It's an excellent source of protein, vitamins B3 and E, niacin, folate and manganese. In addition, peanuts are rich in antioxidants - all benefits to reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease and boosting heart health.

Here are a few more peanut butter factoids.
1. Peanut butter is found in about 75% of American homes.
2. Peanuts are not actually nuts. They are legumes, like beans, peas and lentils.
3. Americans eat 3 pounds of peanut butter per person every year. That's about 700 million pounds, or enough to coat the floor of the Grand Canyon.
4. Peanut shells are found in kitty litter, wallboard, fireplace logs, paper, animal feed and sometimes as fuel for power plants.
5. Two peanut farmers have been elected President of the United States: Thomas Jefferson and Jimmy Carter.
6. One acre of peanuts will make 30,000 peanut butter sandwiches.

Now that you can impress your friends with your random peanut knowledge, here's a recipe to wow their palates. And yes, it's sugar-free!

Peanut Butter Fudge

More low calorie recipes here

Finally, because it's almost Thanksgiving - and I'm in a particularly giving mood today - I'll leave you with one of my favorite commercials ever. Although it's about milk, it heavily features a peanut butter sandwich.

Two clues: Who shot Alexander Hamilton? And Aaaawon Buhh!


Monday, November 19, 2007

Tips (and low calorie recipes!) for Turkey Day

Are the rest of you as excited about turkey and football as I am? Or maybe it's just the short work week that's putting a big smile on my face. Either way, I can't wait for Thursday. I say 'bring it!'

As most of you know, it's pretty much impossible to get through Thanksgiving without getting that fabulous bloated feeling by the end of the day. In addition to going the sugar-free route, here are a few more tips to help control your food and calorie intake during the holiday.

* Don't show up hungry. Take time to eat a light, healthy snack before chowing down.
* When fixing your plate, make sure the bulk of it is fruits and veggies, such as salad, green beans, potatoes, carrots, squash or cranberries. That way you can fill up your belly faster with healthier items.
* Eating smaller portions is key. Yes, you can indulge in some cheesy mashed potatoes. But don't pile a mountain of it on your plate, along with moats of gravy.
* If you're eating dinner at a friend or relative's house, bring some low-calorie snack options such as a fruit salad or raw veggies and hummus.
* Avoid adding lots of butter, salt, gravy and fatty dressings.
* Try not to get seconds until a few hours after you've eaten the first plate.
* Always eat dessert last.
* Eat lots of cranberries. They're loaded with antioxidants.
* For a less-fattening stuffing, use a low-salt broth base along with whole wheat bread. Also go easy on the butter and oil while adding more celery, onion, nuts and fruit.
* For healthier mashed potatoes, use skim milk and fat-free sour cream.
* Drink lots of water. It will help fill you up.

Here are two more low calorie recipes to add to the Thanksgiving menu.

Sweet Potato Casserole

Corn Pudding

Friday, November 16, 2007

Time to bust out the elastic waistband!

No, no. I jest. I'm certainly not condoning over-eating this holiday season. However, Thanksgiving is just around the corner and you know what that, food and more food. In the past week alone, I've been subjected to a massive office Thanksgiving meal spread, a holiday business dinner and another turkey meal hosted by buddies. And now I'm heading off to a friend's going-away party, where I guarantee there will lots of junky appetizers making the rounds. Sigh. All the heavy food is literally making me feel too big for my britches.

Ever seen Charlotte's Web? Remember Templeton, the gluttonous rat, after he binge eats at the fair? I'm hoping to avoid feeling - or looking - like that, come Thanksgiving.

Between the appetizers, main course and dessert, it's estimated Americans will scarf down 4,500 calories and 229 grams of fat on Thanksgiving. Ain't that a shame!
But there are some ways to curb the potential holiday weight gain: for starters, cut down on the sugar. If you're open to cutting down on the calories, here are some sucralose-based recipes perfect for the big day. I'll be back next week with even more Thanksgiving Day food tips.

Have a great weekend!

The Great Pumpkin Pumpkin Pie

Homemade Cranberry Sauce

Sweet Southern Pecan Pie

Monday, November 12, 2007

A sundae on a Sunday

Happy belated National Sundae Day! Don't believe me? There actually is such a food holiday and it was yesterday. And you can be sure I celebrated. Why is it that Sundays are such a great day to splurge on sweet treats? Is it a comfort food thing because you know you have another long, depressing work week ahead of you? Hmmm.....
Either way, I've always been a fan of the sundae. There's nothing tastier than cold ice cream topped with some melting hot fudge. And seeing as how my hometown of Evanston, Illinois is one of the cities claiming to be the birthplace of the sundae, I suppose I should be even more partial to it.

Here's a little more trivia for you factoid-junkies. According to Wikipedia, the most expensive sundae in the world is sold at Serendipity 3 in New York City. The $1,000 (!) dessert features five scoops of Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream infused with Madagascar vanilla, covered in 23-carat edible gold leaf, rare Amedei Porceleana and Chuao chocolate, American Golden caviar, passion fruit, orange, Armagnac, candied fruits from Paris, marzipan cherries, and decorated with real gold dragees. The sundae is served in a baccarat Harcourt crystal goblet with an 18-karat gold spoon. Um, wow? Sounds very pretty, but I'd much rather spend $3 to $4 for a waffle bowl sundae at the local DQ.

Or better yet, make it yourself. I made one yesterday that featured butterscotch brownies and let me tell was fabulous. Yeah, yeah, it's not the healthiest treat out there. But in my own defense, I whipped up the sugar-free variety to cut back on some of the calories.

