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Step-by-step directions for lemon basil cake bites (aka Why this isn’t a baking blog)

I like to cook. I hate to bake. Cooking is a lot like writing — so long as you have a general idea of what you want the end to look like, you can play around with exactly how you get there. Baking? That’s pure math. You need exactly this amount of these ingredients and you have to mix them properly, then bake at the right temperature, and then you should come out with the right answer/delicious baked good.

“Should” is sort of the operative word, here.

With that introduction, I present my easy step-by-step instructions for super delicious lemon basil cake bites.

cake bite-text

You’ll need:

1 box of Trader Joe’s Vanilla Cake Mix

However many eggs and milk that requires (do not ask me, I don’t remember, so just read the back of the box)

Lemon curd (also probably from Trader Joe’s unless you have another one you dig)

Fresh basil

A special cake pan with a pretty flower design

Step 1: Follow the instructions on the box

Follow the directions perfectly. Do not mess around here — add exactly the amount of milk and eggs required, mix for the specified amount of time. Do not screw it up. Before you pour your batter into your fancy schmancy pan, grease the shit out of that thing. Don’t hold back with the Pam.

My fancy schmancy pan.

My fancy schmancy pan.

Step 2: Bake it up

You’ve followed the directions without a single mistake, so just pour it in the (well-greased) pan and set it to bake for the minimum amount of time — 40 minutes, I think. Take a shower, do some yoga, whatever, but make sure to congratulate yourself on doing a great job on the mixing part. You might even start thinking now about how you’re going to present the cake so you can take really great pictures of it and share that shit on Pinterest. I mean, your guests (because, obviously, if you’re making this, you’re having people over, right?) are going to be FLOORED at how great this is.

Oh, also? Make sure to start this just an hour or two before your guests arrive. You know, for maximum freshness and stuff.

Step 3: Check it, rack it

If your experience is like mine, you’ll take it out at 40 minutes, stick a toothpick in, and find that it’s perfectly done. It’s a beautiful golden brown on top, and the toothpick comes out clean. Try not to hurt your shoulder patting yourself on the back at this point, but, you know, go ahead and give yourself a little pat. You’ve nailed it, right? Now all you have to do is wait for it to cool.

Step 4: Choose the perfect place to display it

I pulled out a gorgeous bamboo cutting board that was an ideal size — just a little bigger than the cake, and a great complement to the natural flower design on the cake. God, Pinterest is going to go CRAZY over this cake.

Step 5: Dump it onto the platter

Now is the moment of truth. Make sure to gently loosen it all around the edges, line it up with your chosen platter, and then turn the pan upside down and dump the cake out.


Once half of it comes out in a plop and the rest sticks to the bottom of the fucking pan, the fun really begins. For starters, you’re gonna want to find another way to display it, because, as is? It looks TERRIBLE.

Step 7: Have a drink

Once you’ve stopped screaming obscenities at the oven, pour yourself a drink. Maybe an extra one, too, depending on how high your sights were set on this being a fabulous dessert.

Step 8: Invent cake bites!

Cut up the parts of the cake that are reasonably salvageable into small squares. You know, the parts that at least mostly have a top and bottom that will sort of stick together. Arrange them on a plate, cover each with a dollop of lemon curd and a few snips of fresh basil.

Fresh basil! Doesn't that make everything fancy?

Fresh basil! Doesn’t that make everything fancy?

Step 9: Tell everyone who saw it go down to tell your guests that this was the plan all along

No need to admit failure now. Lie, lie, and deny, baby.

Step 10: Get drunk and tell everyone about how you failed at baking a cake and so, CAKE BITES

Please. It’s not like you’re going to keep that story to yourself.


Making it all better

AdvertisementThank you COOL WHIP for sponsoring this post. Join us on Facebook for inspiration and recipes for everyday treats. What you add makes it. #coolwhipmoms

The liquid diet (due to my jaw, not for weight loss) has come to an end! Well, sort of, anyway. I don’t have to stick to liquids and mush anymore, although I’m still having smoothies most mornings for breakfast because, well, the more I rest it, the faster I’ll be back to 100%. I’ve gotten a retainer to wear at night — it makes me sound like Cindy Brady, which Jared finds hilarious, but it’s definitely doing the trick. I can handle being a little lispy in the moments before my head hits the pillow if it means I’m cleared to eat crusty bread again.

