Monday, December 13, 2010

A Celebration of Food and Friends, and Chocolate Cranberry Layer Cake



Did you hear the news?  Well, if you are late to the party (and I don't mean the actual party where we had this amazing cake), then I can let you know right away that I am officially out of Project Food Blog.  Yes, after more than three months of hard work and nine rounds of competition, my run has come to an end.  I would be flat out lying if I said I wasn't disappointed (there was $10,000 and title of food blog star at stake!), and when I heard the news on Friday, I did get a little emotional.  But, here's the thing: I surprised even myself when I realized I wasn't feeling sad about actually being eliminated.  There were no tears, I didn't have a breakdown, and I didn't feel like life was falling apart.**  And here is why: I am still a winnerParticipating in this contest has brought only good things to both my life and this blog.  I thought to myself, "Ok, well, I am just going to go back to what I was doing before.  Only better."   

And then almost immediately, my phone started ringing, my email inbox filled up, and messages came flooding through on Twitter; new blogger friends, loyal readers, and real-life family and friends from near and far were all contacting me to share their feelings with me, to tell me that they were proud of me, or just to let me know that they care and still think this blog is awesome.  And that was when I started feeling a sort of aching in my chest that was just overwhelming.  It was as if the huge support I had received throughout this process was all being distilled into one perfect crystalline moment.  I knew I had given it my all, I had put my heart into each and every moment of this contest, and I hadn't let anyone down; all the way through to the end, YOU, my loyal readers and friends have supported and encouraged me every step of the way.  There really are not sufficient words to tell you just how much that means to me, so I will just offer you a simple and giant 

THANK YOU!      


I started out in the contest thinking that if I made it to the second round, it would be amazing (not kidding, I really said this to all of my friends) and then somehow I managed to find myself in the ninth round with only 11 other phenomenal bloggers left.  (I still sometimes find this unbelievable.)  At that point, I took a good hard look at my blog, and realized that it had undergone an incredible transformation into almost exactly what I had hoped it would be when I started it earlier this year: a place for friends to gather and share in the beauty and goodness of great food and great people.  Because Project Food Blog not only challenged me to grow and make The Cilantropist a better place, but it also brought together a like-minded community of people who support each other and revel in deliciousness.  I got to meet and be inspired by so many talented bloggers, and most importantly for me, I got to experience everything with constant encouragement from family and friends.

So, at the end of the day, even though I lost the competition, I think I have more than enough reasons to celebrate. I especially wanted to show those nearest and dearest to me how much I appreciated all their help... and so naturally I showered them with food.         



I threw a party which I aptly titled, "Raise your Glass, a Celebration of Food and Friends!" and I invited co-workers, friends, and their families for an afternoon of good times and great eats.  Though I won't go into lengthy detail about each of the dishes, suffice it to say that making all this food was a labor of love.  I paid my respects to Project Food Blog by recreating some of my favorite dishes (see cheese straws, Italian pressed sandwiches, and homemade marshmallows below), I experimented with a few new things, and I also relied on some tried-and-true favorite family recipes.  The whole meal was a great representation of what I consistently do here on this blog, and I was thrilled to be able to prepare everything for friends.  

So what all did I make??  

Well, for starters I made hummus by soaking and cooking dried chickpeas for the first time, and I LOVED IT.  Everyone else thought it was great too, and they commented that they liked the bright lemony flavor.  I served the hummus with some healthy veggies and my favorite Middle Eastern flatbread (from Trader Joes!) and it was the perfect thing to have on the table for snacking.    


Along with a large bowl of California mandarin oranges, I also put chips and my Aunt Brenda's Famous Dip out on the table as finger foods.  Maybe it's old school, but everyone likes chips and dip right?  Unless you desperately want to know, I am hesitant to reveal what is in the dip.  (It is too easy, it will make me look like a cooking fraud.)  But I will tell you, it is fat-free and highly addictive.  No this doesn't mean the secret ingredient is crack, but it is so delicious that you just can't stop snacking on it.


