5th Annual Grilled Cheese Smackdown

 

Over the course of human history, food has taken on different meanings for different people. For some, food is simply the fuel that drives the body. For others, food is an art, creatively crafted to please all of the senses. And for an even smaller group, food is the centerpiece of a competition that knows no cosmic limits. A competition so vast that it’s been said that contestants prepare for weeks, fine tuning their creations, testing daring new recipes and sometimes even the limits of science itself… Born out of bread, cheese and boldness, the Toad&Co Grilled Cheese Smackdown is a culmination of visionary chefs, experimental ingredients and the desire to create one grilled cheese to rule them all.

The Competitors Table: A place of battle waged with bread and cheese.

Now in it’s 5th year, the Toad&Co Grilled Cheese Smackdown started in 2011 as a modest competition between Toads and friends. The goal? To create the greatest grilled cheese sandwich in the known universe. Over the years the competition has grown, just like our bellies on the night of competition. In its second year, the Smackdown escalated with the addition of the Golden Spatula, the highly coveted trophy awarded by an elite team of judges. The Smackdown grew considerably through its third and fourth years, but nothing could have prepared us for the epic clash of carbs and dairy that was the 5th Annual Grilled Cheese Smackdown held at Toad HQ in the early days of April 2017. 

The real winners in this competition? Whoever got to eat this.

Undoubtedly, the best part of the Smackdown (besides the heaps of cheese consumed) is the support from our Santa Barbara Community. This year teams representing Alpha Resource Center, Santa Barbara Fire Department, Salty Girl Seafood, UCSB’s Bren School, Ontraport, and Visit Santa Barbara joined the competition. Toad&Co represented with three teams including past winners Nina and Ian. The judges had their mouths full this year with two 30-minute heats and 9 grilled cheeses comin’ in hot! And as much as taste will win over a judge, presentation turned out to be just as important this year. Contestants plating their sandwiches on everything from fine china to polished wood platters, and many sandwiches were accompanied by a specialty cocktail. In the case of SB Fire Department, a straight shot of tequila was the perfect garnish. Because getting the judges a little liquored up is surely a good way to win them over. 

Team Santa Barbara Fire Deptartment bringing the heat with their spicy grilled cheese dubbed En Fuego.

As contestants crafted their delicacies, onlookers drank in a delicious pale ale from local Telegraph Brewing and fought off the evening chill with Tuscan Tomato Soup from non-profit Organic Soup Kitchen. As sandwiches began to take shape, hungry masses gathered round to snap up samples and compare notes. Even though the esteemed judges award the Golden Spatula, the crowd was tasked with picking the People’s Choice Grilled Cheese by the end of the night.

As attendees mingled around sampling the various specialty grilled cheese sandwiches, one sandwich began to emerge as the crowd favorite. Pure Cheese,  a delicious combination of pepper jack and cheddar cheese, spinach and mushrooms, created by Alpha Resource Center, quickly racked up votes for this year’s People’s Choice Award.  More than just a killer grilled cheese team, Alpha Resource Center is a shining star in our community – they’re a multi-faceted service center providing support and information for families of persons with developmental disabilities . Part if our mission is to empower adults with disabilities, so we couldn’t be more appreciative of all the great work Alpha Resource Center is doing to empower and integrate adults with disabilities in our community. Grilled cheese smackdowns, local park maintenance, rock bands, community volunteering – there’s nothing the Alpha folks CAN’T do! 

Organic Soup Kitchen kept everyone full with their delicious Tomato Soup.
For those of us with a more traditional palette, the make-your-own grilled cheese station was a hit!

As an evening breeze began to whisper through the trees, the judges huddled around more for warmth than secrecy. Choosing between all of the cheesy goodness must have been a challenge, but a winner had to be crowned. In third place, Phil and Billy from Santa Barbara Fire Department  Got the “Overall Hottest Award” for their spicy En Fuego sandwich. In second place, Toad’s  Nina and Ian got accolades for their tres chic, artisanal sandwich, The French Onion. With second and third place announced,  a hushed silence fell over the crowd (minus our Ops Manager Neil who was far more interested in finishing off the keg). Weeks of experimenting with recipes and cooking methods had led up to this moment: The Golden Spatula went to Natalie and Danielle from Visit Santa Barbara for their exquisite and entirely local-sourced Fromage de la Riviera! 