This whole smoothie thing has been a real revelation for me, though — I’ve learned to view a well-made blended beverage as a meal (or at least a snack) rather than, you know, just a drink, and that mental shift made sticking to liquids SO MUCH EASIER. When I make a smoothie with the mindset that this is my breakfast, or this is my pre-workout snack, it really fills me up. Amazing.

Anyway, it also shifted the way I think about other meals and snacks and such. For instance, dessert. While I’m not normally one to order a dessert out at a restaurant (unless, you know, it’s REALLY spectacular … or the person I’m with orders one first), I do like to have a little something sweet in the evening. But it doesn’t have to be huge or heavy or chocolate or anything. In fact, I’ve found that some of my favorite smoothies can be turned into a delicious dessert with just a couple of small modifications.

Let’s look at my absolute favorite, shall we? The Orange Pineapple Mango Berry. It’s a (delicious, delicious) mouthful, I know, but it’s sweet and tart and creamy and fruity and super refreshing.

As a breakfast smoothie, I would make it with half a cup or so of plain lowfat Greek yogurt, a half (or so) cup of orange juice, a few pieces of frozen pineapple, frozen mango, and whatever frozen berries I have on hand (strawberry is my favorite, but raspberries or mixed berries are also awesome).

Here’s where it gets a little surprising. I add a scoop of chia seeds (ch-ch-ch-chia!), a scoop of protein powder, and, most mornings, a hearty helping of spinach (either chopped and frozen or fresh baby spinach).

Now, let’s talk about how to make it a little more dessert-y.

Don't you wish your smoothie was this pretty?

Mostly, I take things out. I don’t add the protein powder — I assume that, by the time I’ve reached the dessert point of my day, I’ve gotten enough. I might add the chia seeds, but, I mean, I don’t exactly use those for flavor, you know? And by evening, I’ve normally gotten the necessary nutrition for the day.

Approximately 10 seconds later, I scarfed the whole thing down.

If I have orange sherbet, I may swap that out for the Greek yogurt. It tones down the tartness and gives it a slightly more dreamsicle-y flavor. Mmm, dreamsicle.

And then, I add the most important part. COOL WHIP Whipped Topping. Anyone who knows me well will not be surprised by this in the least. I’m not shy about adding that stuff to just about anything — I use it as frosting on cake, I dip cookies in it, I mix it into fruit salad (although I have to credit my mom with that one — COOL WHIP fruit salad was my favorite side as a child).

So, I toss a spoonful into the blender and blend it all up. And, generally, I add a dollop on top, too. A big dollop. You know, just to be safe.

If you’re really trying to be fancy, you could also top with some fresh, sliced strawberries. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll be in too much of a hurry to drink it up to bother with presentation!

Sponsored posts are purely editorial content that we are pleased to have presented by a participating sponsor. Advertisers do not produce the content. I was compensated for this post as a member of Clever Girls Collective, but the content is all my own.

Grandpa Chuck’s Bloody Mary recipe

My mom’s parents, Grandpa Chuck and Grandma Sara, used to throw really swell parties. And, even though I’ve heard this from multiple sources and have seen the photographic evidence, it’s hard for me to get it in my head. My grandfather died when I was really young, and, as I’ve mentioned before, my grandma began battling Alzheimer’s when I was in middle school, so I never knew any of them as fun-loving party folk. I mean, they were grandparents, you know?

It doesn’t really surprise me, though. They were both lovely, kind people who went out of their way to make sure the people around them were happy and comfortable, and isn’t that the mark of a great party host? At least, that’s what I try to do when we host a soiree. Until I get to that second bottle of wine, anyway, at which point everyone should probably start fending for him- or herself.

I don’t think Grandma Sara probably ever got to the second bottle of wine. A study in moderation, that woman, with the figure to prove it.

Anyway, even though I didn’t get to know them well as an adult, I definitely feel a connection to them, and the weirdest things will make set that connection abuzz. When I was in Michigan this fall, my aunt and uncle were talking about my Grandpa Chuck’s Bloody Mary recipe, and how it was wonderful and perfect and practically famous. I checked with my mom, and, sure enough, she had it! I couldn’t wait to get home and make it myself.

And then I forgot. Until this weekend, anyway, when we were planning a big tailgate and I decided now was the time to bring it out.