For main course foods, I served a salad of baby greens topped with crumbled gorgonzola, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds, all dressed up with My Mom's Sweet and Tangy Poppyseed Dresssing.  The salad was a big hit, and almost matched in color to the Sopressata and Provolone Italian Pressed Sandwiches.  If you missed it the first time around, be sure to check out my Project Food Blog post for challenge number 6 where I made food that looked good and transported well.  These sandwiches were the star, but I also made Parmesan and Gruyere Cheese Straws which are so popular that I make them for almost every party that I have.  You should do the same, trust me. (Before I get on to the meatballs, can I just tell you something?  I was such a hot mess after getting up late the morning of the party, that I put the cheese straws in the oven to bake, and 10 minutes later, wondered why I had the oven on and promptly turned it off.  Yes, these are things I do. Don't think for a second that things operate smoothly in my kitchen.)  

And last but certainly not least, were the Bacon Meatballs with Marinara Sauce.  Oh lordy.  The recipe for these meatballs came from MIHO's chef Courtney Bryant (check out my video interview and review!), and if you follow me on twitter, you might have heard me shouting from the rooftops about the glory of meatballs made with tiny bits of bacon, and cooked in bacon grease.  There are so many things that made these meatballs my all time favorite, so I will be telling you more about them in another post, there simply is not time or space here for their praise.     


For the desserts, I might have gone a little bit overboard because I decided to make four different things.  I had worked hard and both myself and my friends deserved some indulgence. 



So for starters, I knew I wanted to make My Grandmother's Christmas spritz cookies, or Spritzgebackenes.  Every year my Omi makes hundreds (actually it possibly might be 1,000) spritz cookies, both with her basic recipe and also with another recipe where some of the flour is substituted with ground nuts.  For me, it would never be Christmas without these cookies, and these bite-sized treats somehow just manage to make me feel happy and close to home even when I am 2,000 miles away.  


Next, I had been dying to try to make Salted Butter Caramels at home, and I realized there was no time like the present.  Making these caramels was surprisingly easy, and imagine my delight when I found I could transform the perfect shiny cubes of caramelized sugar into candy-shop-like treats with just a little square of wax paper!  Packaged in a cute jar or tin, these would be the ultimate Christmas gift.  I am really hoping I have time to do a separate post on these caramels, but just in case I don't, I barely adapted the recipe from David Lebovitz.  I figured it was a good idea to learn from an expert.       


I can't tell you exactly why, but I also felt compelled to make bite-sized Homemade Marshmallows for the party, which will smartly kick some pre-packed jet puffed marshmallow ass any day.  They are phenomenal.  And then a party wouldn't really be a party without a multi-layer Chocolate Cranberry Layer Cake (see photos at the top of this post!).  For this cake, I riffed off my Salted Caramel and Chocolate Layer Cake, and merely replaced the filling with vanilla buttercream and a spiced cranberry jam.  I also added some cinnamon and cayenne to both the cranberry jam and the chocolate ganache to give the cake a subtle undercurrent of warmth.  


And then of course, we needed something wash down all these foods and desserts, so we toasted with a glass of champagne (yes, my friends forced me to make a speech) and then warmed up from the inside out with Lutz's German Gluhwein.  *sigh*  Oh hot, spiced wine, how I love thee... If you have never had traditional Gluhwein (made by a German for authenticity of course) put it on your to-do list for this holiday season.  I would offer to lend out one of my many German friends to make you some Christmas Gluhwein, but I am pretty sure they will be busy with their families or drunk on the wine themselves.   


The entire day was a blast, hanging out with friends and eating good food, and it definitely was made even better by the fact that my friends Lutz and Tanja were gracious enough to host the party at their place.  They have a beautiful home with a great open backyard where we could bask in the San Diego sunshine and the kids could play to their hearts content.  


Overall, the party was definitely a celebration of food and friends, and I hope those people that could not be there or are hundreds of miles away, know that they were there in spirit and I appreciate them just as much.  