Here's a Splenda-rific version of the vanilla butterscotch brownie sundae. Enjoy!

Butterscotch Brownies
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
3/4 cup packed SPLENDA® Brown Sugar Blend
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 (11 ounce) package NESTLE® TOLL HOUSE® Butterscotch Flavored Morsels, divided
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Combine flour, baking powder and salt in medium bowl; set aside.
Combine butter, SPLENDA® Brown Sugar Blend and vanilla in a large mixer bowl; beat at medium speed until creamy. Beat in eggs. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in 1 cup of the morsels and the nuts. Spread into an ungreased 13 x 9-inch baking pan. Sprinkle with remaining 2/3 cup morsels.
Bake 30 to 40 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack. Cut into bars.

Add a scoop or two of Breyers Double Churn No Sugar Added Vanilla Ice Cream

Add a little Smucker's Sugar-Free Hot Fudge Topping

Top off with a touch of Kraft Sugar-Free Cool Whip

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Tainted toys for tots

Just yesterday, I received an invite to a holiday party asking all guests to bring a gift to support the Toys for Tots program. This is a great organization and one that I would normally champion this time of year. However, after seeing the latest headlines about toys containing the date rape drug (a phrase I never imagined I would write), I've pretty much decided against buying any toys this holiday season. Sorry kids...I hate to be the Grinch but this is for your own good!
In case you missed it, the popular Aqua Dots is the latest Chinese-made toy to be pulled from the shelves. Distributed by Spinmaster Ltd. in the U.S., it turns out that if children happen to ingest any of the beads from this arts-and-crafts product, they could have seizures and slip into a coma. That's because the toy contains a chemical that converts into a date rape drug when ingested. Already, two children here and another three in Australia have been hospitalized because of the beads.
The recall serves as the latest blow to an already beleaguered toy industry. Statistics show that nearly 80 percent of the toys sold in the U.S. are made in China. Unfortunately, until change is demanded regarding China's toy production, I'm guessing we'll continue to see safety problems related to lead paint.
So now we're now less than two months from Christmas and it's possible that millions of children will soon discover that Santa Claus has skimped on the toys this year. After all, who needs a Barbie doll when there are nice, warm socks to be had?
I can't speak for others but I definitely won't be buying toys for any of my friends' children this year. I think I'll invest in some books so they can brush up on reading and writing skills. Imagine that!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Chillin' at the chili cookoff

Quote: "Next to jazz music, there is nothing that lifts the spirit and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili." Harry James, trumpet virtuoso

I've always been a fan of spicy foods. I pour buckets of hot sauce on virtually everything - from salads and pizza to spaghetti, rice and falafel. I pile jalapeno peppers on sandwiches and toss them in omelettes. It's definitely one of the food-related traits I've picked up from my Southern parents (who, by the way, are still devastated I hate seafood). I figure this addiction to all things spicy is responsible for my love of chili - one of the few meals I could probably eat every day of the week. Whether it's green, white or red, veggie style or heavy on the meat, just pass over a bowl and I'll be a happy camper.
Needless to say, I couldn't have been more thrilled when I found out there was a chili cookoff festival in Atlanta this past weekend, one that also featured beer and bluegrass bands. What a fabulous day in the neighborhood!!!
The weather was gorgeous, the crowd was fun and I got to taste-test a variety of recipes, ranging from sweet to spicy. It's a tough call but I think my favorite of the afternoon was a green chili stew with tenderloin beef tips, potato, cilantro, onion and corn. Delicious!
The good news is, this particular meal ain't just's also good for you. Tomatoes, for example, contain lycopene, vitamins C, A and K, fiber and potassium. These nutrients aid in the development of healthy teeth, bones, skin and hair, help lower blood pressure and possibly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Chili peppers contain a substance called capsaicin, which is now being studied as an effective treatment for sensory nerve fiber disorders. Some peppers have also been shown to reduce blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
These days, there seems to be a growing number of chili recipes catering to the sugar-free crowd. And the ones I've tasted thus far are pretty yummy. So here are a couple sucralose-sweetened versions for all you calorie-counters out there. Hope you enjoy!

Low Carb Chili Recipe
Black Bean and Veggie Chili

Friday, November 02, 2007

Go nuts and eat some almonds!

Oh good. Now I've got another excuse to bust out the almond biscotti. Although scientists have been touting the benefits of almonds for years, a new report in the British Journal of Nutrition sheds even more light on the weight and nutrition-related advantages of almond consumption. In the study, women were instructed to eat about two ounces of almonds each day for ten weeks, followed by their customary diet for another ten weeks. The Purdue University researchers found that not only did the women NOT gain weight during the almond phase, but they also met the daily dietary recommendations for vitamin E and magnesium content - two nutrients that most people don't adequately consume. In addition, they discovered that the fiber in almonds appeared to block some of the fat they contain - meaning they are fewer calories than expected.
"Solid data has shown that eating one to three daily portions of almonds can help lower LDL cholesterol levels," said study co-author Rick Mattes.
The FDA has previously said that almonds could help reduce the risk of heart
In a previous study, researchers found that people on an almond-rich diet lost more weight than those on a high-carb diet with the same number of calories.
Either way, it's clear that almonds are an excellent addition to the diet, containing protein, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, iron, and monounsaturated fat.

Here's a sucralose-sweetened dessert recipe sure to please all you chocolate-almond lovers.