Oh, you guys. It might be the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever had. Spicy where it should hit you with some spice, a little sweet and sour in all the right places … delish. Maybe too delish, as I didn’t want to share with many people and ended up having three all to myself.

To make things even better, after I made (and drank) it, my mom scanned in the actual recipe card that my Grandma Sara wrote out, and, do you get all emotional about handwriting? I do. I probably could identify the handwriting of almost anyone I’ve ever spent a lot of time with, and seeing her cursive on these old cards got me a little choked up. But mostly, I smiled, because what a great memory is this?

Anyway, recipe is (on the cards above, and) typed out below for your gastronomic pleasure. For the record, I only let it sit overnight and it was totally fine, but next time, I’ll totally plan ahead and let it sit a week. Also! I couldn’t find dill sauce (let alone the specific brand that Grandma underlined), so I just used juice from some garlicky dill pickles.

Grandpa Chuck’s Bloody Marys

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp pepper

1/4 tsp celery salt

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce

2 tbsp dill sauce (Milani, if you can find it)

1 oz. lime juice

46 oz can Campbell’s tomato juice


Dill stick for garnish (or celery, like I did)

1/2 gallon jar

Mix all spices, then pour 1/2 the tomato juice and shake well. Then add rest of tomato juice and fill the rest with vodka. Let sit for a week.

Who’s that Spartan making Topopo Salad? (It’s me! It’s me!)

No matter how hard I try to branch out and try new things, I have a lot of go-to meals at certain restaurants. And, when possible, I try to recreate them at home because, for one thing, it’s generally cheaper, and for another, my homemade version gives me a little more control over how many calories the dish contains.

Why the hell it took me so many years (YEARS!) to try making the Topopo Salad from El Azteco in Lansing and East Lansing, Mich. (what up, my Spartans!), I couldn’t begin to tell you. Well, okay, I guess part of it is that, in the original recipe they include chicken, and since I’d never had it without, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. And I haven’t had one in so long, I didn’t quite know where to start.

And then I remembered The Internet, and both problems were solved. I found a Topopo Salad recipe (listed below) on Forest Street Kitchen that mentions making it vegetarian, and I set to work. Oh, you guys, the unbelievable deliciousness of this salad is beyond compare. It’s absolutely tremendous. And yes, it was a little more time and labor intensive than most salads I’ve made, but it was SO worth it.

topopo salad

El Azteco's famous Topopo Salad, made a million miles away in my kitchen in Florida. Much more efficient than delivery from the Michigan State campus.

Because it was just me tonight, I cut the recipe in half, ate until it hurt, and still had a good bit left over. So many veggies! And beans! And yes, a decent amount of cheese, but hey, that’s just dairy, which is GOOD for you, right?

On an entirely separate, un-salady note, did anybody else have a freaking amazing day today? I saw a couple of mentions on Facebook and Twitter about it, and boy, was I ever on. I don’t know why, but everything just felt right, and I was weirdly happy and optimistic all day. (Well, most of the day anyway, other than when I tried giving Meeko her fluids and did a piss poor job. Poor cat. Guess I’m not as great as I thought I was, huh?)


Topopo Salad recipe from Forest Street Kitchen (my notes in italics)

  • 1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded or cut into small pieces (I used romaine hearts)
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 16 0z. bottle salsa
  • 8 ounces frozen peas, thawed
  • 1 cup finely shredded, white Mexican cheese (Queso Blanco)
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, diced
  • 1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
    1 -2 jalapenos, finely chopped (I had no jalapenos, so I went without, but I think they would’ve really added something — next time!)
  • Tortilla chips (I used broken up tostadas because they’re less salty)
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
  • 2 cups guacamole (purchased or homemade)
  • 2 cups finely shredded, cooked chicken (or leave this out and go “veggie)
  • 2 cans refried beans

“Topopo” means volcano, and as prepared at El Azteco, this is a HUGE salad for two people. You may, of course, choose to spread the ingredients over several plates.

First, mix lettuce, peas, white cheese, chicken, jalapenos, green onions and tomatoes in a large bowl. In a jar ow bowl mix canola, rice vinegar and sugar to create a vinaigrette dressing. Add a small (!) amount of vinaigrette, no more than 1/4 cup to salad mixture. You are not really “dressing” this, just holding it together and adding a bit of flavor). Mix again to coat very lightly with vinaigrette. You may decide that you want to use more dressing next time, but you really don’t want it to be more than a hint of background flavor and a binder for the salad ingredients.