I know I have probably used up your attention span already, but I just wanted mention one last thing.  At one point or another, many people (including myself) have expressed frustration about about this contest, and have lamented about the reasons for elimination, the judging criteria, and the inherent problem that it is a bit of a popularity contest.  Each of these issues deserves attention in the future and is a valid concern.  

However, I am positive that anyone who participated in this contest with integrity and heart has pushed themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of, and can count themselves among the honorable ranks of phenomenal bloggers who did the same.  

I am also positive that each of us has discovered new blogs, and that friendships were formed and solidified that will outlast Project Food Blog by years.

And lastly, I am positive that I did my best, and I hope that each person appreciates that and feels same.  I plan on continuing to bring quality content to this blog and to keep improving day by day.  

Basically, what I am trying to say is that the result of participating is overwhelmingly positive for me, and hope it is the same for all my friends.  So lets keep finding joy in life, in food, and in family and in friends... and celebrate!!! 

My Project Food Blog Entries: 
Challenge 6: A Presidio Picnic, and Italian Pressed Sandwiches ***Most popular post!
Challenge 9: HOMIs meet MIHO Gastrotruck (Video)  

Recipes: 
Homemade Hummus- (NEW post in the next two weeks)
Aunt Brenda's Famous Dip- (secret recipe...shh!)
Baby Greens with Gorgonzola and Pomegranate, and Mom's Sweet and Tangy Poppyseed Dressing- (Recipe below)
Italian Pressed Sandwiches- (link here)
Parmesan and Gruyere Cheese Straws- (link here, from Ina Garten)
MIHO's Bacon Meatballs with Marinara- (NEW post in the next two weeks)
My Grandmother's Christmas Spritz Cookies- (NEW post TOMORROW)
Salted Butter Caramels- (David Lebovitz's recipe)
Homemade Marshmallows- (link here)
Chocolate and Cranberry Layer Cake- (recipe below)                


**Oh and one last thing.  There were times during PFB when I was having a breakdown and I did feel like life was falling apart.  And you know what?  Somehow my boyfriend was always the glue that held me together, calmed down, and assured me that I could finish whatever needed finishing, and accomplish whatever I set my mind to.  He is THE best.  So from 6,000 miles away, I just want to send him a virtual hug and the biggest thank you.

____________________________________

Baby Greens with Gorgonzola and Pomegranate, and Mom's Sweet and Tangy Poppy Seed Dressing

Dressing: 
1 cup olive oil or canola oil, depending on preference
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2-3/4 cup sugar, depending on how sweet you prefer (I usually go with 1/2 c)
2 tbsp poppyseeds
1/2 tsp Worchestershire Sauce 

Salad: 
Large package pre-mixed baby greens
1 small package of crumbled gorgonzola cheese
Approximately 1/2-3/4 cup pine nuts
Seeds from 1 large pomegranate (about 1-1 1/2 cups), to de-seed a pomegranate see how-to video here

First make dressing by whisking all the ingredients together in a medium bowl, or shake in a salad cruet.  My mom has something sort of like this one, but the salad dressing mixer I have is from Pampered Chef.  Set aside the dressing, and then add baby greens to a large, wide bowl.  Top with a few handfuls, or all of the cheese, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds.  (I added some lettuce to the bowl, and about a third of the toppings.  After people ate most of the salad, I added more lettuce to the bowl, and more toppings to eventually use it all.)  Drizzle with some of the salad dressing, and serve immediately.


