Maple Apple Dump Cake

Yesterday, for many, marked the official end of summer. That must make today the official start of fall, then, right? The day when it’s acceptable to start posting all things pumpkin spice lattes and apple cider and all things autumn? I certainly hope so, because I have the perfect cake to get your autumn kicked off the right way!

The best part is that this cake requires so few ingredients… some cinnamon apple sauce, a can of apple pie filling, some Instant oats, a stick of butter, and the main feature– Pillsbury Maple Brown Sugar cake mix. Oh, and if you accidentally pick up the Pillsbury Maple Brown Sugar Cookie mix, well, it won’t work for this recipe, but it’s definitely worth getting anyway. Yum. Who doesn’t love all things maple brown sugar?

The thing I love about dump cake is that it’s so incredibly easy. But your standard dump cake is so summery, with it’s pineapples and cherries. This cake is just as easy, and perfection for fall. Start by pouring a cup of cinnamon applesauce in the bottom of your pan. If you’re wanting to just open and dump, you can use 2 of the 4-ounce individual cups.

Now, pour half a cup of plain instant oatmeal on top of the applesauce. Making a true dump-and-go cake? Just add about 3 (Quaker-sized– 1.51oz) packets of Instant Oatmeal. It’ll be a bit more than the measured-out recipe calls for, but it won’t negatively impact the cake at all. It’ll taste pretty much exactly the same.

Now, evenly dump your can of apple pie filling on top. If you have some on hand, you could even use your own canned apple pie filling, but I used some store-bought apple pie filling for ease.

Now, dump your cake mix on top. Hence the name… “dump cake.”

Chop up a stick of butter, spaced out. Anything under the butter or touching the apples will become a cake like texture, and anything dry is going to be more like a crumble topping… perfection!

Bake it at 350 for 30 minutes, until butter is melted and everything’s hot and bubbly.

Serve it hot with some ice cream for dessert, or eat it at breakfast (hey, it has apples, oatmeal, and applesauce. That counts as breakfast, right?), or even drizzle it with a little caramel or some maple syrup.

Everything about this is so perfect for kicking off autumn, from the smell, to the taste, to the warmth of it. It’s beyond delicious, and I know you’ll love it for any occasion or meal. You could take it for a church potluck, serve it for fall festivities, or, like my family, grab some spoons and enjoy it straight out of the pan during a family game night.

Hungry for more recipes to get your fall started right? Try my Tuscan Bean and Sausage Soup, or one of my absolute fall favorites, Better than Pumpkin Pie Dessert.

Happy Fall, Y’all!

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Why The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Matters to Me (And Why There’s No Excuse Not to Participate)

It started with a phone call to plan our vacation. My mom got off the phone, turned to me, and said “Something isn’t right with Faye.” Puzzled, I asked what was wrong, and she voiced concern that Faye was slurring her words. We both speculated, worrying Faye had experienced a stroke or some other issue.

When we actually went on vacation, it was more prominent. There was no doubting it, Faye was slurring, and her hands were a bit tense. I think we all had an idea of it, but none of us wanted to say the words, that acronym. After all, we’d already lost at least one family member to the horrible illness, and the thought of another going through the same horrible, trapped fate was terrifying.

A diagnosis confirmed it… Faye had ALS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It meant that, over the coming months, she’d lose her ability to speak, her ability to eat, her ability to move normally. She’d resort to writing what she needed to say, and eventually, she’d lose the ability to do that, as well. If someone baked cookies, she’d be unable to enjoy them. If she was craving a bagel, she couldn’t eat it. Her mind would function, but she couldn’t turn those thoughts into spoken words. She would literally become a prisoner in her own failing body before eventually succumbing to the disease.

Faye was at least the second person to be affected by ALS in our family. My great grandmother Lena also had ALS. Some types of ALS are more prevalent within a family, people predisposed to it based on genetics. Having more than one person in our family diagnosed was not a positive sign.

ALS is relatively unknown and rather underfunded. Unless you call it Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a lot of people don’t even know what you’re referring to. Essentially, people either have no idea what ALS is, or they know the horror of it because they’ve seen it or been affected by it. There’s very little in-between.

Or at least, there was until around July 29, when the ALS ice bucket challenge began. People around the country, and soon, the world, started dumping buckets of cold water on their heads to raise awareness for this terrifying condition. More and more people joined in. Celebrities started participating. Politicians did it. Kids did it.

Searches for ALS on Google increased greatly. Donations did, also, with people rushing to fund research for ALS. People finally were finding out what ALS was and why it needed to be funded. A lot of us who had seen ALS firsthand were relieved, excited, and ready to participate.

