Christmas Cookie Recap

Christmas Cookie Recap

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     It always seems like the Holidays fly by, here we are already halfway through January!  I enjoyed the time off with my family and did lots of baking.  Since I was off the grid for the majority of the time I thought I'd use this time to do a little recap of the cookies I made so you don't miss out on any of the yumminess. 
  
     This was the first year EVER that I've made the majority of the Holiday cookies on my own since my mom had to work during the days before Christmas.  When I say "Holiday cookies", I use the term very loosely because these can honestly be made for any occasion and are so dang easy to do!  Hence why this post was necessary even if the baking season seems to be over.  



     So to start, there are six types of desserts I'm going to cover and link the recipes  They are all simple enough to be made in a few hours or less and would make an amazing addition to any dinner or event.  One of them is also healthy, yes you heard that right, so get your grocery list out and keep reading!   

     1. Magic Bars- My family has these every Christmas since as far back as I can remember and they are so good.  You can easily modify them to have nuts, butterscotch, or just stick with the basics.  These are a great go-to if you need some chocolate in your life.  

     2. Cranberry Cheesecake Bars- Making these this year was a little odd for me considering I've gone years thinking they were made with raspberry jelly, not cranberry sauce...But even after that revelation they are still my favorite dessert.  The oat crust and cheesecake layer are AMAZING, plus the cranberry could be swapped for another fruit (raspberry for real now??) to fit any time of year.  

     3. Bourbon Caramel Cheesecake Bites- I can't vouch for the flavor of these too much since I really don't like caramel, but I can say that the leftover cheesecake part I scooped out of the bowl was absolutely delicious.  Using fresh vanilla bean was intimidating at first, but actually way easier than I expected, and you can definitely taste it in the batter.  

     4. Chocolate Dipped Pretzels- If you don't make anything else on this whole list, make these.  They take less than an hour, if that, and can be changed up for any occasion.  I like to use sprinkles, crushed nuts, and some melted white & dark chocolate drizzled with a spoon to decorate the Christmas ones, but think white chocolate with pink sprinkles for Valentine's Day too!  (Tip: use this slow cooker idea to make it super easy to keep the chocolate warm!)
  
     5. Sugar Cookies- These are classic and there's so many recipes to make them.  I use the basic one from The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, along with their powdered sugar icing recipe.  The most fun part of these for me is the cookie cutters, my family's traditional shapes include a burro, a cowboy hat, chili peppers, and a cowboy.  If you need some to start your own shape tradition check out this little star tree you can make from stacking different sized star cutouts!


  
     6. Avocado Key Lime Pie Bites (aka "Grinch Poop")- This is the one you've been waiting for I'm sure, the healthy one with only about 100 calories in each tart!  These little green tarts are made with actual avocados, but you would never know it.  They are sweet, yet refreshing, making them perfect for the Holidays or the middle of summer.  I really can't think of a reason not to make them, besides the fact I eat four at a time.  



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Friday Favorites: Most Recent Finds

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     This month has been super busy for me with finals, the end of the semester, and the holidays coming!  On the bright side, my finals are over now and during the times I was procrastinating on studying I found some super cute things I wanted to share!  


     To start, this cleansing scrubber is incredible!  It exfoliates your skin but is so gentle.  I usually wet it with warm water, squeeze my face wash onto it, and massage my face with it for about 3 minutes.  Afterwards my face feels so soft and I haven't had any irritation from it!  Plus, its pink and doesn't take up much space (great stocking stuffer!).



     My next new favorite purchase are these mules from Missguided.  Not only are they pink velvet, but they're also 57% off!!!  Such a steal and so in right now.  I ordered a 7 and normally wear a 6.5-7.  They feel a little loose, but I'm still glad I went with them rather than a 6.5.  They also came really quickly.  Even if they don't have your size in these there's so many other cute options in their sale section.



     Next, these candles are must haves.  The Frosted Cranberry is so festive and fruity, I have it lit on my bar cart.  I'm saving the Golden Peach Sparkle for summer because it smells just like a smoothie, yum!  It doesn't seem to be online but since my store had it, I would check yours before they're all gone!  Last but not least, Mahogany Teakwood is my all time favorite and this new patterned jar looks so sophisticated.  To top it off, right now almost all the Bath & Body Works 3-wick candles are $12.95 and they have $10 off a $30 purchase with the code LETITSNOW.  Now is definitely the time to stock up and maybe grab a few as gifts!  



     Now that the semesters over and I have more time to read for fun again, I also picked up this book because the title drew me in instantly.  Extremely Pale Rosé: A Very French Adventure is about a couple's travels through France tasting different Rosés in search of the best one.  Basically they're living the dream and who can resist following along pretending to be them, especially for only $1.99.