Rich Chocolate Almond Cake

vegetable spray
3 eggs, separated ½ cup Splenda
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract
¼ tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
½ cup sifted cake flour
1/8 cup dry milk powder
2 tbsp finely chopped almonds, toasted

Preheat oven to 325 F.
Spray 8" round cake pan with cooking spray, line with wax paper, then spray with cooking spray again.
Combine flour, milk powder, salt and baking soda.
In separate bowl, beat egg yolks for about five minutes.
Add Splenda, beating longer than you would if using sugar.
Beat in vanilla and almond extracts.
Slowly stir in dry ingredients, being sure to blend well.
In separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form.
Stir 1/3 of beaten egg whites into yolk mixture.
Carefully fold remaining whites into yolk mixture. Do not overstir.
Spoon batter into pan and bake for approximately 20 minutes or until cake springs back when touched lightly in the center.
Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then remove cake onto wire rack, peeling off paper.

Chocolate Almond Filling

1 envelope whipped topping mix (or whipped cream if not concerned with calorie count)
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
¼ cup Splenda
1/3 cup skim milk, cold
½ tsp almond extract

Combine topping mix, cocoa and Splenda in bowl.
Add skim milk.
Beat at high speed for four minutes or until fluffy.
Add cheese, beating until well blended.
Stir in almond extract.
Split cooled cake in half horizontally, using a long serrated knife.
Spread 2/3 of filling on top and sides of cake.
Spoon remaining filling into pastry bag with a star tip.
Pipe filling around top and bottom edges.
Sprinkle additional chopped almonds on top of cake.
Chill thoroughly and serve.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Top that!

I'm truly a child of the '80s but luckily, I seem to have escaped the worst of it - as far as fashion goes. When big bangs, acid-washed jeans and frilly socks worn under high heels were the height of coolness, I was still a scabby-kneed kid in jelly shoes and slap bracelets. I fortunately spent most of my high school years decked out in baggy overalls, flannel shirts and thrift store tees. Although the grunge phase isn't exactly a paradigm of high fashion, it sure beats the bright eyeshadow, shoulder pads and spandex donned by my only slightly-older classmates. Okay, okay - I admit it. I did crimp my hair on occasion. We all have issues!
Anyway, I bring up fabulous 80s fashion because "Teen Witch" was on television the other day. If you've never seen it, well, you're missing out. You know those movies that are so awesomely bad, they're fabulous? Think Flash Gordon, Streets of Fire, Road House, Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead, Solarbabies and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.' Fess up, you know you were impressed by Ozone and Turbo's mad breakdancing skills! Anyway, I'm referring to high-grade '80s cheese - and Teen Witch definitely falls into that category.
The movie features a nerdy girl named Louise Miller who - on her 16th birthday - discovers she is actually a powerful witch. She uses magic (somehow heightened through a mysterious necklace) to benefit her friends and family, as well as to transform herself into the most popular girl in school, subsequently winning over the hottest guy. I remember seeing this movie for the first time when I was about 12. It cracked me up even then, particularly the musical numbers (Who can forget the hilariousness that is "I Like Boys!") and any scene where Louise is mentored by the dimunitive Madame Serena, better known to audiences as the spiritual medium Tangina in the Poltergeist movies.
Of course, in the end, Louisa learns a valuable lesson about staying true to herself, wah wah wah, the usual.

Anyway, just so you don't think I'm leaving you recipe-less today, here's one for a low-carb, Splenda-sweetened "Wicked Witch" cake. Save it for next Halloween or test it out at an upcoming birthday party.

Back to Teen Witch, I'll leave you with a few of my favorite lines, before blowing your mind with one of the most ridiculous scenes ever filmed: the "rap battle" between Rhet and Polly. As a friend of mine says, this is "the moment rap died."

"Look at how funky he is (sigh)...I'll never be hip."
"I'm hot. And you're not. But if you wanna hang with me I'll give it one shot!"
"No one wants do date you because you are a dog! A dog! A dog!"


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Another reason to avoid sugar these days...

Now that your house is stocked with chocolate and other tasty Halloween treats, some not-so-sweet news has surfaced. Experts are claiming that too much sugar can make your skin dull and wrinkled.
At blame is a natural process that's known as glycation, in which the sugar in your bloodstream attaches to proteins to form harmful new molecules called advanced glycation end products or AGEs. The more sugar you eat, the more AGEs you develop. Adding to the bad news, AGEs leave you more vulnerable to sun damage - which is nother major cause of skin aging. According to a study published in the British Journal of Dermatology, these sugar-related skin effects may start at about age 35 and increase rapidly after that.

The good news is, there are several ways to counteract this, such as cutting back on sugar sweets, wearing sunscreen and eating more antioxidant-rich fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

If you haven't yet bought Halloween candy, here are a few sugar-free suggestions to help avoid those wrinkles.

Andes Sugar-Free Creme De Menthe Thins

Russell Stover Sugar-Free Pecan Delights

Hershey's Sugar Free Candy

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Trick or Treat!