And then, like any viral sensation on the internet, the haters started in on the ALS ice bucket challenge.

“ALS kills fewer people than (insert cause here) so it isn’t worth donating to.” Great. Donate to another cause. Or donate to ALS and another cause. But just because it doesn’t kill as many people, or even affect as many people, it doesn’t make it less valid of a cause. While you may not be intending harm by saying this, to someone who has experienced it and seen it first hand, you’re basically saying “Other loss is more important than your loss because it affects more people.” To me, their loss is significant, and so is mine. Let me donate to the cause I support, and you can do what you please with your time and money.

“The Ice Bucket Challenge is a waste of water.” Only if you let it be a waste of water when you participate. If you’re concerned about wasting water, there are several options. 1) Donate, but don’t dump water. A lot of people have done it this way. 2) Do what the awesome Peterson Farm Brothers did in their Ice Bucket Challenge, and water your crops while you’re at it. 3) Do what Matt Damon did and use toilet water. 4) Do what one of my Facebook friends did and make your donation to ALS research, then instead of dumping water on your head, donate water bottles to a local homeless shelter. Her family made their ALS donations, then donated 30 cases of water to the homeless. It’s only a waste of water if you’re letting it be one, and you can participate while getting creative if you choose to.

“ALS organizations use their money for embryonic stem cell research, and I’m not okay with that.” Great. Neither am I. You can donate to another ALS research charity that doesn’t use their funds for embryonic stem cell use. One good option is the MSCTC, which only uses adult stem cells, with another being at the Mayo Clinic, also using adult stem cells. Christian bioethicist David Prentice recommends both of these charities as good options. Additionally, 501(c)3 guidelines say that you can specify your donation anywhere not be used to fund embryonic stem cell research. The organization has to comply and use your funds in other ways, or they’ll risk losing their tax-exempt status. Sidenote: I do not recommend donating to JPII Medical Institute, where funds are not going to research ALS, but instead, being used to build a clean room and lease laboratory space. There is no confirmation of intention to use these funds for ALS-specific research. Finally, you’ll want to know that Carrie Munk from ALSA says that they primarily also fund Adult Stem Cell research, and that, while the ALSA has one program using embryonic stem cells, it’s funded by one donor who very specifically is dedicated to that line of research.

“ALSA tests on animals.” Yes, The ALSA does test on animals. Significant advances have been made because of this fact. However, unlike many believe (possibly thanks to Pamela Anderson), the ALSA doesn’t do primate studies, and if you’d like your funds not to go towards animal testing, you can specify that when you make your donation, and they will honor it.

“I cannot do it because I work for the government.” There are some government agencies that are saying that participants cannot do it by identifying themselves as part of that organization (specifically military). That said, most military members are able to participate as long as they’re not doing so while in uniform or identifying themselves by their military status. Additionally, there are some government officials who are strictly barred from participating in the ice bucket challenge. That said, none of those people are barred from donating their money where they’d like, including to ALS research. So, just because you can’t dump water on your head if you work in certain fields, well, you can still put your money where your mouth is and give a little bit.

“I don’t have money to donate.” If you absolutely cannot donate money to ALS research, and if you don’t have the money for ice, that’s okay. Participate in the challenge. Film yourself dumping water on your head. And then, explain what ALS is and why research for ALS is important. Beyond the donations, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a great way to help more people learn about ALS. While obviously, donations are very beneficial and I love that people are choosing to donate, I also recognize that some people can’t. Awareness is also important, and I think that people can participate even without donating.

To be honest, with all of the hate that the Ice Bucket Challenge is getting, I simply have yet to find a single valid reason why someone could not find some way to participate at all. Perhaps it’s because the cause is very personal to me, but I see that a lot of the reasons not to participate really don’t make sense when you take the time to see what options are out there.

Obviously, I can’t force anyone’s hand in doing the ice bucket challenge, and I wouldn’t want to. I want people to participate because they want to participate. But I also don’t want some of the louder voices that are shouting why participation isn’t a good idea to shout louder than the truth behind those statements– that to every side that says don’t do it, there are still ways you can do it and reasons you should do it.

If nothing else, do a little bit of reading on what ALS is like, what it feels like, how it affects people. Think about the experience of being absolutely trapped in your own body. And then decide whether or not you feel like it’s worth putting a few dollars towards or dumping water on your head. To me, the ALS ice bucket challenge is an opportunity. And if you don’t plan on participating, please don’t tell me how bored you are of it. I sit silently during Movember, even though the cause isn’t as relevant in my life. I watch other charities, diseases, and causes get their time in the spotlight. For once, ALS is in the spotlight. It’s got the attention of the world, and more people than ever now know what ALS is and what it’s effects are.