     Lastly, this Kate Spade hold the phone cross body is perfect for everything.  It holds your phone and two cards, so kind of like those phone wallet cases except cuter!  My iPhone 6s fits in it with a case and popsocket.  I have used it for causal days of running errands, and for my winter formal.  It comes in other colors but the pink and black seemed the most versatile to me for dressing up or dressing down.  It's sold out right now, but this one is super similar in a horizontal style.  

  
      As your picking up gifts for friends and family, don't forget to treat yourself too!  What're you looking forward to getting yourself?
XOXO, Cierra 

       
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Scuba Diving Part 1

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     I can't emphasize enough to take advantage of every opportunity, especially those that come with being a college student.  In my case it was going out of my comfort zone and doing the discounted scuba certification class at the U of A Rec Center.  I was a little iffy on whether I could actually do a scuba diving class because it doesn't seem very easy, none the less I signed up!  


     The classes totaled 6, 4-5 hour sessions, some in the pool, some in a classroom setting.  They were all through Desert Divers, now known as 72 Aquatics.  We went over different snorkeling techniques, the dive table calculations, proper diving techniques, etc.  It was so fun and way simpler to pick up than I expected, until the time came to remove our masks under water.  This was definitely the most difficult skill to learn for me and I did think at one point it would cause me to not pass the class.  One of the instructors took me aside and worked me through it until I was comfortable doing it and once I did it I realized I could do it and it wasn't that bad (though in Mexico I still was not happy to do it again).

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     We all had to take a final test on the material and then 4 open water dives are required to be fully certified.  Another classmate, who's now my roomie, and I couldn't wait to head down to Mexico and finish the certification!  On October 30th we left with our instructors headed to San Carlos, Mexico.  



     I had never been to San Carlos, and it was so beautiful!  Our first experience in the water there was a snorkel at Martini Cove, which was filled with baby stingrays covering the sand.  The next day we actually dove.  Our first three dives, over the 2nd and 3rd day, focused on completing the skills we had learned in the pool, like sharing regulators, taking our weights out, and ascending.  During this we saw sea lions (which were incredibly playful), eels, urchins, tons of fish, skates and puffer fish.  Not to mention, from the boat we saw dolphins and a whale!  That night we ha the yummiest dinner at the Soggy Peso and saw this gorgeous sunset from the beach.

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     On the fourth dive we were set loose and able to explore on our own as certified divers. My dive buddy and I went to the end of the anchor line and explored around.  Everyone else went the complete other direction, so it was a bit unnerving to look around and wait completely alone, but we got past it somehow.  Once we were able to find the boat above us we felt more comfortable and began exploring again.  We were able to see an eel, a seahorse!!, a huge pufferfish, a massive school of anchovies, lobsters, and more fish.  We successfully navigated back to the boat, surfaced, and had completed our first dive in our own. 
  


      This 3 years ago now, and 21 dives later, it is still one of the best decisions I made.  Now whenever I think I want to try something new, but am nervous to, I make sure to remember this experience and go for it!  


Watch for more diving trips in the upcoming St. Thomas & Costa Rica posts!
XOXO, Cierra

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Thankful, not just one day, but everyday!

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     First of all, Happy late Thanksgiving!  Yesterday was all about thinking of what we're each thankful for and showing gratitude.  That is fantastic, but why limit it to just one day a year??  Many studies have actually shown that daily gratitude can improve your health, sleep, career, and relationships.  That seems like a lot of big benefits for something so simple, but daily gratitude really can affect out lives by taking the focus off ourselves and material things.  
      
      So, now that I've told you how helpful being thankful more than one day a year is, how do we start? It's quite easy really, there's plenty of opportunities to show your gratitude in your own life or towards others.  

          1. Write Thank-You Notes.  They're often forgotten, yet when sent they can really make someone's day!  It only takes a few minutes to jot down your thanks for a favor, a gift, or simply for having them in your life.  It's even easier because the Target dollar section usually has packs of really cute cards to use for any occasion.  
        
          2. Take 5 minutes each day to write down a few things your thankful for.  Writing them down really allows you to take the time and acknowledge each thing.

         3. Find somewhere to volunteer.  This doesn't necessarily have to be a daily thing, but volunteering can really show you even more to be grateful for and help foster relationships while making a difference!

     These are a few things I like to do to implement gratitude into my life, but there are so many different ways to do it!  I encourage you to find what's best for you and give it a shot.  What better time to start than on a day that is all about this!



What ways do you bring gratitude into your life???
XOXO, Cierra

Sweater | Skirt (similar) | Booties (similar)
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Drink of Choice

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     This past summer after turning 21 (eek!) I started testing out what I liked, and what I didn't like, in drinks.  I thought for sure that I hated tequila, until I found this recipe.  It is by far the best margarita I've ever had, and it's even a healthier option!!  I really like that even thought it's made with tequila, I usually don't taste it, it just tastes like grapes and lime. 