As someone who recently turned (gulp!) 30, I've been over the whole "trick or treat" scene for quite some time. Sure, I still like to whip together a cheap costume and go out with friends to celebrate, but as far as buying candy to give away - or dressing up the apartment with spooky holiday decorations - ehhh, not so much.
This year, however, I'll be taking a group of kids trick-or-treating...and honestly, I think I'm just as excited about the big day as they are. I mentor for a Muslim family, teaching them English and about U.S. culture. So what better way to fully introduce them to American society than to help them pick out crazy costumes and take candy from strangers? I'm just hoping they set aside some of that sweet trick or treat stash for me. I'll even take the candy (as long as it's wrapped!) that looks as though a "crazed madman tampered with it." Yes, I'm a child of the '80s and vaguely remember all the Halloween candy scares of that era, most of which percolated after the infamous Tylenol poisonings. Yeah, yeah...Sorry Mom. I know I kept handing you all that candy to taste-test for me back on Halloween of 1982. But I digress.
Anyway, it looks like I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for the upcoming Halloween. According to the National Retail Federation, consumer Halloween-related spending will surpass $5 billion this year - with more than 60 percent of respondents planning to celebrate in some way. In addition to the kids, one-third of adults are expected to dress up, while one-in-ten celebrants also plan to buy costumes for their pets. However, judging by some of the Halloween pet get-ups I've seen (see above), it's no wonder dogs sometimes bite their owners.

Here are a few more fun facts, courtesy of National Confectioners Association, to help get you into the Halloween spirit.

* The celebration of Halloween started in the U.S. as an autumn harvest festival. In pioneer days, some Americans celebrated Halloween with corn-popping parties, taffy pulls and hayrides.
* In the late nineteenth century, with the large influx of Irish immigrants into the U.S., Halloween became associated with ghosts, goblins and witches.
* Jack-o-lanterns are an Irish tradition. In Ireland, oversized rutabagas, turnips and potatoes were hollowed-out, carved into faces and illuminated with candles to be used as lanterns during Halloween celebrations.
* The word “witch” comes from the Old Saxon word “wica”, meaning “wise one.” The earliest witches were respected dealers in charms and medicinal herbs and tellers of fortunes.
* The pumpkin originated in Mexico about 9,000 years ago. It is one of America’s oldest known vegetables. Pumpkins generally weigh from 15-to-30 pounds, although some weigh as much as 200 pounds. The majority of pumpkins are orange, but they also can be white or yellow. They are rich in vitamin A, beta-carotene and potassium, and their seeds provide protein and iron.
* 93 percent of children will go trick-or-treating.
* Bite-sized chocolate candies are the post popular type to be included in Halloween activities (76 percent), followed by bite-sized non-chocolate candies (30 percent).
* Kids say their favorite treats to receive when trick-or-treating are candy and gum, while their least favorite is fruit and salty snacks like chips.
* Ninety percent of parents admit to sneaking goodies from their kids' Halloween trick-or-treat bags.
* More than 35 million pounds of candy corn will be produced this year. That equates to nearly 9 billion pieces — enough to circle the moon nearly 4 times if laid end-to-end.

Another piece of advice - if you do decorate the house, I suggest you avoid including yourself as a prop. YouTube shows that idea has backfired spectacularly on more than one occasion.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Devilish Dee-Lite

Although I often joke that I'm a frozen dinner kinda gal, I'm actually a pretty solid cook when I find (or take) the time to whip things up. So in honor of a friend's birthday this weekend, I decided to roll up my sleeves and make her favorite - Black Forest Cake. This is a popular dessert from Germany that features several layers of chocolate cake sandwiched by whipped cream and cherries. In other words, it's about a bazillion calories. Okay, okay. So I exaggerate. It's more like 700 calories, 89 carbs and nearly 34 grams of fat per serving. Sheesh. Either way, this isn't great news for a group of people trying to cut back on calories. So because the birthday girl - and everyone else in our circle of friends these days - wanted to avoid the additional pounds, I went the low-sugar route on this recipe. And wow! It turned out perfectly and earned high marks from all the revelers.

A quick shout out to SparkPeople and Pillsbury for assistance on this particular "Black Forest Cake Lite" recipe. I started off with Pillsbury's Moist Supreme Reduced Sugar Devils Food Cake mix. Sweetened with Splenda, this new mix boasts 50 percent less sugar than the regular version. And let me tell ya, you couldn't taste the difference. By the way, for those interested, Pillsbury also has a reduced-sugar yellow cake mix, along with vanilla and chocolate frostings.

So add this to your list of low-sugar recipes. Feel free to add frosting, but we found that because the cake was already so sweet, a dab of Cool Whip worked great as a topping.

1 box Pillsbury Moist Supreme Reduced Sugar Devil's Food Cake
1 can Lucky Leaf Lite Cherry Pie Filling
1 can Diet Cherry Coke
Cool Whip Lite

1. Blend the cake mix and soda in a bowl for at least one minute until fully mixed.
2. Fold in cherry pie filling.
3. Pour into cake pan and bake according to box directions.
4. Cool and serve.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pushing Daisies...and sugar-free pies

There are very few television shows I would bother racing home to see these days. Barring The Office and Lost (I can NOT wait until the new season starts!), it seems most shows have either gotten ridiculously lame (Grey's Anatomy, anyone?) or fall into the slop pile of crappy reality programming. That being said, can I tell you how much I adore Pushing Daisies?
If you haven't seen it yet, tune in next Wednesday night. You can also watch the previously-aired episodes on-line.
Long story short, Pushing Daisies is a "forensic fairy tale" featuring Ned, an introvert piemaker with the ability to revive the dead - a gift that has its share of complications. Ned - joined by his once-dead childhood sweetheart, Charlotte "Chuck" Charles and snarky private investigator pal, Emerson Cod - capitalizes on this gift and resuscitates murder victims long enough to solve the mystery of their death and collect any outstanding rewards.
So what is so fabulous about this strange show? First off, it's a visual masterpiece, popping with rich colors and quirky, imaginative sets. It also has a magical, whimsical undertone. The production team seems to have drawn inspiration from films like Amelie, Big Fish and Lemony Snicket.
Another bonus? The phenomenal cast. I just love me some Chi McBride, who is outstanding as the cranky, vest-knitting Emerson. And Kristen Chenoweth is a hoot playing the lovelorn Olive Snook, Ned's vertically-challenged neighbor/employee. In addition to the musical Ms. Chenoweth, there are several other Broadway veterans gracing the screen. Tony Award winner Raul Esparza is a traveling homeopathic antidepressant salesman who frequents Ned's shop, while Swoozie Kurtz and Ellen Greene ( Audrey!) play Chuck's eccentric aunts, former synchronized swimmers who hate leaving the house. I hope a musical number is coming up soon that features the lot of them!
Anyhoo, the only downside to the show is I've been craving a whole lot of sweet treats lately - which I blame entirely on the array of delectable desserts on display at The Pie Hole, Ned's humorously-named restaurant. So far, I've spotted pear pie, strawberry pie, apple pie, rhubarb pie and pecan pie. Yum!
In honor of the show - as well as an advance to National Boston Cream Pie Day next Wednesday - here are a few low-calorie recipes from to get you through the long weekend.