3rd Place – Phil and Billy representing Santa Barbara Fire Department. Living up to their “Overall Hottest” Award, indeed.
Previous winners Ian and Nina ended up in second place this year. From the looks of it, they will be back with vengeance!
1st place – Natalie and Danielle representing Visit Santa Barbara. You go girls!

For anyone who’s ever been to the Toad&Co Grilled Cheese Smackdown, you know grilled cheese sandwiches are more than just food. They are shining effigies of the two greatest things on earth: bread and cheese. And when those most perfect things meet in the holy confines of a griddle, it’s pure magic. The 6th Annual Grilled Cheese Smackdown will be here before you know it, so everyone better start practicing now. Practice makes perfect, and that means lots of test-runs eating sample grilled cheeses. You know, in the name of science. 

Friends, grilled cheese, and beer – good times guaranteed.

End of Summer Bucket List

 

Summer is winding down, folks! Friends are returning from their travels, dumping sand from their beach bags and digging out binders and laptops. With only a few weeks left until Labor Day, it’s almost time to trade our white pants for sturdy denim and replace flowing linen with cozy flannel… But Summer isn’t over quite yet! So spend these last three weeks ticking things off your Bucket List. Be a kid again – have a water balloon fight, spend all day riding your bike, set up a slip’n’slide – embrace spontaneity. Here’s what’s on our End of Summer Bucket List:

Bonfire, Baby

Bonfires are the epitome of summer. Fun at any age and a perfect way to spend hours just hanging out – no screens necessary. Head to your nearest beach (make sure bonfires are allowed there) or find a nice backyard with a fire pit, and crack open some local brews. Don’t forget the ‘mallows, chocolate and graham crackers though – a bonfire isn’t a true bonfire without s’mores. Enjoy the warmth of the crackling flames and the bright laughter of your friends and family late into the night.

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Sleep Under the Stars

When was the last time you slept outside, your only roof the deep indigo sky and thousands of stars? Can’t remember? Now’s the time to change that. Make it easy and roll out a sleeping bag in your backyard, or find someplace a little more wild to rest your head. Being outside as night deepens, falling asleep to the sound of crickets chirping, waking up to pure sunshine… that’s what summer dreams are made of. Go ahead, sleep outside your comfort zone.

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Find a Swimming Hole and Cannonballlllllllll! 

There are few things more perfect than jumping into a beautiful pool of water on a hot day.  You’re surrounded by gorgeous natural landscapes and the thrill of being a little wild gets your heart pumping. And don’t just take our word for it, swimming holes are scientifically proven to be 123% more fun than normal swimming pools (Source: 2016 survey of office Toads). To find a swimming hole near you, check out our friends at RootsRated for suggestions.

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Go From Trail To Tavern (and maybe another tavern) 

Go take a hike—and we mean that in the kindest way possible. Find an awesome trail in your area, gather up some friends, pack some snacks and plenty of water, and get your sweat on. Afterward, mosey on over to the best tavern in town – no matter how dirty and sweaty you are. That’s the beauty of our trail to tavern ethos – no costume changes or freshening up, just you, nature and a much deserved beer at the end of the trail!

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The Great Shooting Star Smackdown

There’s something about wrapping up in a cozy blanket and staring up at the night sky that is purely restorative. And then there’s the pressure of spotting more shooting stars than your date. All is fair in love and war, right? Pack a bottle of wine, get the heck out of dodge and set your sights on the heavens. Not sure which one is the North Star? Can’t find Orion’s Belt? Check out Stargazing 101 for your quick fix (PS – it’s okay you can’t find Orion’s Belt – it’s a winter constellation!). Whether you’re an astrology expert or can barely find the Big Dipper, staring up at the sky and searching for shooting stars will be a highlight of your summer.