     This magical drink I'm talking about is a Black Grape Margarita.  The black grapes are rich in natural antioxidants that have a multitude of health benefits, one of which is they promote weight loss by reducing the number of calories you consume.  Yes, you heard that right, a margarita with ingredients that actually help you!  The other fantastic part of this drink is there's only 3 ounces of margarita mix used, significantly less than in a standard margarita.  



     The full recipe for 2 servings is as follows;

  • 1 cup seedless black grapes
  • 3 ounces tequila
  • 3 ounces original margarita mix
  • 2 cups ice
  • Salt for the rim
  • Lime slices to garnish
     Place the grapes, tequila, margarita mix, and ice into a blender and puree for about 2 minutes or until slushy.  That's all!! How easy, right?  It also doesn't hurt if you have really cute glasses to serve it in like my saguaro ones.  

     What's your go-to drink?
XOXO, Cierra

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Peru: the Land of the Incas

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    With colder weather rolling in, finals coming up, and holiday festivities kicking off, I'm feeling a little nostalgic of a warmer time with less studying and exams.  Why not take a trip down memory lane to the 3rd largest country in South America?  In the spring of 2016 that's exactly where my mom and I headed, Peru!  
     
       I'm really not sure where I came up with the idea of going to Peru, yes I speak Spanish, but South America was never really at the top of my travel list.  We originally were planning for Spain and France, but there were some conflicts with the timing.  Naturally, the next option we agreed on was Peru to see Machu Pichu.  We tried really hard to research and plan the best we could, but we honestly had no idea what we were getting ourselves into since neither of us had ever been to the area.  
     


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     A few hours of flying later (only about 8), and we found ourselves in Lima, Peru!  We stepped off the plane into a world like I'd never seen before.  I often think I feel this way every time I go somewhere new, but each place is so different and it just is an immediate shock to walk out into it.  For Lima the differences I saw were the amount of people waiting outside the doors of the airport, in the US you can't just be near an airport to be there, but in Lima there were so many people selling things, offering taxi rides, and just standing at the entrances, it was really hectic.  Sadly, this was all I saw of Lima as we then hopped on another flight to Cusco.  




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     In Cusco we got off to a much calmer area.  We had read about "collectivos" while we were planning and that's what we decided to take from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, where our first hotel was.  The collectivo stop we had found was a short distance from the airport so we took a taxi.  Once at the stop it took a few minutes to find the collectivo because it was not quite labeled...We did find it eventually, a 12 person van tucked into an alley with a man that took our bags and told us to wait in our seats.  We waited, two more people came, we waited some more.  Then, come to find out, collectivos wait however long it takes for the van to fill up.  While we were sitting, waiting, it was a little concerning as we had no idea what was going on and generally sitting in an alley in a foreign country should cause some concern.  Fortunately for us, after 3-4 hours the van was full enough to go and the 2 hour ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was quite an adventure in itself.  Now I can't speak for everyone in Peru, but our driver was in a bit of a hurry, as in we flew down the tiny roads, passed other cars with no clear sight, and slid across our seats.  We definitely got to see a more local route since the collectivo was a local transportation system and we made a couple stops to drop people off.  
   
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     Once we arrived in Ollantaytambo, the true beauty of Peru really hit.  The village sits in the middle of the Sacred Valley and is surrounded by ruins, the Urubamba River, and the awe-inspiring snow-capped Andes Mountains.  The tiny streets were made of cobblestone, leading to a few shops, restaurants, and a large market behind it.  We stayed at la Casa del Abuelo.  It was an adorable hostel, turned hotel, situated right next to the river, right behind the village plaza.  Our room was quite nice; two beds, wifi, hot water, and they even packed us breakfast bags for our early morning train ride to Machu Pichu.  If you visit, you also must find the artist that goes by Liz Taylor, she sells paintings in a variety of sizes and I bought one featuring sassy llamas walking in a line.  Her among, all the other locals we met, were so incredibly welcoming and friendly.  We ate dinner at Uchucuta in the plaza, and had our first taste of Coca tea, a Peruvian specialty, along with very yummy chicken salad sandwiches (not a very adventurous choice I know).  






     Ollantaytambo is the easiest place to stay in order to get to Machu Pichu.  The next closest town, Aguas Calientes, has luggage limits and other restrictions if you stay there.  The morning after we arrived in Ollantaytambo we caught the Peru Rail to Machu Pichu, we chose the earliest available train so we had as much time as possible in the park itself.  The station is only a short walk downhill from town, though early in the morning in March it was quite chilly.  The ride itself was stunning, the train follows the river through the Andes and eventually ends up in Aguas Calientes.  We could see the river, smaller villages, and the rain forest through our windows.  Though the train does say it goes to Machu Pichu, it actually stops in Aguas Calientes.