Chocolate Cream Pie
Strawberry Pie
Coconut Cream Pie
Black Bottom Pecan Pie

And, in case you're interested, here's an extended preview of the first episode of Pushing Daisies.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Truthiness and justice for all!

I'd been meaning to buy a Stewart/Colbert 2008 bumper sticker to show support for my two favorite political satirists. Glad I waited because it appears those stickers will not be valid much longer. Instead, I'll have to look for a Colbert/Colbert sticker - or perhaps one bearing the running-mate names of either Huckabee or Putin.
Yes, it's true. Stephen Colbert, everyone's favorite pseudoconservative blowhard, is running for president...but only in South both the Republican and Democrat primaries.
Accompanied by audience cheers and a cascade of red, white and blue balloons, the Comedy Central pundit announced on Tuesday night's Colbert Report that he is officially entering the 2008 presidential race.
"After nearly 15 minutes of soul searching, I have heard the call," said Colbert. "Nation, I will seek the office of the president of the United States."

Earlier that night, he made a surprise appearance on The Daily Show, arriving on the back of a bicycle piloted by a guy dressed as Uncle Sam. After cracking open a bottle of beer, Colbert told former boss Jon Stewart he was considering a run but would make "an announcement of that decision very soon, preferably on a more prestigious show."

Sadly, Stewart - who I've been crushing on since his early days of comedy on MTV - will not be included on the ticket. Still, I can't wait to see how far this goes. Either way, I'm sure the announcement is in no way related to drumming up publicity for Colbert's new book, "I Am America (And So Can You!)"

Monday, October 15, 2007

Stevia, schmevia....

As far as food goes, I consider myself an equal opportunist, willing to give most anything a fair shot (for proof, read my first-ever blog item mentioning haggis and black and white pudding.) And this culinary open-mindedness is what led me to try out Stevia, after hearing all the hype about the product in recent months.
If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m perfectly willing to provide an honest opinion, no matter how unpopular it may be. So along that note...I thought Stevia was all sorts of nasty!
For those unfamiliar with the product, Stevia is derived from a South American plant and commonly used as a sweetener in South America and Asia. Although it’s considered a food additive in some countries, like Brazil and Japan, it's only been approved as a dietary supplement in the U.S. and Europe. The FDA requires proof of safety before recognizing a food additive and apparently, they feel Stevia hasn't proven itself yet. Still, despite the lack of an FDA endorsement, Stevia’s popularity has grown in recent years – perhaps because it is the forbidden fruit of the low-calorie sweetener industry, so to speak.
This weekend, I tried two different kinds of Stevia, ruining a few perfectly good cups of coffee and bowls of oatmeal in the process. First I tried the plain Stevia extract in packet form. Not only was it bitter, it also had a slightly metallic, almost plastic taste. Then, I checked out the liquid SweetLeaf English Toffee. Although the unpleasant licorice taste wasn't quite as overwhelming in this format, it was still enough to turn my stomach.
Stevia has up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, but with a slower release and a longer duration. That means the vile after-taste lingers much longer than usual. I’m just happy I borrowed the product from friends, rather than plunking down my own hard-earned money to purchase it.
As with anything, Stevia will have both fans and critics...different strokes for different folks and all. But because of the lousy taste - and the fact that we don't really know yet if Stevia has any health risks or benefits - I'm sticking to Splenda.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Even the troops are counting calories these days

Apparently, some of our nation's soldiers are conscious of their figures.
According to a recent Stars and Stripes article, military stores are preparing to offer two new sugar-free electrolyte replacement tablets - which help replenish water, sweat and minerals lost through sweat. Still confused? Well, picture a sugar-free tablet-form version of Gatorade.
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service has reached agreements with military equipment supplier CamelBak and a small, independent company called Nuun to carry the effervescent tablets, which were initially created in 2002 for the endurance athlete market.
Military officials claim the versions low in calories will better serve soldiers for a variety of reasons, which are not all weight-related. Because the tablets don’t contain sugar — which grows fungus if not thoroughly washed out of containers — they are particularly suited for use in portable hydration devices. They are also packaged in sturdy, plastic tubes that fit into cargo pants, eliminating the messy spill that powders can cause.
And then, there's the weight thing. Because some military jobs require troops to stationary for long periods of time, these tablets prove a convenient alternative to enhanced hydration without the concern of packing on sugar-related pounds.
CamelBak's product - the sucralose-sweetened Elixir - was optimized for use in both training and combat. The company tailored each tablet to mix specifically with the exact amount of water in a CamelBak portable hydration bladder. Although currently available only in lemon-lime, company representatives say they will soon be unveiling new flavors.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The skinny on the skinny gene

Ever had one of those friends who rarely hit the gym, eat every little thing in sight and still manage not to gain any weight? No, I'm not talking about folks with secret eating disorders. I'm referring to one of those fortunate people who, despite a more than healthy appetite, never seem to pile on the pounds. Well, apparently it truly is a genetic thing.