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Go On a (Mini) Road Trip

Let’s get one thing straight: There’s no wrong time for a road trip. Take some extra “you time” while you still can and just hit the road. If you’re feeling a longer trip, we have some suggestions. Even if you only have a weekend, head towards a cool town or national park that’s nearby. Turn off your phone, crank up the tunes and get in the road trip state of mind. Find a weird roadside attraction like The World’s Biggest Brick (hint: it’s in Alabama) and snag some regional eats along the way (and always stop for boiled peanuts). Toss in your favorite old CD and enjoy the journey.

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Trending Now: Volunteering!

If you haven’t volunteered this summer, do yourself a favor and spend an afternoon giving back. There are all sorts of ways you can volunteer –  with local veterans, city parks, back country trails, animal shelters, library programs – and all of them will leave you feeling pretty darn good. Head to your local outdoor retailer and the floor staff will point you in the right direction; they might even hit the trail with you for an afternoon of conservation. It’ll be the best thing you did all summer and might even become your new fall hobby!

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Right Place, Right Time

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You know that moment when you realize there’s nowhere else you’d rather be? 

Maybe you’re looking at an epic landscape or listening to a mind-bending song. Maybe you’re caught in the rain, soaked to the bone, just happy to be with an old friend. Epic moment or not, it’s the people you’re with who make you feel like you’re in the right place at the right time. We felt that way when we visited some old friends in Chattanooga, TN for the weekend.

Our first afternoon in the Scenic City proved to be ironic – fog so thick you could barely see 50 feet in front of you. Sporadic rain bursts had us scurrying into the nearest bars for cover and a quick liquor jacket. We couldn’t outrun the rain every time, but we didn’t mind so much.

The rest of the weekend was spent reminiscing over boozy brunches, criss-crossing the city by bike, eating like Southern gentry, hiking old Civil War trails, sharing tall drinks and taller tales, bustin’ a few moves, canoeing off hangovers and just soaking up each other’s company. It was a weekend of sight seeing and memory making. Sure, we’ll remember the gorgeous views and the killer burger we had, but we’ll cherish the time we spent together just traipsing trails and gettin’ tipsy in the Dixie.

It was a great weekend in Chattanooga – take it from us, it’s an awesome city and worthy of all the praise (see our list of our must-do’s below). But we could have been anywhere with our friends and we would have been in the right place at the right time. Be it Chattanooga, our hometown, your hometown, or a random place in between, the people make the place. When we’re in good company, there’s nowhere else we’d rather be.

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Chattanooga Must-Do’s:

  1. Sriracha Bloody Mary & Eggs Benny at The Flying Squirrel
  2. The Norman Rockwell Exhibit at Hunter Museum of American Art
  3. Fresh mole enchiladas before 11am at Taqueria Jalisco
  4. Bike across Walnut Street Bridge
  5. New Mexico Burger & Dixie 8 Cocktain at Urban Stack
  6. Avocado Gelato at Milk & Honey
  7. $1 espresso shots from 4-5PM at Brash Coffee
  8. White Shadow Belgian White at Terminal Brewhouse
  9. Gear Up for Cumberland Trail at Rock/Creek Outfitters

 

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Grilled Cheese, Please!

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The results are in, and the 4th Annual Grilled Cheese Smackdown was one for the books! Thanks to all the folks who participated and brought their A-Game (“A” being for “appetite”, of course). Pair any of the following with beer and tomato soup (because thats what we did) and we’ll see you next year for the 5th Annual Grilled Cheese Smackdown!

Das Bier Belly Grilled Cheese, Team Toad&C0
Winner of the 2016 Golden Spatula Award

Sandwich Ingredients: Pretzel bun, Honey stone ground mustard (mix honey with your favorite stone ground mustard), Kerrygold butter (or other European style butter), beer cheese (make your own, because why not?)