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     From Aguas Calientes, we purchased a bus ticket the rest of the way to Machu Pichu!  The bus ride was uphill, climbing straight to the top of the Andes, and quite scary at times due to the tiny little gravel road we were on... None the less, we survived and arrived at the entrance to the Machu Pichu Park area.  Restrooms and food are only available at the entrance, but you can come and go multiple times with your tickets.  There's also a station to stamp your passport at the entrance, which of course we stopped to do.  


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     We were among the very first people to enter that day and the sun had not even broken through the clouds yet.  The area we saw was covered in this magical mist of clouds and we couldn't quite see the full grandeur of where we were yet.  We walked around the lower parts of the ruins for a bit looking at the details of the mud bricks, trying to befriend llamas, then we started the hike up to the Sun Gate.  This was a moderate hike, but fairly long.  However, once we reached the top, the clouds had begun to break and we could see the full wonder of the area.  Sun Gate is the highest area in the park and you can see everything from there.  Below the massive vertical structures that made up the Sun Gate was the river that you could actually hear from the top.  Once I could see through the clouds at how high up we were and how incredible the mountains around us looked, I realized that what I was looking at looked identical to a painting.  The designs of the ruins below, the height of the mountains around, the clouds that were actually below where we were, were all unreal and straight out of a movie.  It definitely took a few minutes of just quietly looking around to even remotely attempt to take it all in.       





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     We came back down the trail to eat our packed lunches (leftovers from dinner) at the cafe at the entrance, only because I had to use the restroom.  Many more tourists had arrived since we had gotten there earlier that morning and I can fully say that we were really glad to have arrived so early and had the area to ourselves for awhile, it was much more peaceful.  I also suggest layering your attire as it started out chilly, with some moisture, then ended up warming up substantially by the time we took our lunch break.  





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     After hiking around for about 5 hours it was getting hotter and we were a little tired, the altitude really takes a toll, so we took the bus and train back to Ollantaytambo.  It was sad to leave the area because I could have easily spent a few more days there trying to see every part of it and grasp the tiny details.  On our return train we upgraded to get an earlier departure time, we also somehow got a fashion show and skit included.  I even got selected as a volunteer to "dance with the devil".  



     I was really sad to leave Ollantaytambo the following day because it was such a welcoming village, but we had planned for time in Cusco.  Our hotel arranged for a cab to take us back to Cusco, rather than taking the collectivo back.  Throughout our two hour ride our driver tested my Spanish with different facts about Peru and information on the areas we were passing.  We then arrived at our next hotel, Tierra Viva Cusco Centro.  The location was great and it was a pretty hotel with a nice courtyard in the middle.  Again our room had two beds, wifi, and hot water, which was definitely great!  The front desk gave us directions to different things to walk to see, we headed first to el Mercado Central de San Pedro that I had been wanting to visit.  




     The market was massive, they had everything from fresh juices, to raw meat, to souvenirs, to bread and nuts.  It took almost an hour to walk up and down every aisle.  We had seen, and been eating with every meal, the small round breads so we had to buy a few packs of those to take home.  I also got a fresh papaya juice that was made right in front of me with a papaya I picked from the stand.  



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     Next, we stopped at el Museo y Catacumbas del Convento de San Francisco de Asis de Cusco.  This is a monastery in the center of town that offers guided tours.  This monastery not only has beautiful paintings, an ornate ceremony space, and ancient scripture books, it also has crypts that they allow you to enter.  I went down into the crypts without any thought, my mom was a little more hesitant but made it in.  The experience was surreal, less creepy than I expected, more so very powerful to be within something like that.  


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     Our last stop was la Plaza de Armas, the main town center in Cusco.  It is a circular plaza with shops and restaurants all around.  We grabbed lunch at the Plaza Cafe then headed back to our hotel.  Of course, before going back we found a bakery to buy what I lovingly named "Peruvian pop-tarts", aka my favorite food of the whole trip.  







     Our one day in Cusco was short, but quite beautiful.  I'll also add that there were little to no mosquitoes while we were there in March.  We flew back to Lima the following day, then continuing on to Miami and home.  In all my life I didn't think I would really see Machu Pichu, it's something you see in movies on Nat Geo and learn about in books.  To say I've been there now is incredible and Peru has so much rich culture to experience.  I highly recommend adding it to your bucket list if you haven't already.  For more of the logistics and costs of our trip check out Behind the Zoom's post.   


XOXO, Cierra              
            
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