Warm refried beans in microwave or on top of the stove.

On the bottom of a large plate, place a hearty layer of tortilla chips. Warm refried beans and layer evenly over chips. Top with cheddar or jack cheese and run under the broiler to melt. Top melted cheese with guacamole spread evenly, and then a cup of the of salsa.

A true Topopo is presented with the salad on top of the nacho base in a pyramid. (You remember: the whole volcano thing). Begin piling your salad mixture on top of the nachos to cover completely, gradually adding less and less as you build upwards to form a pyramid. Serve with additional salsa on the side.

Seafood tacos: Because sharing is caring

shrimp tacos

Shrimp tacos with wasabi sour cream and cotija cheese. Mmmm.

Everyone should be able to make one good dish without having to open a cookbook. I mean, everyone can follow a recipe, in theory (except when you forget to buy certain ingredients, in which case you should just make sure you live really, really close to a grocery store … not that this had anything to do with why we chose our house. Not at all!), but to be able to create a meal just using your brain? That’s a skill.

I have a few things I can make from memory, but one of the biggest hits would have to be seafood tacos. And honestly, every time someone compliments me on them, I kind of laugh because, dude, it’s just so easy. But apparently impressive, and definitely delicious. So, I thought I’d share.

There are a couple of variations I use. First, you can use fish (I use tilapia or another mild, white, flaky fish) or shrimp. I bake fish and saute shrimp, but you can go with your preference. Then, you can go with a true Mexican vibe, or you can get a little funky and bring some Eastern flair into it (inspired by Giada’s recipe). Below, you’ll find the Mexican version for fish and Eastern version for shrimp. Of course, you can mix and match, and it’s super easy to tailor to your own likes and dislikes. If you have a great suggestion, be sure to let me know!

Mexican Fish Taco Ingredients

For two people (like, people who eat), you’ll need:

1 large or 2 small tilapia fillets

Marinade (I like Lawry’s Baja Chipotle)

4-6 taco-size tortillas (works with crunchy taco shells, too), or just a couple of really big, burrito-size tortillas

Sour cream

Fresh lime (1 should do it)

Cilantro (fresh is great, but I get mine in a tube)

Cotija cheese


Chipotle hot sauce

Fresh tomato

Crunchy shredded lettuce or cabbage

Optional: Yellow rice, either to put in the tacos or as a side dish

Marinate fish for 30-60 minutes and pre-heat oven to 400. Bake fish for 10 minutes or so — it’s ready when it pulls apart easily at the thickest part.

If making rice, make sure to get it started first (it takes longer than the fish).

Bake crunchy shells as directed, or, for soft shells, wrap in tinfoil and pop in oven for 2-3 minutes to heat and soften.

Mix juice from 1/2 lime (or to taste) with sour cream and cilantro (again, to taste). Spread on shells.

Add fish, rice, tomato, guac, lettuce, cheese, and hot sauce.

Eastern Flair Shrimp Tacos

1/2 to 3/4 lb shrimp (I buy peeled and deveined, because, EWWW, and also, I’m LAZY)

A bit of olive oil (enough to saute easily) or a ginger- or teriyaki-based marinade (I stick with olive oil)

4-6 taco-size tortillas

Salt, pepper

Fresh lime

Sour cream


Lettuce or cabbage

Sliced avocado

Sliced tomato

Crumbly, white cheese (I’ve used queso fresco, cotija and goat cheese and loved them all equally)

Heat oil or marinade in wok or pan. Add shrimp and saute, adding a little salt and pepper if desired. Shrimp is done when it turns pink. Do not overcook! Depending on size of pan and number of shrimp, should be around 4-6 minutes. You’ll need to remove tails — I do this while they’re cooking, just pulling them out one at a time, so I can serve them nice and hot, but you can do it after they’re all done if you want.

Wrap soft tortillas in tinfoil and pop in oven (or toaster oven) for 2-3 minutes to heat and soften.

Mix wasabi and sour cream to taste (you can use wasabi powder, but I found this wasabi mustard and totally love it).

Add shrimp, avocado, tomato, lettuce, cheese and wasabi sour cream to tortilla. Squeeze a slice of lime over the top.