Make it: Cut off edges of pretzel bun so it is a square shape. Slice bun in half, spread ample butter on outside top and bottom, spread mustard on one side inside and add sliced cheese. Heat a frying pan over medium high heat. Cook one side until nicely browned, flip and cook other side until cheese is melted. Enjoy with a side of Popcorn and bread & butter pickles (and again, make your own because why not?)

Beer Cheese:
7 oz. (1 package) Kerrygold reserve cheddar
3.5 oz. fontina cheese
4 Tbs Kerrygold butter
6 Tbs flour
1/4 cup half and half
2 dashes hot sauce
1 tsp Worcester sauce
1/4 cup brown ale

In a small saucepan, heat butter over medium high heat until melted. Add flour in portions whisking vigorously. Continue to whisk and cook for 1 minute. Add milk until well blended and reaches a consistency that coats the back of a spoon without running off. Slowly add beer until incorporated, then add Worcester and hot sauce. Add cheese and keep whisking until melted with no cheese lumps. Remove from heat. Decant into a parchment paper lined storage container and refrigerate until cool.

Bread & Butter Pickles:
1 cub apple cider vinegar
2 cup water
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 Tbs rainbow peppercorns
1 shallot sliced
2 sprigs dill
2 cucumbers sliced in 1/8” thick rounds on a mandolin
1/2 cup of brown sugar

In a saucepan, combine all ingredients except cucumbers and shallots. Bring to boil, remove from heat. Put cucumbers and shallots in large mason jar, pour liquid over, let cool and refrigerate 24 hrs. Eat within 2 weeks (which won’t be a problem).

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Bren Bahn Mi, Team UCSB Bren School Sustainable Fisheries Group 
The 2016 “People’s Choice” Award

Sandwich Ingredients: Bread, butter, shredded gouda cheese, caramel pork (make it yourself, it’s better), pickled carrots and daikon radish (squeezed of excess liquid), thinly sliced cucumber, thinly sliced jalapeno, cilantro

Make it: Liberally butter the outside of two slices of bread. Sprinkle half of the cheese on the inside of one slice and top with a scoop of caramelized pork, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, jalapeno, cilantro, then top with remaining cheese. Sandwich with the other slice of bread, buttered side up. Grill on medium heat until golden brown and cheesy.

DIY Carmel Pork:
2 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs water
1 Tbs oil
1 shallot, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound pork tenderloin, thinly sliced
1 Tbs fish sauce
1 Tbs lime juice
2 Tbs sriracha

Heat sugar and water in a pan over medium-high heat until it caramelizes, carefully adding the water until the sugar dissolves, then set aside. Heat oil over medium-high heat, add shallots and garlic, cook until the shallot is tender. Add pork, caramel sauce, fish sauce, lime juice and sriracha. Cook about 3-5 minutes.

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Bristol Bay-ngin Sockeye Sliders,Team Salty Girl Seafood
Winner of the 2016 “Fish Outta Water” Award

Ingredients: Avocados, whipped cream cheese, chives (green onions), peppadew peppers, french bread, salt, butter, Smoked Sockeye Salmon (from Bristol Bay, of course)

Make it: Mash avocados, add salt to taste. Chop chives, add to whipped cream cheese. Cut peppers into strips. Butter outsides of bread (for grilling). Add avocado to one side, cream cheese and chives to the other. Place salmon on one side, add peppers, close it up, and throw it on the press!

Goudalicious, Team Santa Barbara City Firefighters
Winner of the “Make America Grate Again” Award

Ingredients: Ethnic Breads Sourdough, fig jam, applewood smoked bacon, bacon smoked gouda cheese, butter, caramelized onions (with a splash of fig jam in the saucepan)

Make it: Grate at least two blocks of bacon smoked gouda. Liberally spread room temp butter on the outside of fresh sourdough bread. Spread a large dollop of fig jam on the inside of the bread. Layer a large handful of cheese, 2 strips of bacon, caramelized onions, more cheese. Twice. Grill until crunchy and cheesy.

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Eat, Cheese, Love, Team Santa Barbara Symphony

Ingredients: Kalamata olive bread, butter, fresh sliced mozzarella, grated parmesan, olive tapenade, capers, caramelized shallots, balsamic reduction.