Chocolate and Cranberry Layer Cake

Cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup water
3/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs

Ganache: 
Approximately 18 ounces of bittersweet chocolate (less than 65% cacao), chopped
2 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Spiced Cranberry Filling:
1 package fresh or frozen cranberries (12 oz)
Zest and juice of 1 medium to large orange
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp each of cloves, ginger, and cayenne pepper
3/4 cup sugar 

First bake cakes.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with cooking spray, then cut out two parchment rounds to fit the bottom of each pan.  Place them on top of the sprayed surface, and spray again with cooking spray.  In a large bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients for the cake, and make a well in the center. In a separate large bowl, whisk together all the wet ingredients; then add them to the dry ingredients, and mix until just combined.  Divide cake batter evenly between the two prepared pans, and place in the oven, with one cake in the top third and the other cake in the bottom third of the oven.  Bake for about 15 minutes, then rotate the pans between the racks, and bake for another 15 minutes.  The cakes will dome up when baking; once they come out of the oven and are cooling on the cooling rack, just press gently on the top of the cakes with a kitchen towel to partially flatten them.  Let cakes cool completely, and then continue with the rest of the recipe or freeze cakes by wrapping well

Next, make the cranberry filling.  In a medium saucepan, mix together all ingredients over medium heat, and stir to dissolve sugar.  Once sugar is dissolved, continue to cook the cranberries, stirring occasionally, until almost all of them pop and the mixture thickens slightly.  Remove from heat and let cool almost completely.  Once it is cool, process it in a food processor until smooth.  It is ready to use for the cake.  

Lastly, make chocolate ganache. Place chopped chocolate in a large bowl.  Heat heavy cream in a medium saucepan over high heat until it just begins to boil; remove it from the heat and pour it directly over the chopped chocolate in the bowl.  Let it stand for just a minute to soften the chocolate, then stir until everything is smooth.  Add spices and stir until smooth again.  Set aside until it comes to room temperature. 

Now, you have some choices to make for layers: 
-First choose your number of layers.  If you just leave each of the two cakes intact, you will have only 1 layer between the cakes.  Alternatively, you can cut each cake in half horizontally and have a total of 3 layers between the cakes.  This is what I did.  I will tell you it is much easier to cut the cakes in half once they have been frozen. 
-If you want chocolate ganache layers between the chocolate cake, divide the ganache in half and cool 1/2 in the fridge until it is thick enough to spread.  
-If you want cranberry filling between the chocolate cake, this recipe calls for enough for 3 layers.  You can use all or only one of them.
-I also included two layers of vanilla buttercream.  This was just on a whim for fun, and also because I wanted some white frosting to use for writing and decorating the top of the cake.  I used half of this recipe and it was more than enough for 2 layers and the icing on the top. 

Once you have made these difficult decisions (*wink wink*), assemble the cake according to these instructions from Epicurious, and just adapt the fillings accordingly.  When I made mine, I had them in this order from bottom to top: 
-bottom cake layer
-Vanilla buttercream
-Spiced Cranberry filling
-second cake layer
-Chocolate ganache
-Spiced Cranberry filling
-third cake layer
-Vanilla buttercream
-Spiced Cranberry filling
-Top (and fourth) cake layer
---Pour ganache over the top and freeze or refrigerate.

Before serving, let the cake stand at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Enjoy! 

42 comments:

  1. Congrats on making it so far! I'm new to the blog so I'm trying desperately to catch up -- but I think you're doing a fantastic job with your blog and all the recipes on it! <3

    xoXOxo
    Jenn @ Peas & Crayons

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  2. Such yummness! Your friends and family are truly lucky to have you! :)

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  3. What a lovely spread for a thank you party! And you have so much to be thankful for. You have a lovely blog that doesn't need any prize from any contest.

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  4. Awww, looks like a great celebration!! You definitely did an amazing job in the contest, and I'm so glad came out of it with your head held high!

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  5. this all looks amazing.

    like I said on twitter, I am happy to have found your blog via this competition. from the looks of things, I would have continued my votes for you :D

    <3

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  6. I really and truly wanted you to win- like I said the other day on twitter, I adore you/your attitude/your blog and I'm so happy this contest connected me to you!

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  7. I really appreciate your positive attitude throughout this entire competition. I thought your last post was especially well done - you really have a presence on camera! :) Your party looks wonderful and I agree with you - we ALL benefited from this competition, no matter if we won or lost. We found new friends, new blogs, and increased traffic/exposure. Win/win situation. :)

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  8. I enjoyed reading your posts for the PFB and we've done such a great job.
    The party photos, not to say the food I'm drooling over, look so great. It seems you had a wonderful time.
    hope you'll keep having wonderful days and lots of reason to celebrate with friends

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  9. You will always be a winner! You should be very proud of yourself. What a terrific idea to throw a party for your friends - I am sure they appreciated it. Will always be a fan!!! Have a terrific week.