According to a report published last month in Cell Metabolism, a science journal, scientists have officially discovered a "skinny gene." The discovery of this lucky batch of DNA, they say, could help fight human obesity and diabetes.

"This gene is in every organism from worms to humans," says the study’s senior author, Dr. Jonathan Graff, an associate professor of developmental biology and internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "We all have it. It's very striking."

Graff and his colleagues had been hunting for a gene that might naturally keep people thin. Eventually, they turned up a promising candidate in a gene that controls fat formation: adipose.

The researchers ran tests on fruit flies, worms and mice and found that the gene meant the difference between fat and skinny. For example, they could make worms fat by deleting the adipose gene, while a single cell in a test tube would transform into fat cells when adipose was deleted. In addition, mice engineered to have efficient versions of the gene were much sleeker than normal counterparts - with only about one-third the body fat.

Obesity experts are thrilled with the results and say it could help lead to a treatment that mimics the gene's weight regulation abilities. Still, they cautioned that such a miracle pill is a long ways-away.

I tend to think it's a little too good to be true. Either way, until scientists prove this gene really does keep people skinny - and that it can successfully be turned into a an obesity cure - I'm inclined to hang onto my gym membership and keep watching my dietary intake.

Monday, October 08, 2007

How d'ya like dem apples?

I went to brunch at a friend's house this weekend and among the many fabulous food items served, I believe my favorite was the caramel candy apples. Yes, I know. I'm still a kid at heart. But as you read in my previous post, I love October. And these gooey treats certainly remind me of fall.
In an effort to make my own sugar-free batch, I was just looking up caramel apple recipes featuring sucralose when I came across this article. Wow. I would have loved to have seen that.
Apparently, celebrity chef Bill Yosses teamed up with the makers of Splenda last year to create the world's largest candied apple. The giant confection - which was unveiled in New York's Bryant Park - measured 15 feet tall with a diameter of 12 feet. There was also a charitable angle to the display, since the 125 crates of apples used to create the "core" of the confection were donated to a food rescue organization following the event.
Here are a couple other fun tidbits about the world's largest candied apple:
* The apple weighed 400 pounds
* More than 10,000 apples, all from New York orchards, were used
* 100 gallons of candy coating were poured
* 800 pounds of SPLENDA® Sugar Blend for Baking were also used, translating to a savings of 1,228,800 total calories
In case you don't believe me, here's a video showing off the goods.

If you'd also like to try the lower-cal version, here is a candied apple recipe replacing sugar with Splenda. I'm including two more sugar-free apple treats to get your week started off right.

Sugar-Free Candy Apples

Caramel Apple Enchilada Sundaes

Hot Apple Cider

Friday, October 05, 2007

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

October is one of my favorite months. I love the changing of the leaves, all things Halloween, the return of the pumpkin spice latte, the slightly cooler weather and the fact that my favorite college and professional football teams are playing again. And, although my beloved Cubs never seem to make it (please beat Arizona this weekend!), I also love watching the World Series every October.
That being said, I went to a corn maze last weekend for the first time in my life - and it was an absolute blast! It was definitely worth the hike to Cleveland, Georgia, a little town in the middle of nowhere that is apparently known for being the birthplace of the cabbage patch kid. Whatever.
Altough the scariest part of the evening was the long drive - as well as the traffic in Cleveland due to a Ricky Skaggs concert? - we all loved exploring the eight-acre maze at night, cutting through rows of corn in an effort to find our way back. There was also a hi-LAR-ious "barn of fear" on the premises, complete with a guy wearing a snake around his neck and another decked out in a Jason mask and bearing a chainsaw. Good times.
The corn maze almost makes up for having to miss my friends' awesome annual "Pumpkin Party" in South Florida.
Anyhoo, in the hopes that the rest of you are as delighted with Autumn as I am, here are a few tasty pumpkin-based recipes courtesy of

Candied Walnut-Topped Pumpkin Pie
Harvest Pumpkin-Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bars

As extra incentive to get into the holiday spirit, I'm adding a short clip of a fabulous, family-friendly Halloween movie.

By the way, anyone out there have some ideas for a creative Halloween costume this year? I'm fresh out!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Childhood obesity battle includes cutting calorie intake

According to a new study published in this month's issue of "Pediatrics," overweight children can prevent further weight gain simply by walking another 2,000 steps a day and reducing their calorie intake by 100.

The study - which was conducted by the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center - featured 216 families with at least one overweight child. Families were placed in either a lifestyle intervention group or a control group. Those in the intervention group walked 2,000 more steps each day and eliminated 100 calories a day from their diet, primarily by replacing sugar with Splenda and consuming beverages sweetened with sucralose. The control group, however, was only asked to monitor their diet and exercise levels. The subjects were then tracked over six months. Results showed that children in the intervention group maintained or reduced their BMI-for-age at a better rate than those in the self-monitoring group.

"With just two simple steps, overweight children in these families were able to achieve positive results," said Dr. James O. Hill, co-founder of America On the Move Foundation and professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center. "Our results give parents ammunition to deliver a realistic and tangible way for the whole family to live healthier."