Make it: Butter both sides of kalamata olive bread. Place two thick slices of fresh mozzarella and lots of grated parmesan on one slice of bread. Spread tapenade on the other slice of bread and drop a few capers onto the tapenade. Combine and grill with lots of butter. When grilled cheese is hot off the press, top with caramelized shallots, shaved parmesan and a drizzle of balsamic reduction.

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The Filthy Leprechaun, Team UGG

Ingredients: Rustic white bread, corn beef, caramelized onions soaked in Makers Mark Whiskey, garlic aioli mustard, Irish cheddar, swiss cheese, smoked sharp cheddar, garlic mayonnaise

Make it: Spread a healthy spoonful of garlic mayo on the outside of rustic bread (this is the side you grill). On the inside of the bread, spread garlic aioli mustard then layer with a handful each of shredded Irish cheddar, swiss cheese, shredded corn beef, caramelized onions, smoked sharp cheddar. Grill until crunchy on the outside.

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Grilled Cheesy Beer Pub, Team Ontraport 

Ingredients Brown Beer Sourdough French Toast(eggs, salt, lots of pepper, brown beer instead of cream), smoked gouda,  classic sharp cheddar, sautéed mushrooms (brown butter, shallots, more brown beer, deli mustard and a touch of cream)
Make it: Make fresh french toast and sautéed mushrooms separately. Shred all the cheese. Layer cheese, mushrooms, cheese, mushrooms, cheese between two french toasts. Lightly grill in a panini press until the cheese is perfectly melted!

4th Annual Grilled Cheese Smackdown

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Veni. Vidi. Cheesy.
They Came. They Saw. They Grilled Cheese.

Centuries from now, when anthropologists look back on the great battles of history, the Toad&Co Grilled Cheese Smackdown will rank among the mightiest battles of humankind. A modern day Battle of the Bulge, the 4th Annual Grilled Cheese Smackdown recently rocked Toad Headquarters on an unseasonably warm spring evening….

This whole thing started a few years back when we heard that April was National Grilled Cheese Month. A holiday we can all get behind, we asked our friends to throw down their best sando’s in a bid for the coveted Golden Spatula Award. Thus, the first battle of the Grilled Cheese Smackdown was waged. Scorned and ready for redemption, the 2nd Grilled Cheese Smackdown pitted veterans vs. newbies, duking it out for Biggest Cheese. The 3rd in a series of intense battles, the 2015 Smackdown saw the rise of an empire as a two-time winner was awarded the Golden Spatula for a second time. So this year, armed with bread knives and sticks of butter, seasoned masters and a handful of new recruits went head to head in the cheesiest, gooiest, most savory Smackdown this side of Waterloo.

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The competition pitted 10 teams against each other – teams from partner non-profits, like-minded local companies and two teams from Toad. At 5:30pm, with griddles on high and spatulas ready at the whim, five teams in Heat #1 brought their finest:

  • Salty Girl Seafood: Newbies to the Grilled Cheese Smackdown, the Salty Girl Seafood team came in swinging with their Bristol Bay-ngin Sockeye Sliders – a sustainable take on a tuna melt, sub sockeye salmon for tuna and avocado cream cheese for swiss. Sounds whacky, tastes amazing. Salty Girl Seafood is a 1% for the planet company that sources and distributes sustainable, traceable seafood to ensure the continued health of oceans, fisheries, and fishing communities.
  • UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science and Management: One of the great Smackdown masters, the Bren Team took on Asian fusion with their Vietnamese Bhan Mi Grilled Cheese. The Bren School is a graduate program focused on research, teaching, and community service related to solving environmental problems.
  • Santa Barbara Fire Department: Never one to shy from the heat, local firemen Phil and Billy were serving up heaping samples of their Goudalicious Grilled Cheese (the key: LOTS of cheese). The SBFD has operated continuously since 1881 and keeps 123,000 Santa Barbarians safe. Thanks guys!
  • Ontraport: We were a little intimidated when we heard the Ontraport Team had a Ringer – Lee Abbott who’s currently competing on Food Network’s All Star Academy! Lee and Brendan certainly lived up to the hype with their smoky Grilled Cheesy Beer Pub – they were infusing mushrooms with beer on site! Ontraport supports entrepreneurs in delivering their value to the world by removing the burden of technology and automating their business.
  • Sonos: New kids on the block Sonos came prepared with a slow-cooker full of comfort food. 1 part cheese, three parts sloppy joe, smashed between two thick slices of Texas Toast, lathered in butter, grilled to perfection. Sounds like our new favorite slow jam. Based in Santa Barbara, Sonos is a leading brand in premier audio technology (trust us – we’ve got Sonos speakers bumpin’ every day).