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  10. You did an incredible job and I loved being in the contest up to round 8 with you! Most importantly, I'm glad I discovered your blog so I can continue to keep tabs on you.

    I'm taking you up on that truck meet up next time I'm down there for sure.

    Cheers!

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  11. Amanda... I was really pulling for you, every week I was so happy to see you still in it!... and you are absolutely correct when saying you are still a winner!! I love your blog...even before the PFB challenge! I can't wait to see what else you have to post!! XO!

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  12. Wow, great spread. Lucky friends and family!! You can never go overboard on dessert, everyone appreciates an extra dessert and will stuff themselves just to try them all. I'm glad that you participated and that I found your blog in the process. I also think your video on the Linkery guys' food cart was really cool, but at the end of the day, you're right, it's a pop. contest. As a viewer it's annoying when our favorites are thrown out of the contest even when putting out excellent quality posts that far surpass some of the winners!!! But, the good thing is that the blogging doesn't stop.

    We should do a SD foodie blog group when the holidays are over. I've seen a few SD food bloggers around. But haven't really taken stock.
    Let me know if you have any interest. Veggietestkitchen (at) gmail (dot) com
    Cheers.

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  13. I found your blog through PFB and I'm really glad I did. I was sorry you were eliminated in the last round. You always got my vote.

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  14. You did an amazing job and you made it so far, I'm sad we didn't get to vote for you in the final round. On the bright side, I made your homemade marshmallows and they were awesome! Thanks so much for the such a great post!

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  15. What a lovely post. You did such a wonderful job in PFB. I always looked forward to your posts. I really admire your positive attitude. Your hard work does call for a reason to celebrate. And what better way than with that gorgeous chocolate and cranberry layer cake. Yum. Bookmarking that sweet treat.

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  16. Thanks for the wonderful party, Amanda! I was so fortunate to be there and taste all the delicious food and celebrate (with) you - yes, you are a winner :)!

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  17. Great job on making it so far! What a great idea for a party! You have some lucky friends!

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  18. What a wonderful post! Although I'm sorry you didn't make the final three, you did so well! And you have a great attitude about the whole exercise. Congratulations on a great showing.

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  19. Amanda, what a gorgeous post. Congratulations on making it as far as you did. Glad to have gotten to know your blog better because of PFB.

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  20. Amanda
    you are the Top Food Blogger in my book, even if FB didn't think so...You did shine through out the competition!
    Thank you for everything you do to enrich our community, we are very proud of you!
    Now that feast you prepared is amazing, I wish I could have been there to share it with you!
    Cheers
    Dennis

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  21. Now THAT is a party. And you really did have lots to celebrate. I've watched you through the whole thing and I've enjoyed every post (and voted for you every round!). So you deserved this party, and I hope you keep on cookin' and bloggin' because I will be watchin'!

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  22. Love how you celebrated with a friendly gathering with all that good food!!

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  23. It's been wonderful learning about you - and seeing your beautiful posts! I cannot wait until that recipe tomorrow.....

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  24. Congratulations on making it as far as you did! Adam and I have been following every step of the way, and it's awesome that you made it as far as you did (although, I think you should have won!).

    The Cranberry Chocolate Cake looks wonderful. And let's be honest--ganache is basically chocolate heaven-on-earth.

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  25. I said it to you at the time, but I'm SO glad to have found your blog through the competition, and to have formed this friendship! And I'm really looking forward to hanging out with you ON MY BIRTHDAY!

    You did amazingly well in the competition and I'm sooo incredibly proud of you. I hope you're proud of you, too.