According to health statistics, one-third of all children in the United States are either overweight or dangerously close to becoming so. This is apparently the first time clinical evidence has shown that overweight children can effectively prevent excess weight gain by making small changes to their lifestyle. Researchers are hoping this news can help counter America's obesity crisis.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Let's hug it out!

Well, thank goodness our educators are finally starting to address the important issues…like hugging.
Yes, you heard me right. Apparently, excessive hugging rates up there with violence, drugs and failing grades.
A suburban Chicago school has become the latest to ban student hugging inside the building. Victoria Sharts, principal of Oak Park's Percy Julian Middle School, says rampant hugging has created traffic jams in the hallway and made kids late for class. The newly-established hug-free zone is apparently a small part of a comprehensive discipline and anti-bullying plan. Sharts claims that while hugs are supposed to be handshakes from the heart, they don't always seem so innocent.
"Too long, too close, and usually between boys and girls," Sharts said.
Say what? Boys and girls? Hugging? Oh no! Next thing you know, dogs and cats will be living'll be mass hysteria folks!
Sadly, Julian Middle isn't the only school where "public displays of affection" have become the hot topic. Over the last two years, schools from Des Moines to Cornwall, England, have asked students to cut back on hugging, hand holding and even high-fives. In Fairfax County, Virginia, a middle school student was threatened with detention after he put his arm around his girlfriend's shoulder.
"I think it's kind of like if you let the camel put his head in the tent, next thing you know, the camel's going to be inside the tent," said Principal David Hadley of Fossil Hill Middle School in North Texas, another school on the no-hug bandwagon.
Not sure what that means, but I'm guessing it's fear that some hugs could lead to sexual harassment. Anyone seen the classic 80s flick, "Footloose" with Kevin Bacon? Me thinks these schools might soon ban rock music and dancing because, well, it could possibly lead to sinful behavior!
Whatever their reasoning, I feel the hug-ban is ridiculous and draconian. It seems like administrators are so scared about potential lawsuits that they're trying to create this perfect world for children - free of anything that could ever prove threatening or hurtful.
When I was a kid, we used to play dodgeball and musical chairs and playground tag. Many of those games - including duck-duck-goose - are now considered aggressive and unwholesome and even emotionally damaging to children. As a result, kids today often do "team-building" exercises in P.E. How will children ever learn to handle life in the real world if they never experience real-life issues like failure?
Schools are supposed to be an environment for both academic and social education. And hugging is a normal form of expression. Sure, some kids might hug others for more sexual reasons, but banning it altogether won't fix the problem. And if teachers and administrators are truly more concerned about the tardiness factor, why not use punishments like detention to prevent kids from loitering? That seems a better way to discourage this type of behavior than banning healthy social interaction between children.
I guess all those school resource officers can now devote their time to policing physical contact rather than keeping an eye on drugs or criminal activity within the student body.
On a happier note, check out the "Free Hugs Campaign," which started with one man and has since spread around the globe.

Friday, September 28, 2007

This, I have to check out...

Fizzies probably don't mean much to those of us who didn't grow up in the late 1950s and 1960s. I'd always heard about them and figured they were like the Pop Rocks of my parents' generation.
Well, all us young 'uns now have the opportunity to find out what Fizzies actually taste like. Online vintage candy stores have recently begun promoting a reformulated version of Fizzies sweetened with sucralose.
So what are Fizzies? Apparently it's an effervescent tablet - similar to Alka Seltzer - that turns water into soda. Although marketed primarily to children back in the day, Fizzies were also popular among adults as sugar-free alternatives to traditional soft drinks. Original Fizzies came in several different fruit flavors, such as orange and grape, along with traditional soda flavors like root beer.
I don't know how these tablets taste, but as a fan of all those crazy candies back in the 80s - I'm more than willing to give it a try.

Just for fun, here's an old-school commercial for Fizzies.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The World's Weirdest Conspiracy Theories

I thought these were pretty, well, interesting. Compiled by "Swallowing The Camel" , here are just a few of "The World's Weirdest/Stupidest Conspiracy Theories."

* The Beatles were designed and sent to the U.S. by the British Psychological Warfare Division, to undermine the morals of American teenagers.
* Stephen King killed John Lennon.
* World War II was staged. It never really happened. The Illuminati employed elaborate special effects, stage magic, and phony journalism to scare the world into pacifism.
* George H.W. Bush was really George Scherff Sr., a Nazi sent to destroy America as a teenager and adopted by Prescott Bush.
* The 1939 War of the Worlds radio broadcoast was a psychological warfare study funded by C.D. Jackson on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation, designed to find out how Americans would react to an enemy invasion.
* The doomed Franklin Expedition was sent to the Arctic not only to find the Northwest Passage, but to secretly investigate UFO sightings that had been reported since the 1700s. The men were captured, experimented upon, and eaten by giant aliens.
* Denver International Airport was built expressly to conceal a vast underground complex, headquarters of the New World Order elite. Clues are hidden in the airport's peace-themed mural.
* Scientology: Billions of years ago the intergalactic overlord Xenu used a film to brainwash our souls ("Thetans") into believing in the world's major religions, which he invented.
* The early Middle Ages (614-911 A.D.) never occurred. Everything that supposedly happened during those years was either a misunderstanding, an event from a different era, or an outright lie - Charlemagne, for instance, is a fictional figure. And we are actually living in the 1700s.
* Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence, faked his death to move to Germany and become Adolph Hitler.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Happy National Cherries Jubilee Day!