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With the bar set high, our second heat had to whip up something truly mouthwatering to change the judges’ minds. Hailing from the far reaches of the globe with only the most refined palates, our judges came to the Smackdown prepared for greatness. Back-to-back Smackdown winner’s Nina & Ian from Toad&Co cast the first two votes, followed by First Smackdown winners Kathryn and Michael from local cheese emporium C’est Cheese. Cooking up tomato soup for the event AND doubling down as a judge, Anthony from the Organic Soup Kitchen was born to judge the GCSD. Rounding out our judges were 3-time Smackdown participants Eric & David from LoaTree, an environmental lifestyle company that profiles changemakers, builds community and inspires action through unique storytelling and marketing. With such sophistication salivating over every sammy, the stakes were high for the second crop of contenders…

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  • Toad Team #1: Our materials manager Deborah and her beau Toby threw their very stylish hats into the ring for the first time with their “Sunnier Side of Grilled Cheese”. What was so sunny? Sunny side up eggs! And in case you couldn’t wait for breakfast for dinner, a pink box of bribes Danish pastries dared you to take just one more bite…
  • UGG: Shoe designers Sara & Sam rocked green Ugg slippers and “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” shirts while cooking The Filthy Lephrechaun. Does it get any better than whiskey and corned beef? It does when it’s in grilled cheese form.
  • Santa Barbara Symphony: A regular attendee and first time competitor to the GCSD, the brother and sister duo representing the SB Symphony took us to the rolling hills of Northern Italy with their Tuscan inspired Eat, Cheese, Love. The Santa Barbara Symphony was founded in 1953 on the belief that a special city deserves a special orchestra.
  • Patagonia: We managed to pull some Patagonia folks off the trail and outta the surf for a few hours to whip up a killer grilled cheese. Forgoing a griddle altogether, Team Patagonia sautéed a mish mash of cheeses on the camp stove and stuffed the concoction into a hollowed out baguette to make the “It’s Better After Midnight” Grilled Cheese.
  • Toad Team #2: The dynamic duo in the office and in the kitchen, our Toad&Co women’s designers Guin and Sarah put their home-grown know-how to the test: Proud Minnesotan Guin made her own beer cheese while Santa Cruz raised Sarah pickled bread & butter pickles from scratch. The result? The pretzel-bun beer cheese grilled cheese served with a side of popcorn and brown ale, aptly named Das Bier Belly.

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It was a knock-down, cheese-out fight. The judges toiled while the crowd sampled the best of the best. Local brewers Telegraph Brewing Company kept our whistles whet with their finest lager and the Organic Soup Kitchen made sure we always had piping hot soup to accompany our sammies. After two heats, the carnage finally abated and from the ashes of the Grilled Cheese smackdown rose the victor: Das Bier Belly, from Toad&Co’s Design Team! Honors were given for the “People’s Choice” and “Make America Grate Again” Awards, and the “Fish Outta Water” Award went to a fitting choice. For the winning grilled cheese recipes, click here. Thanks again to all teams who participated and keeping good company with us! We’ll see you next year for the 5th Annual Grilled Cheese Smackdown!