I implore you… let ALS have this spotlight, just for this little bit. It won’t last forever, and you’ll be back to browsing videos of kids taking selfies and news about the atrocities going on in the world. But for now, let ALS have it, even if you don’t plan on joining in on the fun.

And trust me… participating can be pretty darn fun.

With that, I’d like to issue one final challenge. Readers, I challenge each and every one of you to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Whether you participate by donating, but dumping water on your head, or in any other capacity, I’m nominating you.

Have you done the ice bucket challenge? Link up your video in the comments below! Not participating? I’d love to hear why!

Meat Lovers Pasta Bake

Do you like meat? And easy recipes? And recipes that can be made with leftovers and ingredients you have on hand?

If you answered yes, then you’re going to absolutely love this meat lovers pasta bake. If you answered no to the meat question, stick around… you can make this dish with veggies instead. But the meat part? Oh-so-good.

If you have pasta, cheese, diced tomatoes, and some leftover meat (pretty much any kind will work), then you’ve got dinner. Bonus points if you have pasta-friendly veggies like mushrooms and onions.

Start with a can of diced tomatoes. You earn some bonus credit if they’re Italian seasoned, but just use what’s in your pantry, or dice up some garden tomatoes. If they’re canned, don’t drain them. Just pour 1/3 of the can in the bottom of your casserole dish.

Now, make a pot of pasta. I use an entire box of Barilla Rotini, but you use whatever pasta you have. I like the rotini for this dish because it holds up nicely, but so does literally any other pasta you have. Drain it, and put half of it on top of your tomatoes.

Now it’s time to get creative. Throw some meat on there. We like to make this dish a couple of days after pizza or calzone night because there’s always leftover meats. For this time around, we used sausage, hamburger, pepperoni, and prosciutto, but you can use anything you have in your fridge. Chicken? Yes. Ham? Totally. Sausage? Do it. We only had a little bit of each meat, but you can pile it as high as you’d like or add as little as you want. Make sure your meat is already cooked or that you cook it beforehand. If you’re using leftover pizza toppings, it should all be cooked, but if you’re pulling it out of your freezer, you’ll want to cook it yourself. Once you’ve layered on your meats, add any veggies you’d like. We had leftover mushrooms and onions from pizza night, but put whatever you like on a pizza in this dish. If you like eggplant and pineapple, go for it. If you prefer onions and bell pepper, try that. Want to go veg-free like my dad? Sure. That works, too. This is the most customize-able pasta dish ever.

Top that with a layer of cheese, then a layer of tomatoes, then pasta, meat, and veggies. Finish with one more layer of tomatoes and another layer of cheese.

Cooking for one? Make a little bit in a small baking dish. Cooking for 50? Make multiple pans. This recipe stretches or downsizes. I use a 3 quart baking dish for my family of 5, but seriously, this meal is so flexible. Bake it at 350 for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese is nice and melty. I used mozzarella and parmesan from Crystal Farms on mine, but use whatever Italian style cheeses you have (or try cheddar, or whatever you want). I’m telling you, this is a ridiculously easy to customize meal. It’s perfect for any family.

Once it’s all melty, dig in and serve. Because of the layers, almost any scoop you take will have a little bit of everything! Yum.

I highly recommend serving this pasta with the Garlic Knots that I shared recently on my Facebook page. You can find them by going to “albums” and you’ll see the recipe!

Do you love easy meals? Try my chicken bacon ranch pasta bake, southwest chicken and rice, or crockpot cashew chicken!

What’s your go-to meal to use up leftovers?

 

What You Don’t See

I was really hesitant to weigh in on everything with Robin Williams, but this is a post that has been on my mind since Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death, and I’m not sure I can hold back from writing it any longer.

I’ve been particularly shaken by some of the recent celebrity deaths. People like Philip Seymour Hoffman, like Robin Williams, I feel like I know them. I remember growing up on Mrs. Doubtfire, remember the first time I saw Dead Poet’s Society in a psychology class in college. I remember when I went through an indie films phase and got my first taste of Hoffman in The Savages.