No, I’m not making it up. The food industry likes to celebrate various foods and beverages throughout the calendar year - and cherries jubilee happens to be today’s honoree.
Not sure what this particular dish is? You're probably not the only one. It's a dessert made with cherries and liqueur - typically cognac or Kirschwasser. It's then flambéed and served as a sauce over vanilla ice cream.
The recipe is generally credited to French chef Auguste Escoffier, who prepared the dish for one of Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebrations back in the late 1800s. These jubilees were held to honor the anniversary of her reign as British monarch.
Here is a typical cherries jubilee recipe. However, if you're like me - and are a wee bit nervous about the whole flambe cooking procedure - here's a tasty variation on the cherry jubilee dish that sounds relatively easy to whip up. And the other good news? It's low-cal and made with Splenda!
Check out this recipe for Chocolate Chip Cherries Jubilee Coffee Cake. Using low-fat Bisquick, Splenda, cherries, chocolate chips, fat-free sour cream and brandy extract, you can make a fabulous coffee cake that only has 127 calories and 3 fat grams. Yes please!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Eating healthy at the salad is possible!

Rather than grabbing sandwiches during my lunch hour, I've been hitting up a lot of salad bars. It always seems like the healthier alternative. However, putting together a salad does not a nutritious meal make. If you load up on enough fatty ingredients, you may as well eat a Big Mac as far as calorie intake is concerned.

Here are a few tips to navigating the salad bar:

* Darker leaves make a more nutritious salad. Rather than iceberg, use spinach, romaine, Boston lettuce, endive, kale, and baby field greens. Leafy greens also contain Vitamin A, key to growth and vision.

* The more colorful the plate, the more antioxidant power. Pile up on broccoli, cucumbers, red peppers, eggplant, cauliflower, avocado, carrots, baby corn and even berries. Leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and citrus fruits are also high in Vitamin C, which improves iron consumption and promotes healthy gums and tissues.

* Add grilled chicken or other high-protein foods chunky white tuna, lean roast beef, beans, peas, or low-fat cottage cheese.

* If you're topping the salad with cheese, go with a stronger flavor - such as sharp cheddar or feta - and keep the amount minimal. Cheese does contain fat.

* Go easy on the croutons and bacon bits.

* Olive or canola oil-based dressings are good for the heart. Try an Italian dressing or an oil and vinegar mix.

* Consider avoiding some of the creamier dishes like coleslaw and pasta salad. They tend to have more fat and calories.

The same tips apply at home - if you're building a salad from scratch.

I've also become addicted to a fabulous salad dressing line from Walden Farms. Made with sucralose, the calorie-free dressings can be found in most major grocery stores. Check it out!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A psychedelic wonderland

As most of my loyal readers know by now, I like to throw in the occasional off-topic entries to keep things interesting. And, if you hadn't noticed, this is a newsy week. But rather than delve into controversial topics like the war in Iraq or racial tensions in a small Louisiana town - or even the origin of this week's new catchprase, "Don't tase me, bro!" - I thought I'd discuss the Blue Man Group.

Why, you might ask? Well, it turns out two of the group's three founders - Matt Goldman and Chris Wink - recently opened a nursery school. The Blue Man Creativity Center now enrolls more than 40 kids between the ages of two and four.

I'm going to back-track here for a minute to talk about the actual Blue Man Group (or BMG). If you've never experienced a show, well, you're missing out and I say get thee to a performance. However, it's also a little hard to describe a production that features props like twinkies, marshmallows, Cap'n Crunch, jell-o, paint, toilet paper, a glow-in-the-dark band and odd homemade instruments. Described by its creators as a simple way to experience the joy of being alive, the Blue Man Group is truly a feast for the audience's senses.

I haven't been in a few years, but I still vividly remember the band playing an even more twisted-than-usual version of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," while an enthusiastic audience sang along and electronic signs flashed various messages. And I recall nearly drowning in a sea of toilet paper coming from every corner of the theater during the strobe-lit final minutes.

A little advice, by the way, for those of you attending a Blue Man Group show and sitting in one of the front rows - bring a poncho. It gets a little sloppy up there.

So back to the new day care center. Here's a description from the New Yorker:

"Every day at the center will end with a ritual called Glow Time, during which the shades are lowered, the regular lights are turned off, and black lights are turned on, illuminating the parts of the room (including work created by the students) that have been painted with special UV paint. The collection of Blue Man-inspired educational gewgaws on hand is a far cry from flash cards and Play-Doh. There’s a hypnotic Bubble Machine, with kid-controlled colored lights; a futuristic Water Machine, with a mini-whirlpool; and a trippy installation, left over from the B.M.G.’s 2003 tour, of giant computer-animated dragonflies that can be made to light up, flap their wings, and fly. The Tree House, whose slide deposits kids in the Texture Pit, looks like fun. So does the OMi-Beam machine, a computerized rig made up of eight ceiling-mounted halogen lamps, loudspeakers, and a video monitor (there is only one other OMi-Beam machine in the country, at Madame Tussaud’s). Colored beams create pools of light on the floor, and by waving a reflective wand through the beams kids can produce any number of sounds, from musical instruments to the calls of barnyard animals and samples of pop hits from the nineteen-eighties (one is Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank”)."

How cool is that? It's akin to stepping into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. All they need is lickable wallpaper and a chocolate river and it's a true utopia for children.

That being said, this sounds like a pretty sweet stomping ground even for adults. Computer-animated dragonflies, black lights and bubble machines? Seriously!
Think they'd accept me into the program? I might have 20-plus years on the other students, but I could teach the kiddies all about the 1980s pop hits that will be playing in the background.