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Stargazing 101

There’s more to the night sky than meets the eye. A lot more. On any given night you can see a thousand stars, five of the eight planets, 88 constellations, the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies – all with the naked eye. Here are some facts and tips for optimal stargazing:

Clear and dark skies are good: Cold, windy, cloudless, moonless nights are prime time to check out the stars. Low humidity is also crucial to seeing those tiny details (like Saturn’s rings) through a telescope.

Look low for planets: Look for planets no higher than 30 degrees above the horizon (hold your fist at arm’s length; three fists up from the horizon is about 30°). Venus comes out just after sunset and before dawn, while Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are visible later at night. You’ll know it’s a planet because they don’t twinkle – that’s what stars do!

Stars twinkle, planets don’t: Stars sparkle because of helium and hydrogen gas within the star; when the gas burns out, so does the star.

Find the “bright star”: The North Star isn’t actually the brightest star in the sky, Sirius is. The brighter the star (or planet), the lower the number in magnitude. For example, Sirius is -1.44 in magnitude while the moon is a whopping -26.

Find the North Star: If you stood at the North Pole, the North Star (or Polaris) would be directly overhead all night long. But the further south you move, the more it rotates due to the degree of earth’s tilt. If you’re in the northern hemisphere you can always find the North Star. The brightest star at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle is the North Star. Can’t see the Little Dipper? Draw an imaginary line straight through the two stars of the Big Dipper’s edge and toward the Little Dipper. The line will point to the North Star.

Know some galaxy facts: Our solar system is just one of thousands in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is one of thousands in the universe. Galaxies are made up of billions of stars and solar systems all bound to each other by the same gravitational pull. So galaxies can come in all shapes and sizes. The Milky Way galaxy is discus and spiral shaped, with Earth located deep within one of the arms of the Milky Way. That’s why when you look up, the Milky Way looks like a streak through the sky – we’re seeing it from the side!

Look for seasonal constellations: Look for Orion’s Belt in Winter, the Big Dipper in Spring, Sagittarius in the Summer and the Andromeda Galaxy in the Fall. Look up any night of the year and you’ll surly see low-orbit, man-mad satellites following a curved path.

Remember, the night sky is always changing: Depending on the seasons and which hemisphere you’re in, you’ll see different constellations. But one day your favorite constellation could be gone… The Milky Way is constantly losing stars and producing new ones – about seven new stars per year! With an estimated 2 billion stars and more than half of them older than our 4.5 billion-year-old sun, the Milky Way is considered a young galaxy. Makes you feel like a kid again, don’t it?

For more facts and charts, we like these tools:
stardate.org for everything about constellations
cleardarksky.com for stargazing forecasts
Sky Guide app to identify celestial objects

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Easy Holiday Recipe

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Every holiday we roll up our sleeves, preheat the oven and get down to business. With full houses and empty glasses, we spend much deserved time with our loved ones and whip up our favorite things to share. So here’s our recipe for a perfect holiday:

Ingredients 
60 Minutes of volunteering (or more!)
52 Cards
24 Hours without the internet
12 Pack of your favorite local beer
10 year aged bourbon – take a sip, splash a sip
8 Tracks of The Boss (or whatever keeps the kitchen crew grooving)
4 Shotted-shotski (learn how to make one here)
Pair of stretchy pants
1 football
A liberal sprinkling of good company

1. Prep ingredients the night before.
2. Morning of, spend 60 minutes volunteering.
3. Preheat oven to 375, turn on 8 tracks.
4. Mix remaining ingredients, stirring occasionally.
5. Top with good company and share!

Tis The Season for Delivery Guy Appreciation

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Every holiday season we reflect on the folks in our lives who make our days merry and futures bright. We give thanks for friends and family, co-workers, neighbors, four-legged friends… and the Delivery Guy! Whether it’s the holidays or not, these men and women are there every day bringing boxes and spreading good cheer. We should know – we get a lot of boxes around here, and for the past few years we saw Brett the UPS Guy on the daily. He ran this same route for 11 years, so he got to know the Toads (and really became acquainted with our guard dogs) and we got to know him. Brett retired a few weeks ago after 29 years at UPS, but it all started back in Thanksgiving of ’86 when he was a Holiday Helper…

Start with the beginning.
Brett: I was living in Long Beach working in an office and I was just feeling so cooped up inside. My brother worked for UPS and mentioned that they were looking for part time help during the holidays. I thought, “Hey – it’s outside!” so I just signed on for the holidays and ended up really liking it.