In short, I feel like I knew these people. Not just on the surface, but because I had seen so many facets of their personality on screen, I felt like I truly, deeply knew these people. When Robin Williams passed away, I felt like I was losing some sort of childhood figure the same way I would have felt had I heard a childhood friend’s parent had died. Hearing of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death took me back to hearing about losses of acquaintances in school. It felt personal enough that it made me take a step back and think about life differently, at least for a little bit.

And then something hit me. I’m not alone in these deaths feeling personal. If my news feed on Facebook yesterday was any indication, it hits everyone hard when someone beloved, someone we grew up on, dies. Cries of “Oh captain, my captain!” and “Nanu Nanu” rang out on Facebook and I realized that Robin William’s death is personal for everyone.

But here’s the deal… we saw Robin Williams. We watched him in films. We saw him play Teddy Roosevelt and Mrs Doubtfire and all of these roles and everything seemed fine. He was funny, he was happy, things were great on the surface. It takes me back to a few years ago when a local channel’s weather anchor committed suicide. He was funny. He joked and laughed, but he was harboring this dark, desperate feeling inside, and eventually, he couldn’t hold on any longer.

Clearly, a local celebrity hits home closer. That’s someone I could have ran into at the grocery store, someone who I might have known in passing. And that’s what’s so scary to me… that all of us, no matter what town we live in, what part of the world we’re in, no matter our walk of life, income level, family status– we all know someone. Each and every one of us knows someone who might be going through the same struggles that Robin Williams went through with depression, that Philip Seymour Hoffman went through with his drug addiction.

Maybe it’s the teen sacking your groceries at the store, the mail carrier delivering your packages to your doorstep, the person who goes for a run each morning around your block. Any one of them could be struggling with depression, or drug addiction, or any host of problems.

And I can guarantee it will hit you the same way. If one of them were overcome by addiction, or their depression consumed them and they did what we all feel as unthinkable, you’d think “How could that happen? I knew them. They were funny/cheery/happy/whatever.” You might say “Yeah, you know, maybe there was just something I missed there.”

Most likely, you’d feel sad. You’d wonder if something could have been done. And then, after days, weeks, maybe months, you’d move on. You’d remember from time to time, but not the way you would if it was someone closer to you.

And that’s what scares me. You see, Robin William’s death hit me hard because I felt like I knew him. And it made me wonder who else I think I know that I don’t really know, that I haven’t taken the time to listen to. If someone had listened to Robin, checked in with him, or if someone had asked Phillip how he was doing, seen if he had fallen off of the wagon, tried to get him the help he needed, maybe they’d still be with us. And maybe, just maybe, if I took more than a passing second to ask “How are you?” to the cashier before interrupting to hand over my coupons and get out the door, or if I stopped to say hello to my mail carrier, maybe my actions would help someone hold on just a little bit longer.

The death of these celebrities that I thought I knew simply because I had seen them so often in life made me wonder if there are people that I think I know in real life, that maybe I’m missing who they are.

Maybe it’s for the good– maybe there’s someone who seems annoying or overbearing that I feel like I know on the surface, and maybe they’re pure gold underneath. How often am I wrapped up in my day-to-day, my silly toddler, my writing, my photography, that I don’t notice what those around me are experiencing?

If nothing else, the deaths of these celebrities encouraged me to stop, pay a little bit more attention to the people who are around me. I don’t think my stopping to listen will necessarily save a life, but at the same time, who is to say it wouldn’t? I feel like it’s worth thinking about, taking the time to get to know more of those people I think I know. After all, I can’t change what a celebrity like Robin Williams does, but I can do a better job of making an impact in those people I know-but-don’t in my own town.

It’s worth a shot.

Crockpot Cashew Chicken

In our area, back to school is coming up fast. Today, we took our exchange student school supply shopping and just days ago, the last of Zach’s curriculum arrived for the year. There’s no shortage of planning and preparing for the school year, and that means a whole lot of busy days ahead, both as we soak up the last days of summer and prepare for the school year, and in the days ahead where we’re going to be teaching, working, and keeping the house clean.

Luckily, I have a crock pot. And trust me, I use it and use it often. I love being able to use my crock pot to keep meals easy, and starting a meal early means I get to work on other things and not worry about dinner.

I love this recipe that my grandmother gave me. She said she found it online, and, after doing a little searching, it looks like it is modified from Campbell’s themselves. Start with 5-6 chicken breasts, a can of Campbell’s cream of chicken soup, some onion, some green onion, a little soy sauce, and the cashews and chow mein noodles. Cook the chicken breasts first. Even better, you can pre-cook these another night and refrigerate. I try to make a chicken dish a day or two before this one, then refrigerate the cooked chicken until the day of this meal. Then, you have even less day-of prep!