    Jax x

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  26. Congratulations on making it so far in the competition! Thanks for the cake, it looks delicious! :)

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  27. Wonderful job and a great run in the competition. So much goodness in this post. The cake looks just delicious.

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  28. Amanda, I am so glad to have found your blog through project food blog! I'm excited to become a regular reader and just wondering where I can sign up to receive your posts directly to my inbox?

    Have a fabulous week lovely lady!!

    diana

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  29. It's true - all the project food blog participants won something (new readers, new skills, confidence, friends, enthusiasm...). I joined foodbuzz right as PFB was getting started and it was a great way to be introduced to some amazing bloggers, like yourself!
    Looks like a delicious party for an occasion well worth celebrating.

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  30. You had an absolutely amazing run at Project Food Blog...it's still shocking to me that this blog is less than a year old. You should be so proud of your accomplishments thus far. Congratulations!

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  31. WOW, you made it so far. I was sorry to hear you did not advance...mostly because I wanted to know the winner and was being selfish - LOL

    Congrats again! Hope to hang out soon.

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  32. You had a fabulous run and I agree that you're a winner regardless of the outcome. That party looks great and this past weekend was certainly perfect for celebrating. Congrats!

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  33. I just love this post. What an amazing party and I applaud your positive attitude about the competition. It is evident that you put your very best into each round. Congrats on making it so far!

    P.S. I kinda want to know what's in Aunt Brenda's dip :)

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  34. You are a winner for sure! Love the blog & you had some incredible competition on there.

    & that is one party anyone would die to go to. Food looked FABULOUS! Yum!

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  35. You definitely have reason to celebrate! You've done such a great job!!!

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  36. You are indeed a winner! And I'm glad you had no tears (but of joy!) and you celebrated with yet another amazing dessert!

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  37. Brava!
    Congrats on making the Top 12. I was rooting for you every step of the way, and I really hoped you'd make it to the very end... but despite the fact that it didn't happen, you're still a winner in my books for keeping such a positive attitude all the way through.
    The most frustrating part of PFB was seeing so many good bloggers get discouraged after their eliminations, and it's wonderful to see that you decided to do quite the opposite. I wish I'd had the energy to throw myself a party after getting voted out, too! :)

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  38. Hi Amanda - I work with your dad and have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. If only I had the time and energy to make have these recipes...but I've bookmarked your site and plan to continue to read. I was sorry to hear about your elimination, but your most recent blog entry is eloquent and you should be very proud of yourself, particularly as this is something you did in your "spare time" after working another full-time job. I took a look at some of the other content entrants and frankly some paled in comparison. Anyway, best wishes in your future cooking adventures and don't give up hope!!

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  39. I was profoundly disappointed on your behalf that you didn't advance to round 10, too! But you should know that every week that you DID advance, I did a little dance at my desk chair and very quietly said "WOOHOO!!!"

    You are awesome, your blog is awesome, and you totally kick butt. 'Nuff said. :)

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  40. How lovely, what a great party. I was disappointed not to see you in the finals but you did a great job and its great to see the wonderful writing and photography so it seems it was a great experience for you.

    I'd still love to meet up in a future san diego bloggers event!

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  41. Awww, I'm glad that your story has a happy ending, even though it was shorter than you wanted. Congrats on making it that far! I love your blog, and I read every post and have made some of your recipes. You're awesome, and your food and pics are unbelievable! :o)

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  42. I missed this post first. However, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed all of your post throughout the project. Though my husband didn't really follow it like I did, he was aware of what was going on and he would always ask "Is your friend from San Diego still in it?" Every week I would say "Yep! She's still there!" His favorite post was the picnic one... I still haven't made those sandwiches, but they are on our list. I showed the post to the whole family as you were at a location we hadn't been to, but you definitely expanded our horizons. What a phenomenal job you did! And I think you have found your new calling in video. I have forwarded your Miho truck video to many of our local friends through our Facebook page. I only wish Miho came to Carlsbad!

    Your party looks amazing... so well planned out and your photos are simply stunning. Nicely done, Cilantropist!!!

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