What was the best part about the job?
Brett: Being outside all day, getting to meet loads of different people – I became friends with a lot of my customers – and really getting to know the town when I moved here in ’94.

Have any favorite routes?
Brett: The one you guys are on! Most of the UPS guys don’t like that route because it’s got those narrow, windy streets in the hills, but it’s the only route with a constant ocean view! And really nice folks on that route. That’s when you really get to know people, when you see them almost every day for 11 years. Even if it’s just a few minutes a day it starts to add up.

Any crazy stories from your routes over the years?
Brett: Well I worked through two El Niños and dealt with some crazy flooding, there were a few flashes of nudity over the years (I walked into a pool situation once, that was strange…), and then there’s always the dogs – you never know what you’re gunna get.

Well you’re the dog whisperer at Toad! What’s the secret?
Brett: Treats! Always have treats.

Aside from Team Toad, any favorite people you met along the way?
Brett: Oh ya, lots of great customers! One of my good friends I met because he was the shipping and receiving guy at a tech company on my route – he’s my concert buddy. And actually just last weekend a family I’ve known for years took me to a Kings hockey game down in LA. Really nice people, I was lucky.

So we know you’re a big music guy since you’ve always got a new album recommendation. Seen any good shows lately?
Brett: Lots of great shows this year! Saw Florence and the Machine and the Alabama Shakes most recently, took my stepdaughter to see Katy Perry at the Staples Center (and I have to say, I was pretty entertained). The Avett Brothers were really great and the Foo Fighters are always awesome – I saw them in 1993 and was in the mosh pit, so it was a slightly different experience this time… But I think the best show of the year was Aerosmith. I was all the way in the nosebleeds but it didn’t even matter – they’re just legendary.

So you’re enjoying retirement then?
Brett: Definitely, but I’m going through clothes like crazy! Now that I don’t wear a uniform everyday I feel like I’m constantly having to look at my closet!

Thanks for the good company over the years, Brett. We miss seeing you on the daily so pop in any time. We always need a good music suggestion!

Apple Bourbon Bundt Cake

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Andrew Scrivani for the New York Times

How does that old saying go, “Give Thanks, Bring Bourbon”? Maybe we’re getting our proverbs mixed up, but if it’s any excuse to make an Apple Bourbon Bundt Cake then we’ll take it. Here’s a Toad favorite, plucked from the New York Times and perfected around various Toad dinner tables. Happy Holidays, from our table to yours.

Apple Bourbon Bundt Cake

2 sticks unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bourbon (we like Bulleit)
1/2 cup candied ginger, chopped
1 3/4 cups light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp grated lemon zest
2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled and coarsely grated
1 cup toasted pecans, chopped
1/2 lemon squeezed for juice

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 12-cup bundt pan. In a small bowl, combine 3 tbsp bourbon and the candied ginger. Let stand 10 minutes.
2. In a mixer, beat together the brown sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together remaining flour with baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg.
4. In another bowl (yes, 1 more bowl), whisk sour cream and vanilla. Pour in the bourbon & ginger mixture and whisk until smooth. Stir in zest.
5. With the mixer on medium speed, add the dry mixture and sour cream mixture in three additions, alternating between the two. Fold in the ginger, apples and pecans.
6. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is golden brown, about 1 hour 10 minutes (test by sticking a skewer into the cake, when it comes out dry it’s all done). Cool in the pan 20 minutes, then run a paring knife around the sides of the pan to release the cake; cool, flat side down, on a wire rack.
7. While the cake cools, combine the 1/2 cup granulated sugar and the rest of the bourbon in a small saucepan. Over low heat, gently stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the lemon juice and take off the heat.
8. Douse bundt cake with bourbon glaze and serve. Pairs well with whipped cream or ice cream, and a big helping of good company!