Chop your chicken, onion, and green onion. You could also choose to do this before the day you’re cooking to eliminate your day-of prep.

Spray your crock pot with some non-stick cooking spray, then load in all of the ingredients except the rice and the chow mein noodles. I typically leave out one of the cans of cashews in order to reserve them for a topping at the end.

Stir in the soup and soy sauce, coating the ingredients. It might look a little strange, but I promise, it’s so delicious! Turn your crock pot on low for 5-9 hours, or set it on high for 2-3 hours. It’s just long enough to get the kids through the day on low, or enough to take care of those “oh, shoot! I just got home and realized I forgot to turn on the crock pot!” moments on high.

Finish your meal with a little cooked rice and some crunchy chow mein noodles, along with the rest of the cashews.

 

Crock Pot Cashew Chicken

5-6 breasts cooked chicken, diced
1/2 Cup diced onion
1/2 Cup diced green onion
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 can cream of chicken soup
Cashews
Chow mein noodles
Rice
Non-stick cooking spray

Spray the inside of the crock pot with non-stick cooking spray.
Combine all ingredients except chow mein noodles in crock pot.
Cook 5-9 hours on low, or on high for 2-3 hours.
Serve over rice, with chow mein noodles and additional cashews for crunch.

In the mood for Asian food? Check out more dishes inspired by the far East by looking at my Ramen Slaw or my Dipped Almond Cookies.

 

Are you a crock pot fan? Do you use yours year-round or in winter? Let me know your crock pot habits in the comments below!

3 Irresistible End-of-Summer Mocktails

Ugh. Back to school time already? I mean, I love back to school, don’t get me wrong, but there’s just this finality that seeing backpacks and pencil cases in stores brings. It means that before long, the pool will be closing, the days will be shorter, and it’ll be time to pull the sweaters from the back of the closet. While fall is pretty much my favorite thing, I’m never ready to say farewell to summer, either, so I had to share these three great summer mocktails that will keep you in good spirits until that first bus pulls away or the books come out of storage. The best part? Since they’re mocktails, the whole family can indulge in a little celebratory toast to a rockin’ school year.

The Lemonade Drop is the most complicated drink on the menu here, but it’s also my personal favorite (and my son’s favorite, too). A twist on lemon drops, you start by moistening the rim of a martini glass with a lemon wedge and dipping the rim in powdered sugar. From there, you’ll squeeze 1 ounce pure lemon juice, 4 ounces Sicilian or Italian lemonade, and 2 ounces of orange juice into your glass and garnish with a twist of lemon. It’s beautiful, and just tart enough that it’ll make for some cute pucker-face photos while still being simply sweet for even young tasters.

When to enjoy: on those last dying days of summer, when you’re bored with the standard lemonade.

The Fake-It-Til-You-Make-It Mimosa is oh-so-easy, only 2 ingredients. Fill half of your champagne flute with orange juice, then top it off the rest of the way with sparkling white grape juice. It’s fizzy and delicious.

When to serve it: Mornings, particularly on the first day of school, or anytime you need an extra fancy fizz to your orange juice.

Your typical Madras is orange juice, cranberry juice, and vodka served on the rocks, but for people like me who want a madras sans alcohol, this is a delicious treat! You’re going to take 4 ounces orange juice, 4 ounces cranberry juice, and 4 ounces of club soda in a tall glass, then garnish with a squeeze of lemon juice and a wedge of lemon. It’s easy, it’s chic, and it’s delicious. With or without ice, this is one tasty beverage.

When to serve it: The first Friday after school starts, like an after school virgin happy hour/study hour combo.

 

There you have it– 3 go-to drinks that are safe for any member of the family to indulge in once in awhile. Who doesn’t love a sweet, fizzy drink at the end of a busy summer that’s rapidly becoming fall? What’s your favorite back-to-school tradition? Let me know in the comments below!

 

 

If you de-virginize these drinks, please drink responsibly. Oh, and if you keep them clean and alcohol-free, still drink responsibly, because who wants a mock-madras spilled all over their history textbook, y’know?

Peach Walnut Salad

I love salad. It’s seriously one of the best foods in the world. My mom and I always bug the living daylights out of my dad because on a nice summer day, we’re content to just eat salad. No meat, no grilled whatever, just a nice salad. But when the grill is already heated and prepped, why not grill some delicious fruit for a salad? This easy summer salad is a sure-fire stunner with it’s grilled peaches, candied walnuts, and delicious greens and feta.

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